BEAVERTON, Ore. – The high in the Portland suburb was supposed to be 97 degrees, Fahrenheit. As he met the media for the first time, it was still well short of that. But the midday sun at the adidas Training Center was still enough of a reminder. Tomás Conechny had ventured far from home.
A few days earlier, he’d been home. In Argentina. Where it was winter. His last day in Buenos Aires topped out at 52 degrees; or, 11, as they’d note it in Celsius. But it had been weeks since he’d gotten used to the idea that, three months past his 20th birthday, he’d need to move to further his career. Did it need to be a 6,800-mile move? Perhaps not. But it was time to leave the club he’d come to call home.
“When I spoke with the San Lorenzo coach (Claudio Biaggio), he explained that I wasn’t going to play as much in the coming season,” Conechny said through an interpreter as he faced his first session with the Portland media. “That’s when I decided to come here and explore more opportunities.”
The Portland Timbers are ready to give him those opportunities. The club has brought in other young talent over the last six months – Cristhian Paredes (20), Andy Polo (23) and Eryk Williamson (21) are some of the prime examples – but each of those acquisitions happened during the offseason, when a team being molded had yet to take inventory of its strengths and weaknesses.
Concheny is coming into a product. Not a finished product. An evolving one. But it’s a product nonetheless, one has some notable needs on both flanks for the field. As Portland responded to its disappointing start to the season (two losses and a minus-five goal difference over its first fortnight), the middle of the field was fortified, and although players like Polo and Sebastián Blanco can play in wide spaces, the team’s progress has cast their talents elsewhere.
“I’m an intense player who likes to take on other players,” he said, when asked to explain his style to somebody who may not have seen him, before. From the wing, put top, even through the middle, the diminutive attacker (5-foot-7) can provide another threat, one a team that’s been depending on two or three options might need. “[I like to] go forward and try to score goals.”
His first hours on the training field say as much. It’s tempting to compare him to other players his age – the Williamsons, Foster Langsdorfs (22) and Marco Farfans (19) of the squad – but early signs hint at more. The small-sided games show a creativity akin to the squad’s more seasoned stars. He’s trying to do things the other prospects aren’t. There’s a confidence in his vision, a willingness to see a pass through a sea of defenders, that feels more advanced.
Or, at least, in these first sessions in Beaverton, you want to see that talent. You want to confirm what you’ve read, what you’ve watched. If for no other reason than empathizing with a life-changing move, you want the kid to work out.
All of which gets a little ahead of ourselves.
A few months ago, Conechny seemed like an important part of San Lorenzo’s future. It was less than four years prior that he moved to the Buenos Aires club, and having stood out for Argentina’s age-level teams, the Comodoro Rivadavia-born attacker appeared on a path for the club’s first team. His future was there, possibly in Europe.
But as happens so often in the soccer world, plans change, and as San Lorenzo’s aspirations for their coming season shifted, so did their plan for their youngsters.
The connection with Portland surfaced over the last months, but before that, his name had been linked to other teams, including Atlanta United FC before that club decided to sign another Argentine, Ezequiel Barco. When Biaggio’s plans for San Lorenzo changed, the possibility of a huge relocation came back into Conechny’s life. At 20 years old, he was getting his first taste of the realities of professional soccer.
“Moving isn’t easy, but moving away from my family, out of my comfort zone, to another country that is very far away is the hardest part,” he said.
He’s not the first Argentine to make his way to Portland. Having established stars like Diego Valeri or another San Lorenzo man, Blanco, in the team helps. But each of those players moved to the United States when they were much older: in their mid-to-late 20s; when they already had partners; when they either had families or were starting them.
They weren’t fish out of water. They were merely jumping into a new pond. When you’re 20 and relocating across the globe, it’s a whole new world.
“He’s young - way younger than when I arrived,” Valeri conceded. “I came with my family, right? It was very different.”
But Valeri had made moves, before. At 23, he went to Porto in Portugal before a short stint in Spain with Almería. Blanco, too, left Argentina at 23, enjoying a prolonged spell with Metalist in Ukraine before dipping a toe into English Premier League waters. They weren’t as young as Conechny when they made their first moves, but they were far less settled in their lives than when they came to Portland.
Valeri sees that as a key difference – a difference that is almost generational. For players of his time, you made your first move to start a process, one that would likely lead to other clubs. For the current crop of Argentine talent, he explains, the outlook is different:
“Now, the mentality of a 20-year-old Argentinian guy has changed, a lot. He has to come here to play, like, 15 years in this league, right? An Argentinian player (before), it wasn’t like that. Now, I would say that, if I was 20 years old, I would come here to adapt and play a long career in the USA.”
It underscores the magnitude of Conechny’s move. He is on loan, now, and that loan could be extended. After that, there is an option for Portland to purchase his rights from San Lorenzo, a buy that would likely entail a new contract. Given the typical length of contracts for players of that age, Conenchy’s jump to Portland portends a five-, six-year outlook on where his career is going. If everything goes as planned – not only for him, but for Portland and San Lorenzo – he could be in the Rose City for the foreseeable future.
“I think he’s going to adapt very quickly,“ Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said, “but we cannot forget that he is young, he needs to go slowly, and that we have to make sure that we protect him in the process.”
Fans will define that process by what happens on the field. They should. For the most part, that’s the only view into their lives that players ever provide.
But there are some things that should be obvious. This isn’t the first big move of Conechny’s life – Comodoro Rivadavia is at the other end of Argentina from Buenos Aires – but it is his first time out of Argentina. It is the first time he’ll be this far away from his family, for this long, and it’s the first time he’ll have to deal with new cultures. In a locker room like the Timbers’, there’s more than one.
As much as anything, this is the first time Conechny’s going to have to be an adult. It’s the first time he’s going to have to fully live this life he’s chosen, one that can take him across the world in search of his soccer. Having players like Blanco and Valeri around will help, but when it comes to the most important process he’s undertaking, Tomás Conechny is going to have to define his own future.
And, by all indications, he’s ready for that challenge.
“I didn’t plan anything – I don’t see my career like that – but I know when the opportunity comes, I have to take it,” he said. “Else, it will go away. I’m just happy I took this opportunity.”