Record signing casts Brian Fernandez as Timbers' latest big move

Brian Fernandez to crowd, Necaxa

The December press conference set expectations. Portland Timbers GM/president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson, technical director Ned Grabavoy and head coach Giovanni Savarese, all behind microphones at Providence Park, talking about the transition from one season into the other, all had their input on how the team needed to move forward.

That’s when the idea of signing a marquee attacker as the team’s next Designated Player took hold.

“Relative to the forward position, that may be an area that we need to get better in,” Wilkinson said, then. The next month, after the acquisitions of Claude Dielna, Aljaz Ivacic and Jorge Moreira were done or coming to fruition, he spoke of the attacking focus.

“The player we’re looking at does give us depth in several positions,” Wilkinson said, about a potential attacker, “but if it is a young Designated Player and it does come to fruition, that’s a player that we would expect does come in and play.

“With the investment that (team president) Merritt (Paulson) is looking to make, it would be the biggest investment we have made in any one player since the start of the Timbers.”

As the offseason went on, external reports had the Timbers close to signing multiple targets, both backing Wilkinson’s projection and, in the lack of signings that followed, speaking to the difficulty of the task. Within the offices of Providence Park, the decision to spend a record fee for new talent came with an equally large obligation: to get the decision correct. While it looked like a new attacker could arrive before the 2019 season started, reality cast the capture farther into the future.

As of today, that future is now. With the signing of Argentine attacker Brian Fernandez, the Timbers have acted on Wilkinson’s December plans. Joining Diego Valeri and Sebastián Blanco as Designated Players, Fernandez leaves Liga MX’s Club Necaxa to start the next chapter of his career, ending his year in the Mexican league as one of the circuit’s leading goal scorers.

“We are delighted to sign a player of Brian Fernandez’ caliber, at a stage in his career where we feel he is already a proven player yet still has his best years in front of him and room to grow as a player ...,” Wilkinson said, in the team’s official announcement. “He is a quality player and will add a different look to our team, and we are thrilled to welcome him to Portland.”

Capable of playing any attacking position, Fernandez’s route to North America has been a circuitous one. After debuting at Argentine Primera club Defensa y Justicia in 2012, the Santa Fe, Argentina, native moved to Racing Club in 2015, where his career hit its first major hiccup. In May of that year, the then-20-year-old tested positive for a banned substance, subjecting him to a suspension.

The rest of Fernandez’s time with Racing was largely spent on loan, with stints in France, at Ligue 1’s Metz, and Chile, and Unión La Calera, taking him from his home country for the first time. It was in Chile, though, that Fernández saw his first prolonged run or scoring success, scoring 11 times in 12 games during his final loan from Racing.

What followed was Fernandez’s first permanent move, as well as his first prolonged breakout. Moving well north to Necaxa, Fernandez quickly become one of the most dangerous scoring threats in Mexico, scoring 4 times in 17 appearances during the 2018 Apertura before fully acclimatizing to Liga MX, scoring 14 goals in 16 games since the Clausura’s arrival.

Fast, physical, with a goal-scorer’s focus on his end product, Fernandez is capable of providing a level of production that team hasn’t had since Fanendo Adi’s most productive moments. “Capable,” though, becomes a steep condition when asking players to shift countries, cultures, and potentially playing styles. Those risks are inherent in almost any major MLS signing, though. What isn’t always there is the elevated ceiling Fernández flashed at his last top.

Necaxa isn’t considered a major power in Liga MX, but as of his final game in Mexico, Los Rayos occupied Liga MX’s sixth spot, their 31 goals in 16 games tying them for the league’s third-best attack. Playing across the front attacking positions and filling highlights with his threat on the counter attack, Fernandez became the most dangerous part of a resurgent club.

It’s a level of threat that’s earned a new move to a team that’s about to embark on a new era. After reaching their league’s final game last season, the Portland Timbers are about to open a renovated version of their stadium, with Providence Park’s seating set to expand by nearly 20 percent when the venue reopens on June 1. Having sold out every game in their MLS era (which began in 2011), Portland possesses one of the most reliably ardent fanbases in their league. Though the $85-million project represents a significant financial commitment, it’s one that should allow the Timbers to continue competing with their larger-market rivals going forward.

“Brian has demonstrated the ability to overcome adversity during his career,” Wilkinson explained, “and his commitment to the game, his family and his belief in his ability has helped him develop into an exciting, highly skilled attacking threat with very good clubs in multiple leagues.

In time, Fernandez may be seen as the first move of a new era, one that combines a new on-field spending power with the ambition to continue competing at the top of the Western Conference. How quickly that era gains momentum, however, may be heavily influenced by Fernández’s fit on the field.

Able to play left wing and right, as a lone striker or part of a pairing, Fernandez offers Portland the positional flexibility Wilkinson outlined this winter. Do you “want to push (Jeremy) Ebobisse down the depth chart to a point where (he wouldn’t play),” he asked rhetorically in December, something that remains a priority in May. Ebobisse’s four goals in eight games this season ensures he’ll remain part of the picture, leaving it an open question where, amid his myriad possible roles, Fernandez will slot in, first.

But Portland’s newest Argentine isn’t being brought in to be a complementary part. Portland has a place for an out-and-out goal-scorer, and given his prodigious output in Mexico, there’s every reason to expect Fernandez can fill that role. You don’t pay a record fee and tie down your last available DP spot for somebody can merely fit in. As much as Fernandez can complement players like Valeri and Blanco, those player will be expected to leverage their new teammates’ talents.

You can see it in the video, above. Speed, power, technique, instincts and results. This is the profile you want when a club decides to break records for new talent. If Portland’s decision-makers have chosen wisely, they’ll have assembled an attack that puts them in the conversation with their chief Western Conference rivals.