BEAVERTON, Ore. – Fans of the Portland Timbers are used to shifting their focus to the sidelines in the moments after their team’s goals. In those moments, the exuberance head coach Giovanni Savarese emits has become a highlight, reflecting a man who saved a few celebrations from his days on the field. But after Portland’s first goal in a playoff-clinching, 3-1 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes on October 6, another person assumed part of the spotlight near the team’s technical area – and it wasn’t just the goalscorer.
Claude Dielna arrived to doubts during the offseason after a year with the New England Revolution that saw him finish the 2018 season on then-head coach Brad Friedel’s bench. Acquired to add depth to the Timbers’ backline, the central defender endured a rough start with his second MLS team, featuring in highlights during Portland’s goals allowed on the road against LA Galaxy and Minnesota United FC.
Yet over the final months of the 2019 season, as injuries at various times deprived the Timbers of central defenders Julio Cascante, Modou Jadama, Larrys Mabiala and Bill Tuiloma, Dielna crafted a new narrative, albeit a quiet, overshadowed one. From August 31 through September 29, during six starts in seven games, the 31-year-old center back was part of defenses that averaged one goal allowed per 90 minutes. Overall, in his 12 starts throughout the season, Portland has allowed 16 goals, a rate 13 percent lower than the times Dielna has not been in the starting lineup.
That’s only one reason Dielna found himself center stage for Sunday's moment, in the seconds after the Timbers took their first lead of the game. Immediately after Mabiala swept home the day’s opener from just outside San Jose’s six-yard box, the fellow Parisian – both defenders were born in parts of France’s capital, roughly 15 miles apart – sprinted over 70 yards to celebrate with somebody who has quickly become one of his closest friends on the team.
“Of course, sometimes in a group, you have some guys with whom you connect a little bit more,” Mabiala explained, when asked about his celebration, “and Claude is one of them … I was expecting everyone to come, but he was the first one.”
As Mabiala and Dielna fell over, Tuiloma, somebody who spent five years living in France while with Olympique de Marseille, was the next to the group. Paris-born American Jeremy Ebobisse followed, leaving Savarese to stand witness to one of his squads most distinct and closest groups.
“It’s a brotherhood,” Tuiloma says. “[Dielna and Mabiala] are like my big brothers, to me … They help me on the pitch and off the pitch; life as a football player, and life off of the field. Having these two players, it’s a blessing.”
Portland’s Francophone contingent is only one larger than last season, but the addition has allowed for a new dynamic, as well as aspects of everybody’s personalities to come out more often. With a second France-born player in the squad (Dielna and Mabiala were born only two months apart), Mabiala has somebody who comes from the same generation and culture. Because of the pair’s age difference with Tuiloma (24) and Ebobisse (22), the dynamic evolved to be older brothers and young; mentors and mentees; custodians of French culture and the people who are looking to learn more, or just stay in touch.
“It allows me to practice my French, so when we go home my mom isn’t disappointed in me …,” Ebobisse joked, wrapping his humor around his note of truth. “They teach me some of the slang that I missed from not growing up in France, and it brings me back into the culture, which is awesome. I know that it makes everyone else feel more at home, being around people that understand the culture and speak the language.”
It’s important context around Sunday’s celebration. Although the moment was a spontaneous one, it’s no coincidence that Ebobisse and Tuiloma worked the hardest to celebrate with Mabiala. Joined by Dielna, this year has allowed them to bond. Likewise, it’s no coincidence that Dielna was the first off the bench when one of the brotherhood scored, or that the brotherhood sprinted to meet the addition that’s helped their relationships reach a new level.
“I’ve gotten more and more comfortable since I’ve been here,” Dielna concedes, “so I’m glad if people, my teammates, feel I was important for the team to celebrate with. I’ve working hard for that ... The guys must have come to celebrate with me after all this time because they must feel very comfortable, was well."