PORTLAND, Ore. — At some point in the next three weeks, a 19-year-old soccer player will get on a plane in Argentina, navigate airport connections until he arrives in Portland, Oregon, and disembark into a new life. He won’t know the city, country or language, and to the extent he’ll know any people, it will be in name only. They’ll be his new coworkers.
This is the type of leap hundreds of thousands, if not millions, make each year. Most do so without fanfare. But for David Ayala, that fanfare is important. It’s what makes his job different than most.
As of today, Ayala is the newest Portland Timber, which means before being drawn north to Major League Soccer, he’s reached a certain level of achievement. He was a consistent part of Argentina’s under-17 national team, has begun seeing more time with the country’s under-20s, and as of the end of 2021, was getting more consistent playing time with one of Argentina’s more renowned clubs, Estudiantes de La Plata. Since his December 2019 debut, he's 32 all-competition appearances in midfield for la Pincha, though now, his next professional appearance will be for Portland.
“David has been a target of ours for close to a year now,” Portland’s President of Soccer, Gavin Wilkinson, said in his team’s statement, marking a point before Ayala has started a game for his club. “We have been in lengthy negotiations with Estudiantes to find an amicable transfer agreement for both sides.”
- ANNOUNCED: Timbers acquire midfielder David Ayala
Ayala’s is the profile of somebody who should be looking to climb the soccer world’s ladder, making moves beyond his country’s borders to, eventually, the heights of the European game. That possibility is still a probability, one that’s still in the distance, but as of today, he starts navigating a road to get there. He starts with a move north.
“He is a quality player that we believe is a great investment for the club,” Wilkinson said. “David has a unique skill set that brings different qualities to our midfield. He is a player with great experience at a high level for his age and will immediately make an impact on the team.”
The bulk of that high-level experience has been for Argentina’s youth national teams – a highly competitive environment through which Ayala’s played at the 2019 U-17 World Cup and, most recently, started for the U-20 team. There are parallels between those on-field demands and what he’s about to experience off, where he’ll be in a new environment and asked to master new challenges. Most players of Ayala’s caliber make this type of move at some point. Ayala’s at some point just happens to be now.
For Portland, Ayala’s “unique skill set” will prove more valuable than his experience. At the moment, he profiles as an all-arounder - a term attacked to midfielders with good skills across the board but no one talent that dominates his profile. At such young age, though, Ayala could still lift some of his skills to higher levels.
The most prominent of those skills is his passing. On a per-minute basis, he was second on Estudiantes in passes-per-90-minutes last league season, leading the team’s midfielders while his accuracy compared favorably to players in his age group. He’s also shown good range and a willingness to try the progressive passes that gets his team into attack quicker. From his natural positions of central midfield or deeper, in a more holding spot, Ayala’s willing to probe spaces behind or wide of the defense’s line. In time, his quantity of passes might not be as important as their variety, accuracy, and distance covered.
His composure on the ball and ability to keep possession are among his strengths, though his game in the defensive phase looks equally well-rounded. At 5-foot-8, Ayala doesn’t bring an imposing presence, but he’s willing to compete physically, whether that's in the air, having to go to the ground, or needing to get between an opponent and the ball. The fact that he’s not a traditional, all-out ball-winner will fuel debates as to whether he’s better as an “eight” in central midfield or a “six,” a little deeper. Thanks to impressive speed, burst and stamina, he should be able to do either.
“His talent will strengthen us and make us more competitive,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said in his team’s announcement. “He shows great potential to grow as a player, and we feel Portland will be a great environment for him.”
Underpinning that talent and potential is the application of both, something that hints Ayala is already performing above his age. When players depend on an all-around skillset, it’s sometimes difficult to get a foothold at higher levels, though Ayala’s distribution might be his difference-making skill. It’s also possible that what separates him is less his talent than how he applies it. His contributions aren’t limited to the moments he has time on the ball. Through his movement, speed, recognition and willingness, he creates those moments for himself. That’s less a physical trait than something that’s more mental, and even emotional. His mind seems ready to transcend its youth.
He’ll have to do that in Portland. Diego Chara is the team’s linchpin and standard-bearer in midfield. He turns 36 in April. George Fochive (29) and Andy Polo (27) also provide experience, as will a healthy Eryk Williamson, though he’s only 24. Cristhian Paredes is currently the group’s youngest at 23, leaving Ayala to find peers beyond his position. Academy products like forward goalkeeper Hunter Sulte (19) and forward Tega Ikoba (18) are closer to Ayala’s path than the Timbers’ midfielders.
That may make questions of what Ayala is in the moment, while irresistible, also a little premature. As we saw when Colombian attacker Santiago Moreno arrived last summer as a 21-year-old, it took months for him to adapt, be assessed, and eventually have an impact. He ended up being a valuable contributor in Portland’s run to the 2021 MLS Cup final. Once Ayala’s through his own process, we’ll see if he’s more a Paredes or WIlliamson, or more likely, something distinct onto himself. In all likelihood, he’ll evolve into a player that's new, different, and no one-for-one swap for anything on Portland’s roster.
Now, that evolution can start. Ayala is a Timber. The next stage of his career will be in green and gold. The next challenge on his road will be in Portland.