Towards the end of the 2018 season, the Portland Timbers faced a bit of a conundrum in completing their attack.
Diego Valeri was as stellar as ever while Sebastian Blanco was truly living up to his own Designated Player billing, but, center forward had become a bit of an issue. Fanendo Adi had fallen out of favor, then was traded. Samuel Armenteros had slipped in form, scoring just once in his final 11 appearances with the club.
Jeremey Ebobisse got his chance late into his second professional season and hasn't looked back.
Ebobisse started five of the team's final eight regular season matches and all six playoff matches. Then he earned his first US national team cap this winter and the 22-year-old has started all but one game this season. But, with the club spending a club record fee to bring in forward Brian Fernandez from Necaxa, what happens to Ebobisse and his development?
Well, Fernandez will provide Ebobisse both support and competition.
“We didn’t want to bring in a player that would stop the growth of another player anywhere," general manager Gavin Wilkinson said on a media conference call on Monday. "There’s a lot of emphasis within our club and the league to make sure that we continue to develop the young players. You look at Jeremy’s success so far this year, it’s important to have the players around them to help them grow. But also accountability, responsibility and pressure on them.
“If players perform, they keep their job," Wilkinson added. "That’s been the way long before I was involved in sports."
Fernandez, 24, is capable of playing across the front line, though found recent success at Necaxa while playing right wing. At the time of his transfer, he was Liga MX's second-leading scorer. Prior to his time in Mexico, he had largely been deployed through the center.
With Fernandez's versatility, he and Ebobisse can play together, potentially forming one of the league's top attacks alongside Valeri and Blanco.
“We wanted to bring a player that could play multiple positions and give us both a different look, but also allow pathways for certain other players to develop and get opportunities," Wilkinson said.
Ebobisse spent time at left wing with the US men's national team this winter.
“First of all, credit to Jeremy to have worked very hard to get where he’s at right now," head coach Gio Savarese said. "With the addition of Brian Fernandez, now we have a player that can play alongside with him in different ways. He can play in his position at the moment: It’s open for competition.”
This season, Ebobisse has four goals in his nine appearances. He has two in his last three games -- all Portland wins -- as both he and the team round into form toward the end of their mondo 12-game road trip to start the season as Providence Park undergoes renovations.
The Timbers have been deploying a 4-4-2 lately, with Valeri underneath Ebobisse. Fernandez will extend the club's tactical elasticity, an important value to the team.
“We’ve always been a team that likes to have 2-3 systems we can play in," Wilkinson said. "With 2-3 systems, you need players that can perform in multiple positions. In our current system being a 4-4-2, it gives variance in how you want the wide players to play or the interaction between the two up top.”
Now, it's on Ebobisse to continue his ascent.
“The best thing about bringing in another quality player in Brian, is it starts to raise the level within the group," Wilkinson said. "Either players continue to rise to the occasion or they become surplus to requirements in some ways. With Jeremy, we’ve seen a lot of growth. If Gio and I went back in time, we’d have liked to have more competition for Jeremy. Test him mentally, hold him accountable to higher standards.”