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Patient, methodical, and confident, the Timbers #1 goalkeeper was a force in 2022. But he's still not taking anything for granted.

Flashback to August 2021: Portland Timbers goalkeeper Aljaz Ivacic could only watch as Jimmy Medranda’s side-volley flew over his head, hit the underside of the top crossbar and bounced over the goal line.

Goal, Seattle Sounders, who would hand the Timbers a 6-2 defeat at the final whistle.

It was a humbling afternoon Ivacic, along with his teammates, would rather forget. In only his fourth start of the season, with regular starter Steve Clark out with an injury, the 28-year-old Slovenian goalkeeper had been eager to make a case for himself. But when Clark returned to full fitness, Ivacic didn’t see the field again the rest of the season.

13 months later, and how things have changed. The Timbers got their revenge on their rivals—sweeping the Sounders and hoisting the Cascadia Cup. And there are no questions about Ivacic, who logged 2,880 minutes for the Timbers this year, starting in 32 of the 34 regular season games. On October 2, 2022, Ivacic lifted the Supporters Player of the Year award in front of the North End, smiling and signing autographs and jerseys as he headed to the locker room. He’s even earned himself an affectionate—and apt, given his magic hands— nickname: Jazzy.

Ivacic's swift ascent up the depth chart to No. 1 keeper has been a remarkable to watch, but Jazzy is nowhere near the apex of his climb.

“I know I have been repeating myself, but I’m not satisfied,” said Ivacic before the Timbers' final game. “I’m never going to relax or think I achieved something now. I want to be better every day, even next season my goal is to be better than this season, even though I think I am having a pretty good one.”

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Patiently waiting

The Slovenian keeper knew he has always been capable of seasons like this, and he also knew that he would have to have patience to prove it. Upon arriving in Portland, he recognized he was likely third on the depth chart behind Clark and Jeff Attinella. Still, he says he approached every workout and practice as if he were that weekend’s starter. He could control how he trained, his personal diet, and how he watches film, so he focused on those little things and ignored everything else.

Then a few breaks went his way. Shortly following the MLS Cup Final in 2021, Clark signed a contract with Houston Dynamo FC in free agency; a few weeks after that, Attinella retired. In under a month, Ivacic became the longest tenured Timbers keeper.

A starting spot is never an inheritance bestowed on the next in line. Portland also added experience and depth to its goalkeeper room by signing David Bingham, and competition was fierce. As players returned from a short offseason, all coach Giovanni Savarese told Ivacic was that he would get the opportunity to compete for a starting spot. That was all he needed.

“I was never told I was going to be the starter, which if I was the coach I would do the same,” said Ivacic. “You always have to fight. There are other goalies, too, it’s not fair if you tell one that they’re the starter and other guys are not; they want to play, too.”

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Getting up to speed

As Ivacic settled into a starting role, he focused on slowing the game around him down. He described himself as “shaky” at first, admitting three years of inconsistent playing time took its toll. Routine passes went inches off the mark and routine saves became nervy punch-outs.

“In my first games, when I got the ball from my defenders I had a feeling that the game was too fast for me, even though it wasn’t,” said Ivacic. “I was in my mind that everything was so fast because I wasn’t used to it.”

With each passing game and spectacular save Ivacic’s confidence grew. He made four saves to help Portland keep a clean sheet in Houston on April 16, which included a spectacular second-half save in which Ivacic got a fingertip to a back-post header, tipping it off the far post. (That save is currently up for MLS's Save of the Year.) And, against FC Dallas on August 6, Ivacic faced Paul Arriola bearing down on him one-on-one, dived to his left and did enough to upset the shot. Ivacic had found his groove.

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"I am the best in MLS!"

At 4:53 a.m. on July 24, Ivacic tweeted a video of his incredible tip-save against the San Jose Earthquakes, denying Cristian Espinoza a late equalizer, writing, “I am the best in MLS!” To many across the league, it sounded like hyperbole. Bravado, even. But Ivacic is nothing if not earnest—for him, the statement was about seeing the fruits of his own labor, his confidence in his own abilities, and a newfound sense of calmness between the sticks.. The numbers happen to be on his side, too: He ended 2022 with has an MLS-best 112 saves, as well as six clean sheets.

“We won because of that save,” says Ivacic of the San Jose stop. “In Houston or against Dallas, we tied because of those saves. That’s why I liked them the most, because they affected the game in some way.”

Still, Ivacic knows he still has plenty to improve, such as his consistency on a game-by-game basis. For now, his only goals are to keep the Timbers in games in 2023, give Portland’s offense an opportunity to win games, and help his team reach the playoffs.

For now, last August's loss to Seattle couldn’t feel further away for Jazzy. He took the only thing he could from that loss—an opportunity to grow—and hasn’t looked back.

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