PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Timbers’ 2022 goalkeeper situation had been unclear since December 22, 2021 – the date Steve Clark signed with the Houston Dynamo. Clark had been the team’s starter, but with him gone, the Timbers’ depth chart looked like a series of questions. Last year’s backup, Aljaz Ivacic, was a free agent, while former starter Jeff Attinella has been injured since May 2021. With Clark’s departure, 19-year-old Hunter Sulte was the only given on the roster.
Today, we have two more certainties about the goalkeeping depth chart. As announced by the Timbers, Ivacic is returning with a new contract extension, while a former San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy starter, David Bingham, will add to head coach Giovanni Savarese’s options.
“We lost a very talented player in this position," Gavin Wilkinson, the team's general manager, admitted, "and in following the same philosophy that has helped this club over time, we have signed two quality goalkeepers to challenge for the starting role. Aljaz has been waiting for this opportunity and David has proven himself in this league."
Why It Matters that the Timbers decided on a new course is no mystery. Switching from a reliable number one can be risky. For a team built to win today, that matters.
The details around Clark, Ivacic, Bingham and Sulte? That needs some space to explore, and in a way, those details are why this matters to us. What does today’s announcement mean for Portland’s goalkeeper depth? What does it mean for the Timbers’ 2022, and beyond?
How We Got Here
How we got here is closely tied to Clark, who stepped in as Portland’s starting goalkeeper in 2019 and made the job his own. We talked about his accomplishments when he signed with Houston. Conclusion: He’s performed as well as any goalkeeper in the Timbers’ MLS era. It's a significant loss.
That 2019 performance earned Clark a contract extension that lasted through last season. That extension was also negotiated when he’d barely re-established himself as a starter. In 2018, Clark had been released by DC United, and at the end of 2019, his profile was still unclear. Was he an established starter, or a No. 2 coming off a good run? By 2021, he was an established starter. The MLS free agent market responded.
The Timbers could have found a way to respond, too. That’s something fans have expressed since Clark left. But in a salary-cap league, every resource given to one need is a resource taken from another. Ultimately, the Timbers decided on another course, one that puts Ivacic at the top of the depth chart.
Why It Matters … for 2022
Ivacic has been in Portland for three years, but since that time has coincided with Clark’s, his development has largely happened in the background. His quality is a mystery to everybody but the Timbers’ coaching staff. In his seven MLS appearances (591 minutes), there have be highs and lows. He created memories with a triple save in San Jose last year but was also in goal when Portland conceded six goals against Seattle. Beyond the training fields of Beaverton, there’s just enough information to believe whatever you want.
For that reason, we can’t have a detailed conversation about what Ivacic is. We need a bigger sample size. What we can say is the Timbers have seen enough to give him that chance. He’s 28, was out of contract, and was a starter before he left Slovenia. If Portland saw Ivacic as a future No. 1, now is the time to test that assumption.
In hand, Portland’s brought in somebody who has significant MLS experience. Bingham spent last year as an MLS pool goalkeeper working out of Portland. He worked extensively with Timbers’ goalkeeping coach Memo Valencia, so the team knows exactly what they’re getting. He’ll provide competition for Ivacic as well as a safety net at the position.
There’s also the matter of Jeff Attinella, but his future is uncertain. Attinella suffered a major hip injury early in 2021, and he hasn’t played a minute since. Until that status changes, he exists in a different part of the depth chart.
In the worst-case scenario, there’s the summer transfer window, something that makes evaluating offseason moves only so valuable. We’ve seen over and over again how important it is to be your full selves in November, not January. When you need time to evaluate talent — when you need to maintain flexibility until you can draw some conclusions — MLS’s format can be a virtue.
Why It Matters … beyond
In the best-case scenario, the Timbers have identified a starter, one that could be at the top of their depth chart for years into the future. As Bingham becomes a baseline as the team’s No. 2, if not more, Sulte can get minutes in other competitions. If he progresses, Sulte can push Ivacic in the future.
No matter how the depth chart develops, the Timbers have gotten a little younger. Clark’s age wasn’t a major issue, but at some point, the future arrives. With Ivacic as a potential starter, the team gets slightly younger.
Come next week, it will be time to test the theories. When players report to Beaverton, Ivacic will do so with new expectations, as well as new hope. Bingham will have a chance to claim the job, but this is Ivacic’s opportunity.
It's why he made the move to the United States, as well as the reason Portland brought him over. He wants to be an MLS number one. Now it’s time to claim that spot.