The Portland Timbers' search for a big-money striker this offseason was very public, though ultimately an exploration that led to no official discoveries (yet).
Meanwhile, the club's two incumbent strikers are looking to convince the front office that they need not pursue exterior options, that the goals the club craves can be found in-house.
Regardless of how the last six weeks of the primary transfer window shape up, in the interim the pair have provided a bit of a conundrum for head coach Gio Savarese's preferred one-striker setup: Jeremy Ebobisse or Lucas Melano?
At the beginning of 2019, after returning from the US national team's January camp, Ebobisse started the club's first two matches, scoring once. In the team's latest match, a 3-0 loss to FC Cincinnati, it was Melano up top.
Who should keep the No. 9 role moving forward, beginning with the Timbers' big match Sunday (9 pm ET | ESPN2 in US, MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada) against the LA Galaxy? It may be a battle of which differing playing style gains Savarese's preference.
Below are some stats since Sept. 1, including MLS Cup Playoffs.
|Player||Minutes||Goals||Big chance conversion||Aerials won||Dribbles completed||Recoveries|
As an oversimplification: Ebobisse is more dominant in the air, while Melano offers pure pace. Both press well. Melano dribbles more often and more effectively, while neither have produced a goalscoring track record compelling enough to keep the job irrespective of all else.
More nuanced, as is often the case in soccer: They also fill different roles in the team. Melano is eager to get in behind, stretching defenses to provide more space between the lines for star midfielders Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco while giving the club another direct dimension when breaking on the counter. Ebobisse is asked to play more of a target striker role, linking play and occupying central defenders.
Importantly, Ebobisse is a developing 22-year-old US international without a meaningful enough sample size in MLS to draw concrete conclusions. His regular-season career spans just nine starts, with four goals and five assists in 956 minutes.
Meanwhile, Melano has had longer to make his mark in the league, as the 26-year-old has accrued 3,216 minutes in 54 appearances (37 starts). In that time he's scored five goals and nine assists. He has a conversion rate of just 7.94 percent over that time. Ebobisse's is 28.57 percent in his nascent pro career to date.
Still, when getting a combined 49 goals over the past two seasons from Valeri and Blanco, the center forward's job in Portland isn't just about finding the back of the net.
Ebobisse has jelled well with Valeri and Blanco, an important data point to the equation.
"If I find a way to compliment what they're good at it makes their lives easier, but it also makes me look really good," Ebobisse told MLSsoccer.com in November. "If I find the spaces that they want me to be in, chances are I'll be getting a goal."
Melano, too, can lean on a connection with the pair, as all three are Argentinian.
Savarese's solution is likely not to be binary, if using the first three matches of the season as example. Ebobisse started the first two and Melano the third, despite the fixture list remaining very manageable, with midweek matches yet to come.
As long as that mystery striker hasn't yet walked through the door, both Ebobisse and Melano have the chance to stake claims to regular playing time. It continues Sunday against the Galaxy, as the Timbers look to pick up their first win of 2019.