Two years later, Lucas Melano returns to Portland with fresh expectations

Lucas Melano, MLS Cup 2015 vs. Columbus, 12.06.15

PORTLAND, Ore. – Giovanni Savarese has never managed him, even though his new attacker has been on the Portland Timbers’ books since the coach’s arrival this winter. During that time, Lucas Melano’s been closer to home, at Estudiantes de La Plata, performing in a way that’s brought an enduring question to its ultimate moment: Is he ready to come back to Portland?

Whether he is or not, it’s happening, but how you answer that question likely dictates how you feel about the 25-year-old’s return.

No matter the progress you think Melano made during his two years on loan -- no matter how much he, the Timbers, or Portland’s new coaching staff thinks he can help – feelings from his first two years in the Rose City remain. Is he the player who showed so much promise while helping the team to its 2015 title, or is he the one who struggled to build on that debut?

Those questions have consumed Timbers’ fans since his return became possible, but in reality, neither of those questions matter. It’s 2018, now. The player has moved on, as has the club, and in this new space, the only question that matters is whether this new player, two years older and more matured, can help this new team forward.

“Melano is now a player that has more experience, from playing in Argentina,” Savarese says, implicitly explaining where he falls in the debate. “He’s very, very, very quick, and now, he’s a player who is very motivated to come back and be able to show himself, at this time.”

There is so much in that quote that hints Melano is not the same player he was when he left the team 19 months ago, in the wake of his first professional setback. Until that point, the Hernando-born attacker had enjoyed a straight line forward in his career, from Belgrano to Lanús, Lanús to Portland. But then the realities of life away from home, as well as the expectations of being a high-profile transfer, caught up to the then-23-year-old. A return to Belgrano made sense, as did a spell with Estudiantes, on loan.

It’s that second loan spell that has seeded Melano’s return. Mostly a wide attacker during his first stint in Portland, the former Argentine under-20 international has found a level of comfort playing through the middle, partnering with Colombian Juan Ferney Otero during Estudiantes’ Copa Libertadores’ group stage matches. Between those performances and his last campaign in Argentina’s Primera División – environments where goals are scored at roughly two-thirds the rate as in Major League Soccer -- Melano scored every 308 minutes, and while that might not project as a primary MLS scorer, that is not the only way he can contribute; nor is it the role he’ll be brought back into.

Melano is being brought back into the post-Fanendo Adi world, one where he no longer occupies an international spot on the roster. It's a world where Samuel Armenteros has established himself as the clear-cut, first-choice number nine, while players like Dairon Asprilla, Tomás Conechny, Jeremy Ebobisse and Foster Langsdorf are competing for Adi’s vacated playing time. That competition is evolving, especially in world where Diego Valeri might continue getting time up top. In all likelihood, the forward race won’t produce one clear winner; rather, it will leave Savarese with a series of options to mix and match, given the week’s challenges.

“I think he adds something different than we have,” Savarese said. But is that something different also something better? Surely, that will be determined on the training ground, but even if Melano comes back and merely offers that something different – that something Savarese sees which distinguishes him from the rest of the Timbers’ forward pack -- he will be another weapon in the new coach’s arsenal.

“The fans know both players,” Savarese said, also referring to the return of fellow 2015 MLS champion Jorge Villafaña. “We’ve become, with these two players, stronger.”

That much seems clear. Villafaña is a starting-caliber left back, in MLS. Even if Zarek Valentin holds onto his spot, the Timbers are better for bringing their 2015 starter back into the fold.

By that same standard, Melano’s return seems like an unambiguous positive when you focus the squad, itself – when you recognize that, given he was already under contract and wanted to return to Portland and, as such, there may not have been a meaningful opportunity cost. This is a player who is coming off a season where he started every Libertadores game for a team that got out of the competition’s group stage. He’s not coming in to displace Armenteros. He is coming in with one standard in mind: Does he make the 2018 Timbers a better team?

That, as opposed to whether he can live up to 2015’s hype, is a more reasonable standard for his return. And by that standard, yes, all signs point to it being time for Melano to come back to Portland.