BEAVERTON, Ore. -- It was supposed to be the Portland Timbers’ most imposing challenge of group stage, yet seven minutes into Portland’s 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League trip to San José, Costa Rica, the visitors were up on one of the region’s titans, Diego Valeri delivering a trademark, penalty-area strike in the sixth minute to embolden his team’s upset hopes.
“When you’re at Saprissa, anything can happen,” Julio Cascante remembers. The Costa Rican defender was on the bench for Deportivo Saprissa that night, coming on in the second half of the teams’ pivotal CCL game. It was his first introduction to his future club.
“The moment [Valeri] scored,” he remembers, “we knew we had to focus to get that result.”
Portland’s hopes stood in the face of a club which, outside of Mexico’s elite, has as daunting a CONCACAF resume as any club in the region. Saprissa has won a record 33 Costa Rican titles and remains one of the few teams outside of Liga MX that consistently threatens Mexican clubs in the CCL. Because of its farm system and prominence in the Costa Rican landscape, Saprissa has more talent in Gold Cups and final round CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying than any other club, and because of Major League Soccer’s increased spending power, Saprissa’s talent has become increasingly sought-after by North American clubs.
Fortune soon turned against the Timbers on the Sept. 2016 night. The team saw two penalty calls go the hosts’ way en route to a 4-2 loss, but as time has gone on, the notoriously hostile experience at Estadio Saprissa has turned into a positive. That visit to San José seeded a relationship that bore fruit for the Timbers ever since they left Costa Rica.
The first instance came last year in the form of David Guzmán, a midfielder whose addition to the club helped solidify the team’s midfield. Guzmán will likely be with Costa Rica this summer at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, but he wasn’t the only Tico to have an impact on the Timbers’ 2017 squad. Defender Roy Miller, too, came to Portland via Saprissa last year, giving the Portland some much-needed depth, experience and positional versatility in its back four.
With Portland’s two Costa Ricans fitting in seamlessly in the 2017 squad, the Timbers decided to further strengthen its connection with Saprissa, acquiring Cascante this winter. With a third Tico in the fold, Portland’s links with the Costa Rican giant have become undeniable.
“We built up a relationship when we played one another, and there was a lot of respect there,” Timbers’ general manager Gavin Wilkinson explains. “We’re always welcome when we go there.”
Saprissa isn’t the only club that has a good relationship with the Timbers, but because of the quantity and quality of players the club produces, the relationship is becoming one of Portland’s most valuable.
“Saprissa’s players are exposed to international competition, the players are tested against MLS teams and Mexico teams,” Wilkinson says, when asked about why Saprissa’s players stand out. “And the fact that many of them speak English and Spanish, just because of the culture within the club” is an added bonus.
Cascante was one of those players. When Portland first spoke with the 24-year-old last year, his English was negligible. By the time he was acquired by the Timbers, the one-time Costa Rican international was conversational in his new language. Now, he’s able to carry on full conversations in English, albeit bashfully so.
“Saprissa is very good at the little things,” Cascante says, when asked about what separates his former club from other Costa Rican giants, like Herediano and Alajuelense. “Saprissa has a high school where the youth players can study during the day before they train. Those things are how Saprissa is different. The club wants to be the best, but not just on the field.”
Cascante’s acquisition is also indicative of a certain momentum that had built up between Saprissa and Portland, not only in the relationship between the club’s front offices but the links between the teams’ squads. The fact that two of his recent Saprissa teammates are with the Timbers helped paved Cascante’s path to Portland.
“They told me about everything …,” Cascante remembers, describing the importance of Guzmán and Miller. “About Portland, about the Rose City. I think it’s a great way to start. They told me about all my teammates – the captain, everyone. That’s great, because you have to come here and respect everyone, because I am a new guy, here.”
He’s new, but thanks to the Saprissa connection, he is more familiar than most. Miller made sure of that.
“Before [the Timbers] wanted him, he was always asking me what it’s like, how’s the team, how are they working, how’s the weather,” said Miller. “He’s happy with Portland. He’s very comfortable. It’s good for him to start like that.”
It’s hard to imagine that comfort level being as high without Guzmán and Miller’s influence, two people who joined Portland as not only veterans but well-established internationals. With Cascante, however, the Timbers expanded the bounds of their Saprissa relationship. A younger player – one who not only has more to prove internationally but is not necessarily guaranteed time with Portland’s first XI – Cascante looks like a slightly greater leap of faith, one which Wilkinson is confident making based on his experience with Saprissa.
“The fact that we already had Guzmán and Miller, and those acquisitions were seamless – the club was professional – and their performance last year was very good,” Wilkinson explains, “it made us go back and say, what are some positives that can carry over from another Saprissa player? Can we bring another one in that makes sense, that speaks English, that acclimates quickly because of the Costa Ricans that are here, yet has been exposed to all the other variables?”
By that criteria, Cascante’s acquisition isn’t much of a leap at all. He is a Targeted Allocation Player, so there is some opportunity cost in his acquisition, but given the nature of MLS’ discretionary TAM – the extra level of funds teams could opt into – the money has to be spent. And given Cascante’s talent, age, and Portland’s growing bonds with Saprissa, the potential World Cup defender looks like a sound investment.
He also looks like a part of the Saprissa connection who can be in Portland for the long run.
“For me and for my family, also talking to my Mom and Dad, it’s a great move” Cascante says. “I want to be able to go to faraway places, do new things. But I also just need to keep working.”
Should that work pay off, Cascante will strengthen the bonds between the Timbers and their Costa Rican partners. And if Saprissa’s history for producing talent continues, that relationship should remain fruitful for Portland into the future.