PORTLAND, Ore. — Josecarlos Van Rankin's first days as a Portland Timber were spent largely in a hotel room. He can thank COVID-19 for that. He's had contact with team personnel who have helped his move north, from Torreón, Mexico, to the Rose City, but beyond contact with a limited number of Timbers staff, his first days in Portland have been very 2021. He's waiting to rejoin the rest of the world.
"I already want to meet my new teammates and begin training," Van Rankin, who goes by José, says. Major League Soccer teams will be allowed to begin their preseasons on February 22.
Until then, Van Rankin will have to find other ways to get accustomed to a new club, new country, and a new life. In that context, his time on the field becomes even more important. When players choose new teams they also choose new lives. For a while, the only thing that will feel normal is their time on the ball.
Van Rankin's been through this process before. Perhaps too often. He's never had to leave his native Mexico with his previous moves, but since 2018, he's had to make two other changes. Then, he left the club that brought him into professional soccer, Pumas UNAM in his hometown, Mexico City, for Chivas de Guadalajara. While still signed with them, he was sent out on loan to Santos Laguna.
Now 27, Van Rankin's latest move comes at a critical time in his career. This is the middle of a player's physical prime, the thinking goes, but also the beginning of his intellectual one. It is the nexus where your body's athletic peak meets how your mind's maturation. It's also where your earning power tends to be its highest; your club opportunities most attractive.
"[This move] is coming at a good time," Rankin tells Timbers.com. He can speak English, but our conversation is in Spanish, where he's most comfortable. For Van Rankin, the switch to Portland allows him "to continue adding experience and, of course, to give my best to the team."
The reality of his career arc began impacting Van Rankin three years ago, when Chivas paid to acquire his rights from Pumas. Initially, the move worked for both sides. Van Rankin was a regular during his first two tournaments in Guadalajara. But soon the one-time Mexican international started experiencing what so many other players have at one of Mexico's most famous clubs. He became part of a platoon of players on loan, with Chivas currently having, according to two sources, around 16 players dispersed throughout North American soccer.
Last year, that meant Santos Laguna. Now, it's Portland, with the potential at the end of his new loan for a more permanent solution. Moving to Major League Soccer isn't just a new league, team and country. It's a new direction.
"I thought this would be the most important challenge of my career," Van Rankin says, remembering the process that brought him to Portland. "This is a very competitive league that demands the best of every player."
Though he's spent his entire career in Liga MX, Van Rankin knows a little about soccer's global landscape. He has competed in Concacaf Champions League and Copa Libertadores, and he played for Chivas when the club was at the 2018 FIFA Club World Cup. He was a regular presence with Mexico's youth national teams, has appeared once for El Tri at the senior level, and has enough experience with world soccer to know MLS's context. This isn't somebody coming to the United States with naive assumptions, nor is he prioritizing his move in off-field terms. For Van Rankin, Portland appears to be a soccer move.
"I'm a dynamic player," he says, when asked what he'll bring to the Timbers, "[one] that likes to get up and down the field." It's a general description, but it's also the archetype Portland needs for a fullback in their system. "[I'm] tactically organized," he says, moving to the other side of the ball. "I'm really intense defensively but like to attack constantly."
- WHY IT MATTERS | Where Van Rankin fits with Portland
He is, in other words, a modern fullback. In a game that, over the last two decades, has redefined the fullback position, Van Rankin defines himself by both sides of the field. In his mind, he's "dynamic" first and foremost. His responsibilities range "up and down the field." He's "organized" and "intense," but when it comes to his want to attack, that's constant.
That description would also apply to one of Van Rankin's new teammates, Claudio Bravo. It applies to Pablo Bonilla, too. I applied to Jorge Moreira before his loan from River Plate expired, and it will likely apply to the fullbacks Portland prefers in the future. This is where the position Van Rankin plays has evolved. This is what the Timbers need in their system.
For now, that need is being fulfilled with a distance. It will be a while before he can join his new team in earnest. Once he does, the theory of his fit can start to play out. How well will José Van Rankin fit in Portland?