The two games that stand out from Larrys Mabiala’s first season in MLS are his pair of regular season meetings with Vancouver, two drastically different experiences that nearly bookended his initial 13 games in Major League Soccer.
The July 23, 2017, trip north, to face the rival Whitecaps, came after the team was shown a pair of red cards four days earlier against Real Salt Lake, in Mabiala’s MLS debut. That game ended in a 4-1 loss, but added to the Timbers’ injuries, the dueling red cards left Portland handcuffed for their derby in Vancouver.
“At that moment, [MLS] felt a bit weird,” Mabiala remembered, when asked about his first impressions of his new league. Coming off six seasons in Turkey, the Congolese defender was being thrown into a new culture, a new brand of soccer, and, after a lopsided loss, was headed into a derby with a team that would have to make emergency callups from its USL squad.
For Mabiala, the red cards, injuries, and quick turnaround provided a crash course in the unexpected. Two months before, he was playing the Turkish Süper Lig, facing storied clubs like Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray. Now, he was facing a three-day break, one where his team needed special permission to recall three players from their second-tier squad.
Surprisingly, despite not being able to dress a full bench, the Timbers won that game in Vancouver, 2-1. Rookie Jeremy Ebobisse had a goal and an assist, 18-year-old Harold Hanson made his MLS debut, and Mabiala was left impressed by the resiliency of his new club.
“It was a very critical situation, because at that time, we had some bad results, and going to face that team, which was a good team, with so many missing players was difficult, to get the victory,” he remembered.
“I think, at that moment, I realized I was involved something very good, because when the main players are not here, the other players here who can do their job very well.”
When, three months later, the Timbers clinched first in the Western Conference with a home win against Vancouver, Mabiala’s lessons had come full circle. In one breath, you could be traveling, on short rest, and relying on USL players to help you rebound from a lopsided result. In the next, against the same team, you could be fighting for the top seed in your conference.
“I was ready to face any situation,” he said, looking back on those matches against Vancouver. “It was a good experience for me, but that put me in the mindset that I always have to give my best in any condition, any circumstances.”
Those games defined a transition into the unknown for Mabiala, a move that has defined the 30-year-old's last 10 months. Born in France and groomed by Paris Saint-Germain’s youth system, the 12-time Democratic Republic of Congo international had spent his entire career in Europe. He played for two teams in France (PSG and Nice), two more in Turkey (Karabükspor and Kayserispor) and, along with his wife and two children, had established a life as captain of his Turkish club.
Just after the 2016-17 Süper Lig season, though, the Mabialas embarked on a major move. On June 26, 2017, Mabiala’s deal with the Timbers became official, starting his family a journey that would take them over 10,000 miles across the world.
“I had visited the U.S. twice before,” Mabiala said. “New York and Miami, just on vacation. [Those cities are] way different from Portland. I cannot live in those types of cities. Those are not really my character, or my personality.
"I love this.”
Mabiala’s previous club, Kayserispor, is not one of the Istanbul-based giants, but the city of Kayseri in central Turkey is still large, with its 1.3 million people ensconced in the country’s rabid sports culture. For Mabiala, a self-described “discreet” person, that made for an often-imposing public life.
“In Turkey, when I was living there, I couldn’t walk in the street,” he explained. “I was the captain of the team, so every time I walked in the street, the fans would want [rush me]. It was a bit difficult, for me, and for my family, too.”
“I have to say, it’s been easier,” he said, about his new life in Portland. “It’s been very easy for me.”
One place where there are parallels to Turkish football are within the walls of Providence Park. Although it has become a trope to ask European imports to justify their new homes against their old, the comparison was on Mabiala’s mind during his first game in Portland. On the sidelines and in the stands, visiting for a Cascadia Derby, the Timbers’ new defender saw an environment that reminded him of the stops he made before.
“I’ve known a lot of cities where they have crazy fans. In Turkey, they are crazy, and I come from Paris,” he explained. “So, I have to say that, even when people told me about Portland, I was like, OK, I know crazy fans. They’re super crazy. I know what to expect. And I was surprised, because it was way better than I was expected.
“The first game I’d watched was the [June 24] game against Seattle. I wasn’t allowed to play because I had to wait for the opening of the transfer window, so I had to watch. But to see the atmosphere, it was great.”
The atmosphere created by Portland’s supporters provides one of the few areas where Mabiala’s life hasn’t experienced transition. In March, the Mabialas welcomed their third child, whose arrival happened shortly after the team returned from preseason training in Tucson, Arizona. With his wife unable to speak English well, Mabiala endured a greater burden than most fathers, having to handle all the arrangements for his wife’s care and treatment.
“The phone calls for the pediatrician; the hospital. Sometimes I’m in the dressing room and I receive a message like, ‘You have to get an appointment for us’ to go somewhere for the babies or for the family,” he explained. “That’s the biggest difference, because when I was even in France or in Turkey, she was doing everything.”
Compared to those transitions, Mabiala’s life on the field feels far less important, but there have been important transitions there, too. The most notorious of which, the demanding level of travel players don’t experience in Europe, forced Portland’s new defender to reconsider his approach. When life on planes and between time zones saps valuable time from your recovery schedule, being vigilant about your body becomes more important.
“The most important part was the prevention in training,” he said. “Before, I never used to go to therapy room for treatment, prevention, or anything. Last season, I realized how much it was worth it.
“When I turned 30, last season, I started to feel my body was a little bit less responsive. Regeneration started to matter. So, that’s the most important part for me, to do some prevention therapy and take care of my body as much as possible.”
That care has helped Mabiala carve out a place in the Timbers’ lineup, but Mabiala’s on-field challenges have been the easy part. Now, settled in his new home, his family can enjoy a level of comfort they couldn’t experience in their previous stop. And, having welcomed a new addition to their family, the Mabialas can take comfort in all their transitions yielding a new life in Portland.