Why It Matters | Santiago Moreno: a new type of attacker for the Portland Timbers' roster

Santiago Moreno celebrates while with Colombia's América de Cali

The Portland Timbers have had plans to acquire a winger since the offseason. On Wednesday, those plans came to fruition. As confirmed today by the club, Colombian attacker Santiago Moreno is the newest Timber, joining from América de Cali thanks to Major League Soccer’s new Young Designated Player initiative. He signs after being linked to prominent teams in England and Scotland.

“There has been a lot of interest in Santiago Moreno from many teams," Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said, "so the fact that he decided to come to Portland makes us feel special.”

The reaction Moreno’s signing will inevitably include comparisons between him and more familiar players to the North American market. That’s how we wrap our minds around players we don’t know. But with Moreno, there’s another reason these comparisons will come up. Be it through style, his off-ball movement, his execution in the penalty area or his ability to read the field, there’s a tendency to focus on one virtue, saying “that’s reminiscent of” some player we’ve seen before. With Moreno, there are so many small, standout skills, you have to remind yourself he’s only 21.

“Santiago is a talented young player, who has already showcased his qualities at the club level and in Copa Libertadores,” Gavin Wilkinson, the Timbers' president of soccer, said in the team's announcement. “He is a player that we believe can provide an impact in multiple positions in the attack. We are excited to continue supporting his development, and see him becoming an important contributor to the club.”

How We Got Here

There are four factors that had to align to make today’s move possible.

For Portland, Moreno’s signing continues a connection to Colombia that goes back to the beginning of the club’s MLS era. The team’s “Godfather,” Diego Chara, came to the Timbers from Deportes Tolima in 2011. Chara’s younger brother, Yimmi, has since joined him in Portland, with the Timbers getting significant contributions from other Colombians, like Darion Asprilla, throughout the last decade. Moreno’s now part of a story that began with Chara’s arrival.

Along with that connection, there had to be a need. Toward the end of the offseason — after fullbacks Claudio Bravo and Josecarlos Van Rankin were acquired, and forward Felipe Mora’s return was confirmed — Timbers management identified two more areas they wanted to address: wing, and central defense. For the first, the team went back to a reliable source, acquiring Moreno from one of Chara’s former clubs.

Those links combined with the league’s new U22 Initiative to make a target like Moreno even more attractive. Per the initiative, teams that have already used their three regular Designated Player spots can sign a fourth, under-22 player who, regardless of salary, will count up to $200,000 against the team’s salary cap. If that player is added midseason, the roster charge is $150,000 for that season. Though the Timbers already have Sebastián Blanco, Yimmi Chara and Jaroslaw Niezgoda as Designated Players, the new rule made room for Moreno, who will maintain his U22 status through a contract that will carry him through the 2025 season.

Santiago Moreno in training with América de Cali

Ultimately, Moreno had to show he was ready for this move. Over the course of his last year with América, he has. Though 2021 marked his first year as a regular starter, Moreno posted four goals and four assists in 17 games. In addition, he’s made appearances in Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana over the last two years, with his 2020 goal against Brazil’s Internacional marking his first score in international competition.

Combined, it’s not the biggest sample size, but was enough to attract reported interest from Rangers in Glasgow, as well as Leeds United and Southampton the English Premier League.

Why This Matters … for Moreno

No matter where Moreno landed, the reality of that move would be the same. He would have to relocate to a new country, establish a life away from home, and integrate himself into a new club. He would have to see how his game translated to a different set of circumstances, and test if his potential extended beyond Colombian soccer.

It can’t be overstated how difficult of a move this is can be for any player, let alone a 21-year-old one. Each step up the global ladder represents a combination of opportunity and competition. Solve the latter, get access to the former. At 21, Moreno has a world of opportunities in front of him, but he only gains access to those if he meets his next challenge. Moreno’s is not only MLS but it’s winning time from new teammates, adapting to a new club, and settling into a city that has to become a new home.

Santiago Moreno executes a volley while training with América de Cali in Colombia.

Fortunately for Moreno, Portland’s culture is as established as any in Major League Soccer. Chara has fostered that since his 2011 arrival, with the presence of players like Blanco and Diego Valeri augmenting those foundations. When he arrives, Moreno will be surrounded by players from similar backgrounds, players who’ve survived the challenge he’s just begun, as well young players who are still establishing their own lives in Portland. He’ll be surrounded by keys to managing his transition.

“I believe that Portland is a very good place for him to continue to grow," Savarese added, having said, "We are all excited to have a talented player coming here that will provide us many great assets but still has room to develop ..."

Why This Matters … for the Timbers

On the field, one Moreno’s biggest strengths is his ability to be impactful without dominating the ball. The runs he tries through channels and behind defenses seem made to pair with players like Blanco, Valeri and Eryk Williamson, and when the ball finds him in dangerous areas, Moreno usually has a clear idea of what he should do next, as well as multiple ways to execute.

He appears equally adept with both feet, whether passing or shooting the ball. From the edge of the penalty area, he’s capable of finishing with precision or power, but he’s not a shoot-on-sight player. Moreno is willing to play a pass in lieu of a speculative shot, and perhaps as encouraging, he doesn’t seem to favor one decision over the other. There is no go-to, predictable move he tries to set up for the final ball. Moreno reads situations, decides, and then sees out the best option.

That he can bring those virtues to a number of different positions adds to Moreno’s potential. Though lineup data says he’s been used most often as a right wing, he can play on the left, as an attacking midfielder, as well as forward in a striking tandem. Defensively, he’s shown a willingness to help protect fullbacks when played in a wide role, and his intelligence and length have produced flashes of a very effective counter-pressure from multiple positions higher up.

This is a smart player, a skilled player, and in the work he’s shown himself capable of defensively, a willing player, too. There’s physical development that can still happen, but in terms of his sense, skill and style, Moreno looks like a good complement to the players on Portland’s roster.

What’s Next

Moreno will take time relocating to Portland, and as with all new players coming to the United States, there’s a visa and work eligibility process to navigate. Once he arrives, there’ll be a natural integration process, too, one that will ask him to become acquainted with his new team’s routines and rituals. The depth on the Timbers’ roster means Moreno’s unlikely to be forced into the lineup.

But in MLS, you don’t pay a significant fee for somebody who will sit. It may not happen in week one, but once Moreno’s integration process is over, he will be expected to provide something new. And if that something new has the impact Portland’s decision-makers want, Moreno will help the Timbers attack reach a new level.