PORTLAND, Ore. – The Portland Timbers kick off their fight for a second consecutive MLS Cup final appearance on Saturday at Real Salt Lake in Round One of the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs (10 pm ET | ESPNews in US; TVAS, TSN4 in Canada), but they’ll have to do it without their leading scorer.
Striker Brian Fernandez voluntarily entered MLS’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program last week and will not be available against RSL. But his teammates are offering best wishes while he's away.
“First and foremost, to Brian, we care about him as a human being,” Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark said. “We’re of course missing him on the field but there’s certain things, like many things in life, that are more important than soccer. We love Brian, and we’re rooting for him and we’re happy for him and his decision and we support him.”
Fernandez played a significant role in the team’s push to reach the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs, scoring 16 goals with one assist in 19 games across all competitions, though his minutes were limited down the stretch after battling an illness and earning a red card against Sporting Kansas City.
In his absence, the Timbers have looked to young forward Jeremy Ebobisse. In the 2018 playoffs Ebobisse started all six games for Portland after struggling to find a spot in the rotation his first two years as a pro. This season, he’s appeared in all 34 games and started in 25 of them, scoring a career-high 11 goals in the process.
“He’s done very well,” Portland head coach Giovanni Savarese said. “I think he’s matured a lot since last season and has shown a different level of his game. I think the discipline he has shown, not only to play as a striker but also to play as a winger, has been fantastic. And I think he still hasn’t reached his ceiling...He’s working very hard day by day to make sure that he gets better and better."
Ebobisse noted that he feels more confident and secure with the ball now, more willing to take on responsibility as opposed to deferring. He pointed to a play against the San Jose Earthquakes where instead of playing a simple ball back to Bill Tuiloma, he embraced the pressure and set up another teammate for a play. Moments like this have become vital to Ebobisse’s growth in Portland.
“I think so and I think the team’s gotten more confident in me in allowing me to express myself a little bit more on the field,” Ebobisse said about whether he’s playing with more confidence. “I think sometimes when young players come to a team, they don’t want to ruffle any feathers. They kind of want to defer to other people and I think that’s natural. I think you have to earn the respect from players around you but myself and a lot of other young guys who have come in this year have done so very quickly.”
Regarding Fernandez’s status, Savarese said that right now the focus is on their matchup against Real Salt Lake. Though he’ll have support from Sebastian Blanco and Diego Valeri, who practiced in full Wednesday and will be available for Saturday, Ebobisse could very well be the difference between a win and a loss in the playoffs.
He’ll be the main forward on Saturday, but Ebobisse isn’t feeling too pressured to do it all himself.
“I don’t really like the term ‘pressure,’” Ebobisse said. “Just because when an individual puts too much pressure on themselves I think that sometimes you can see the best but you also can see someone retreat into a shell. And maybe that’s happened to me in the, not necessarily here, but other places as well.
“So, I think it’s a collective effort. We’re a team. We’re 11 guys, and we’re going to go out there and perform.”