BEAVERTON, Ore. — The version of Dairon Asprilla that Portland Timbers see at training is a familiar one. He doesn’t save his acrobatics for gamedays.
Before sessions begin, Asprilla’s smile is his most prominent feature, though that quickly gives way to the bursts of speed and, occasionally, aerial dynamics that set him apart. Any discussion of the team’s best athlete must include his name. End-of-practice finishing drills often culminate with him trying to bury at least one overhead kick, and although training sessions may not be the right place for the trademark, round-off back handspring he uses to celebrate goals, mundane parts of his physical prowess still stand out.
The value of that prowess has been evident in Asprilla’s MLS playoff performances, something that’s earned him various forms of a “Mr. November” label he tries to dismiss. He’s the same player before the postseason as he is during it, he said after scoring in the 2018 playoffs, though there is no question Asprilla has a history of postseason heroics. In 4504 career MLS regular-season minutes, Asprilla averages a goal every 563. In the postseason, that ratio becomes one goal every 195.75 minutes.
As the difference in those numbers implies, consistency has been elusive for Asprilla, though that hasn’t been entirely his fault. Between 2014 and 2018, he played for four different head coaches, on three different teams, and in two different countries, between which he moved three times. Asprilla didn’t play his first professional game until he was 20 years old, so when the coaching changes began a year later, they came to define his career’s formative years.
Now, as one of the few players to have appeared in every Timbers game in 2021, he’s achieved a stature that was unforeseeable a few years ago - part of the reason why he signed a contract extension with the team earlier this season. Once known only for his playoff performances, Asprilla is becoming a constant for Portland.
“It’s all a function of work and confidence,” Asprilla says after a training session in Beaverton. “The confidence is what people here impart on you when you put in the work, and when you do the work you’re supposed to. That’s why people are seeing such a change.”
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That last word hints at Asprilla’s awareness, not only of his own path but how people see his journey. Now 29, Asprilla is a much different player and person than when he arrived in Portland. Back then, he was only 22. He’s gone through the highs of being a significant playoff contributor for a title winner to the lows of, almost immediately afterward, being loaned back to his home country. His time at home with Millonarios was terrible, and left him yearning for a return to Portland. Upon that return, his play improved, but when Portland changed head coaches in 2018, he had to reestablish his place in the team. That process eventually involved time with the team’s second team, in USL.
“I feel like so many different things happened to me, and being young, I’d react in different ways than I do now,” he says, trying to offer perspective on his changed approach. “Like we’re saying, here, I am a little more mature, and as a result, I have more that confidence. Compared to when I first arrived [in Portland], that’s how you can track how much that I’ve changed.”
In some ways, USL became “the work you’re supposed to do,” and he wasn’t alone. The success stories of teammates like Jeremy Ebobisse, Eryk Williamson and Marvin Loría also involve T2. Though he was older than them during their time in USL, Asprilla also needed to find his footing in the club. The commitment he showed in 2019, when he scored nine goals in nine starts for T2, carried his new perspectives to the field.
“When I first came here, I knew nothing,” he said, when asked to reflect on his 22-year-old self. “I managed, but I didn’t even know how to communicate with anybody.” In his mind, young Dairon had no way to connect to his new world.
“I always knew I wanted to stay here, in the United States,” he says, “but before, I didn’t know the habits I needed to apply every time. From becoming a champion to what happened next, there were changes. There were changing ideas.
“But now, after seven years here, I’m so happy to have fought through, and that I’ve been able to keep trying to continue on this path.”
Through 11 games all-competition games this season, Asprilla has made 11 appearances. Seven of those have been starts. Part of that ever-presence is because of an injury report which, at one point, included 11 Timbers. But as those seven starts indicate, part of his Asprilla’s stats reflect a regard. Coming off a 2020 season curtailed by a knee injury, Asprilla is as relevant as ever to Portland.
“I think all the experiences he’s had, they’ve all ultimately helped him be what he is, now,” teammate Diego Chara says. Like Asprilla, Chara had to establish a new life when coming from Colombia to Portland. Unlike Asprilla, he had already established his professional identity before his arrival.
“Mentally, he’s stronger,” Chara explains, “and I think you see the same changes away from the field that you can see on.
“It’s important to think about his progress in terms of his experiences, because they’re how he’s gotten to the place he is, now.”
The place he is now isn’t something that’s captured in goals and assists. Asprilla has as many regular-season goals before head coach Giovanni Savarese’s 2018 arrival (six, in 3402 minutes) as after (six, in 1885 minutes). But MLS has become a much different place than it was in 2015, and in the depth of talent on Portland’s roster, you can see how far the Timbers have evolved. Multiple high-level Designated Players are complemented by a slew of Allocation-Money signings. From 2015’s perspective, the 2021 Timbers would be inconceivable. Today’s realities would be a huge challenge for the 22-year-old Asprilla.
That’s why the playing time he’s winning now is so important. They’re a better indication of where Asprilla finds himself, as well as how far he’s come. He’s a playoff legend, for sure, but in how he’s evolved both on the field and off, Asprilla is now capable of making a difference long before a postseason starts.
“Honestly, it’s been a beautiful journey,” he says. “After coming here, the Portland Timbers have been my home, and Portland, Oregon, is my city. I’m so happy to be here and for everything about it to be part of my story.”