PORTLAND, Ore. – Whether you're an MLS Cup winner or a last-place finisher, the offseason can be a tricky balancing act. Who’s a cap concern? How do you maintain the chemistry on a successful team or form it on a rebuilding team?
Here in the Rose City, Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson and head coach Caleb Porter hope they have found the answer after a quiet offseason that paled in comparison to the team's pre-2013 revamp.
Though the team did sign four draft picks and a Homegrown player to bring more young talent into the squad, as well as experienced MLSers Steve Zakuani and Jorge Villafaña, the two key pieces in the Timbers’ offseason changes remain the Argentine duo of forward Gastón Fernández and center back Norberto Paparatto.
They are the third and fourth players from their native country to join the Timbers, following 2013 Newcomer of the Year Diego Valeri and forward Maximiliano Urruti, who now has a full preseason under his belt after joining last August.
Wilkinson and Porter have made it clear that the new signings are all about reinforcing the club’s identity and style of play and the players think there is something to having a few of their countrymen around.
“I’ve said it a lot – it’s important to have friends and countrymen in the squad because that helps a lot in the effort to not feel too alone,” Fernández told MLSsoccer.com. “But beyond that situation, it favors us four because we’ve developed a good relationship in the time that we’ve spent here together.”
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Urruti, who looks set for significant playing time at the top of Porter’s 4-3-3 formation after spending significant time there during preseason, echoed the sentiment and acknowledge that having a few of his countrymen around would not only help with communication on the field, but off it as well.
“It’s great because … the language is difficult sometimes,” Urruti told MLSsoccer.com. “To be with Argentines, also off the training field, helps a lot because you get together to drink mate [a popular Argentine beverage], eat and all that, it’s good. I believe it’s more family-like.”
Whatever the benefits of the group's budding companionship, it’s clear that it’s been working so far from a Timbers perspective.
“[They’re] right where we thought they’d be,” Porter said of his new recruits’ progress last week. “When you’re thorough in your scouting and you know what you’re getting, you know what you get. There’s no surprises at all, I think we’re seeing exactly what we thought we’d see.”
And there’s no doubting the thoroughness of the Timbers scouting, as Wilkinson and Porter spent signifcant time in Argentina during the offseason interviewing and recruiting players, a trip which yielded two recruits, with a small assist from Valeri.
“We didn’t know each other before, but Diego shared a lot with me,” Fernández told Timbers.com upon his signing. “First, I am grateful to him for having said such nice things about me and for helping answer any doubts that I had regarding the city and the club. He did a lot of things for me without having known me personally and for me, that was very significant.”
It’s not like the Timbers have brought in two more guys based on the Argentine connection alone, though – they addressed arguably the two biggest needs of an already-strong team up top and in the center of defense.
Though Urruti seems to have first crack at becoming the Timbers’ go-to goalscorer, Fernández has been able to slot in behind him in more of a playmaking role, taking some of the load off Valeri’s shoulders while still representing a goalscoring threat in a fearsome-looking attack that also features Darlington Nagbe, Kalif Alhassan and Frédéric Piquionne.
Further back, the Timbers will hope Paparatto can provide a stable presence on a backline that was ravaged by injury in 2013, but still managed to concede a Western Conference-low 33 goals in 34 games.
“They fill a void, they fill areas that we think we needed to improve on and [that’s obviously] why they were brought in,” Timbers team captain Will Johnson told reporters last week of his new Argentine teammates. “They mesh really well with the group, they are good character guys, they’re good players and they’re going to be important for us on the field this year.”
Johnson was particularly enthused about Fernández, who has featured for some of the most popular and successful clubs in Argentina, including River Plate, Racing, San Lorenzo and Estudiantes de La Plata, as well as both Monterrey and Tigres UANL (where he faced MLS opposition en route to a SuperLiga win in 2009) in the Liga MX.
“I think Gastón’s a great player, his CV speaks for itself – scored a lot of goals, played for good teams,” Johnson added. “You don’t just play a decade of soccer at a high level for being an average player, and the same goes for Paparatto. You don’t just turn up to teams and find a way to scrape by, you do it because you have quality and you're a fighter and a winner.”
Fernández, for his part, hopes those qualities he brings to his new team will be seen not just during his honeymoon period with the team, but also as a long-term relationship develops.
"I believe as the games go on with good performances, with the quality of teammates I have I can surely start to play at a good level," he explained. "I hope … my desire is to remain in the league and with the Timbers for a long time."