Expansion Draft hits Portland hard with Valentin's departure

Zarek Valentin, Timbers @ LA, 3.31.19

It’s been exactly one month since the Portland Timbers’ 2019 season ended. It was October 19, 2019, and the team lost, 2-1, in Utah. Zarek Valentin didn’t get on the field that day, but he was in uniform, just as he’d been 29 other times that season. Only five times over the course of the season did injury keep the 28-year-old out of Portland’s team.

The numbers were the same the year before, when Valentin dressed 40 times. Thirty-one times in 2017. Twenty-nine in 2016, his first season with the club. Over four years in Portland, Valentin was selected for his team’s gameday 18 on 129 occasions – and those are only the numbers in league play. Maybe in the future, those numbers will grow.

For now, though, that October 19 match may be Valentin’s last in green and gold. Selected by Nashville SC in Tuesday’s Expansion Draft, Valentin is now a Houston Dynamo player, having been immediately traded in exchange for goalkeeper Joe Willis after being selected from Portland.

“There was always a strong likelihood that we were always going to lose a player in the expansion draft given our depth and talent,” Portland's president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson, said in a statement released by the team. “Zarek was an important player for the Timbers and one that will be tough to replace ..."

Think back to what the last month must have been like for Valentin. When the playoffs ended, the transition into the offseason began. He’d been through this process before. This time, though, he did so as a married man, a father, the owner of a new home in the Portland area. All of those changes happened in the last year. He had a new contract with the team, having played at his highest level in 2018 to earn that new deal. Sometimes a starter, sometimes not, Valentin had settled into a steady life in his new home. His years with Chivas USA, in Montreal, and in Norway had paid off.

Then you hear you’re going to be exposed in expansion. It couldn’t have been a surprise. Valentin has played in Major League Soccer for over six seasons, and he was picked in an expansion draft after his rookie season. Plus, he’s smart enough to know Portland’s roster. It was always going to be close. Still, until your name actually comes up in the draft, you can convince yourself nothing is going to change. I’m a veteran with a veteran’s contract. Those teams could go younger. Why would they need somebody with my profile?

But Houston needed Valentin’s profile for the same reason he’s going to be such a loss for Portland. He’s capable of starting at either fullback position. In terms of salary, he’s neither cheap nor expensive. He’s a solid value. He’s established a reputation as a character guy, capable of helping a locker room’s culture. He also would be a lot of teams’ most vocal and intelligent presences on the field. Plus, as his accolades from his time in Portland’s community show, his contributions away from his club mirror his value inside it.

There’s a reason why Valentin received a contract extension last offseason, just as there’s a reason why it was so difficult to, in expansion, leave him exposed. It’s going to be difficult to see him in another uniform.

"Zarek has not only been a fantastic person to work with, but also an instrumental player for the club during the past four seasons,” the team's head coach, Giovanni Savarese, said. 

This is the reality we talked about yesterday, one teams have had to deal with 11 times in the last 14 years. Today, Portland was one of 10 teams that lost players. In some of those cases, another team’s Valentin might be relocating, too. The Timbers’ loss may feel especially acute, but other teams are facing losses, too.

And why? This is just the way things are done. Somewhere in United States sports history, this method of stocking new teams became preferred. Major League Soccer has stripped their version down, with teams now only selecting five players. But too often, they don’t even want those players. They’re assets on a market, traded as soon as they’re acquired, converted to other assets, or a type of money that only scarcely exists.

We shouldn’t get too precious about this. Teams know their players have to be seen as assets. That’s the reality of competing in a space where competition is part of the product. But the balance between that view and what happens in expansion looks tilted in these scenarios. To Portland, Valentin had become more than a name on one list, but not another. Still, with this process, players have to be on one list. Or the other.

He’s going to be valuable for the Dynamo. He’s contributed everywhere he’s been before. But today’s selection still feels like a blow to both player and, now, his former club. One month after their biggest loss on the field, the Timbers and Valentin suffered another defeat off of it.