It’s credit to Claudio Bravo that, in a summer of significant absences for the Portland Timbers, his loss feels as significant as most. The team’s starting left back has been with the team for less than a year, but given the level he was playing at when he departed to prepare for the Olympics just over a week ago, his absence may prove as impactful as Yimmi Chara’s and Felipe Mora’s were for Copa América, or Eryk Williamson’s will be for the Gold Cup.
When the 24-year-old left back was acquired from Argentina’s Banfield this offseason, he was touted by Timbers’ President of Soccer Gavin Wilkinson as, potentially, one of the best left backs in Major League Soccer. Initially, that’s not how things played out. Bravo conceded a number of penalty kicks in his first months in Portland. As time went on, though, Bravo settled, and over his last appearances before joining the Argentine under-23 national team ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, Bravo was playing like one of the best fullbacks in MLS.
During his last game with the team, at home against Minnesota United FC on June 29, Bravo was the best player on the field, and over all competitions in 2021, he leads the Timbers in passes (both attempted and completed), tackles (attempted and won), pressures, blocked shots and interceptions. Part of those rankings is a durability that made him the Timbers’ most-used player before his departure, but part has also been the quality of his play, something that’s been on the rise throughout his first Portland season.
If Argentina goes far in Tokyo, Bravo will be gone until the middle of August. Here’s Why It Matters to both him and the Timbers.
How We Got Here
Bravo didn’t sudden appear on Argentina’s Olympics radar. Going back to late 2019, Bravo was a part of Argentina’s Tokyo plans, playing in under-23 friendlies before featuring prominently during the team’s victory in South America’s Olympic qualifying tournament. Had the Tokyo games not been rescheduled because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Bravo would already be an Olympian.
Because of that delay, the 2021 Claudio Bravo is at a much different place than the 2020 would have been. Instead of continuing his career at Banfield, he’s made his first major move, and instead of persisting as the subject of transfer rumors, the next stage of his career has been decided. Bravo’s in the process of establishing himself for the first time outside of Argentina.
Clearly, that process is going well. Not only has Bravo maintained his place in Argentina’s Tokyo plans, but he’s overcome an early adjustment period in Portland to become one of the team’s standout players. Though that status is hard to distill to mere numbers, Bravo’s numbers, and where he ranks within the Timbers across a number of important categories, still speak to his importance:
Why This Matters … for the Timbers’ 2021
For the Timbers, these situations are always compromises. Part of progressing as a club means elevating the quality of the roster, and at some point, you’ve elevated your squad to the point where multiple players have significant international responsibilities. Whereas Portland’s MLS history has usually seen one or two players drawn away to play for their countries, now there are eight or nine Timbers who, in a given international break, might be considerations for their countries.
The Timbers have felt the brunt of that this month, but not because of huge numbers of players being called up. Chara has just returned. Mora came back last week. Bravo and Williamson are gone ,now. Those are all significant losses. But the real pain of those absences is caused by the number of players who are still recovering from injury. With players like Sebastián Blanco, Jaroslaw Niezgoda, Cristhian Paredes and Andy Polo all dealing with significant ailments, losing players to international duty feels like a pile-on.
But consider that pile-on in light of MLS’s playoff system. It feels like the Timbers are in down moment, having lost 4-1 at Austin FC in their last game. They’re fallen to ninth in the Western Conference. But the team is also only 11 games into their 34-game season. As much as Champions League and the Timbers’ challenges make it feel like we’re farther into the 2021 campaign, Portland hasn’t even hit the one-third mark of their regular-season journey. There’s still plenty of time for the Timbers to get healthy, get all their internationals back, and get focused on becoming the best version of themselves.
Ultimately, the most important thing about the regular season is preparing yourself for the playoffs. Ideally, that would mean winning a lot of games and putting yourself in the best position to succeed in the postseason. But if you gave a team of choice of being flawed while earning a second seed or clicking and confident while qualifying seventh, that’s not a difficult decision. The drama around finishing so close to the edge is scary, but if you know you’re getting in? You’d take that and focus on form.
Even with their challenges, the Timbers are only two points out of the West’s last playoff spot. And they have at least one game in hand on most of their competition. There’s still a lot of time to make up ground.
Why This Matters … for Claudio Bravo
For Bravo, the significance should be obvious. Very few athletes get a chance to win a goal medal in any sport, yet alone for Argentina in soccer. As we saw when the Albiceleste finally reclaimed a Copa América, there’s something special about success with a team like Argentina, who’ve had legends claim the same tournaments players vie for, now. The Olympics aren’t a Copa or a World Cup, but this is an honor Argentina has won twice, before. Bravo could be a part of reclaiming gold.
Beyond the team level, this is a big moment for Bravo as an individual. Though the Olympics are a strange tournament — being largely under-23s but not totally (three overage players are allowed); being waged by a relatively small, 16-team field — the platform is undeniable. Come the later rounds, players will compete against some of the world’s best young talent, doing so with a stoplight most may never feel again. The eyes witnessing your success could set the next chapter of your career into motion.
Beyond the implications on his career, this is an amazing personal experience for Bravo. To be able to say you’re an Olympian, possibly a medalist, possibly a champion is something you can carry with you for the rest of your life. These are the stories you tell your grandkids; the things friends tease you about when they can’t their heads around the guy they knew from home playing in front of the world in Tokyo.
All the other stuff is interesting, but at its core is what this means for Bravo. He’s known for over a year he’d probably be an Olympian. Now, he’s an Olympian forever.