It takes a special occasion for the Portland Timbers’ most important staffer to, basically, drop everything and get on a media conference call. On Monday, the signing of Brian Fernandez was that special occasion.
When his acquisition was made official Monday, the 24-year-old Argentine attacker became the most expensive player in club history, in terms of transfer fee paid. He also became the newest addition to an attack that already features Diego Valeri, Sebastián Blanco and Jeremy Ebobisse, adding one of the most prolific goal scorers over Mexico’s 2019 Clausura to the reigning Western Conference Champions’ arsenal.
The expectation that Fernandez will come in and take the Timbers’ attack to new levels was enough for GM/president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson and head coach Giovanni Savarese to call a rare, short-notice, dual teleconference.
“For Brian to look at the Portland Timbers,” Wilkinson explained, “and say that’s a club I want to be a part of, and that’s a club that I believe in and I’m looking forward to speaks volumes about us as a club, the recognition that we have outside of Portland and the U.S., but also speaks volumes about the league.
“For us, it’s exciting, and with that level of excitement comes more pressure.”
They’re words that speak to high expectations, a sentiment shared by Savarese.
“Before we went to look for him and try to bring him here, we watched a lot of games and did a lot of scouting,” the Timbers head coach said, “and one of the things that we enjoyed watching was his versatility up top.
“He’s a player that can play different positions as a forward. He can play with the striker. He can play alone. He can play in the wide areas, like he has for Necaxa, where he’s scored all these goals in Liga MX. He can definitely give us something different.”
That something different can partly be seen in the numbers he’s accumulated over the last four months, with the14 goals in 16 games he recorded over Liga MX’s Clausura portending a huge impact.
“He is a player that immediately makes us better,” Wilkinson said, while lauding the psychological elements behind those numbers.
“Part of the mentality is coming to MLS, it’s a choice that he made, as well as the commitment to the club. It’s a league that he wants to be part of, it’s a team that he wants to be part of, and he wants to win.
“Having that sort of mentality signed to a DP-caliber player,” Wilkinson explained, “I think you have the right ingredients to success. We do expect him to contribute to our success as an organization in a big, big way.”
Where he makes that contribution on the field, positionally, is yet unknown. Though his greatest success at Mexico was playing on the right flank, Fernandez has also produced while playing as a striker, be it on his own or as part of a tandem. He can also play on the left side of the field or underneath a more traditional number nine, using his athleticism to build off the hold-up play of others.
To Savarese and Wilkinson, the uncertainty behind Fernandez’s Portland fit is a virtue, not a flaw. In targeting an attacking player with the team’s available Designated Player spot, Portland “didn’t want to close the pathway of other players,” according to Savarese, answering a question about the role of Ebobisse. Be it up top, out wide or underneath, Fernandez’s versatility, according to Wilkinson, “is very important for us.”
“The best thing about bringing in another quality player like Brian is it starts to raise the level in the group,” Wilkinson said, with Savarese adding, “I always see when players have somebody pushing them, I see a great improvement from players. I don’t think this is going to be any different.”
Ebobisse will be pushed, both Savarese and Wilkinson said, while applauding the 22-year-old’s progress over the last season-plus. But he’s not alone. The right-sided players will have to raise their level, too, something that will impact Andy Polo, Andrés Flores and Marvin Loría. That could have a carry-on effect to the middle, where Cristhian Paredes has just won a spot, and it will ensure players like Valeri and Blanco also feel a push from around the depth chart.
“I believe that [Fernandez] is going to be a very important piece,” Savarese conceded. “We have to be patient because we know that, he might be able to right away adapt, but we know that usually new players need a little bit of time to adapt to MLS …”
Even with those caveats, Savarese didn’t hide the impact he expects from his new attacking option.
“We believe in this player,” he said. “We believe that, with the talent that he has, he is capable of being a difference maker. That’s why the organization made the commitment to bring him here.”