BEAVERTON, Ore. – The paths Portland Timbers stars like Sebastián Blanco, Diego Chara and Diego Valeri have taken to build their English skills have unfolded in front of our eyes. But in the training grounds of Beaverton, Oregon, as well as in the team’s locker rooms, planes, and hotels, a number of players are walking that path’s other direction.
It’s seen in moments like Timbers 2’s team stretches, when Jeremy Ebobisse is engaging Renzo Zambrano in Spanish. It’s seen in the MLS team’s daily drills, when English-language speakers try to bridge the language gap with their Spanish-only teammates, in Spanish.
And it’s seen in the off-field lessons players like defender Liam Ridgewell and goalkeeper Jeff Attinella have taken on their own time, even if life’s other events can sometimes throw the learning curve off course.
“My wife can speak Spanish – her mom is fluent in it – so I thought I’d give it a go and try it out,” Ridgewell explained, saying he always wanted to learn a second language. “But since we’ve had the baby,” with Ridgewell and his wife’s new child arriving early in the MLS season, “we’ve had a little less time to do it. So, it is tough.”
Tough, but something the Timbers organization is trying to encourage. Members of the technical staff have taken Spanish lessons this season, part of an acknowledgement that Spanish speaking is destined to become increasingly important within the team. Even beyond the technical staff, others in the organization have been surveyed about their interest in Spanish lessons, with the team considering offering all employees the chance to improve their language skills.
Ebobisse is not a Spanish speaker – he is only “conversational, not professional,” he says, about his proficiency– but it’s something that he is engaging, even if that engagement is informal. Building on the Spanish he took in middle school, the 21-year-old forward is using his time around an increasingly Spanish-speaking team to bring another skill into his world.
“That’s basically how, whatever I have, I have,” Ebobisse explains, about his Spanish’s middle-school start. “Then I spent some time in other countries. Spent like a month in Costa Rica for [U-20 World Cup] qualifying. I’ve spent a couple of weeks in Spain, here and there. And any time I’m in one of those countries, I just try to speak as much as possible.”
It’s an attitude that head coach Giovanni Savarese can’t help but encourage. The first-year Timbers boss is fluent in four languages – English, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish – and regularly switches between English and Spanish both on the field and off. During trainings, though, there is rarely a need to repeat instructions twice, no matter the language he’s in. Over time, a common ground between the two languages has developed, meaning most English speakers get the gist of Spanish directions, and vice versa.
“It’s beautiful when, in a team, you have guys talking Spanish, and French, and English,” Savarese says, “and everybody is making the effort not only to learn the language but the culture, that they integrate with each other.
“For me, the best moments are when we have a meal together, seeing them sit together, conversing, talking, making conversation, and changing from one language to another. I think that’s a great quality to have in a locker room.”
Ebobisse’s experience with Spanish is not unlike most people who grew up in diverse areas. Having moved from Paris to Bethesda, Maryland, when he was two, Ebobisse was always around at least a few households which were Spanish first. Just as he now does on the training ground, the bilingual forward (in English and French) used those opportunities to develop another skill.
“I have a couple of friends, growing up – one from Peru, one of Uruguay – and their parents weren’t as fluent in English, not as used to English,” he remembered. “So, I took that as an opportunity to try. Even here, last year, when I came in, some of the guys didn’t speak much English. So, I tried to get it better.”
Ridgewell hasn’t had as many opportunities to absorb Spanish, and on a day-to-day basis, he is less likely to engage the Renzo Zambranos of the world in their native tongue. But he has developed enough of an understanding to joke about it; or, at least be able to detect when banter has made him a target.
“I can understand when [the Timbers’ Spanish speakers] are talking behind my back, a little bit, which always helps,” he says, laughing. “Nah, it obviously helps sometimes when you need to talk to someone, maybe, even if I don’t know much.”
More than the Spanish itself, that may be the most important part of the Timbers’ English speakers’ willingness to learn. Almost every native Spanish speaker on the Timbers depth chart has not only been challenged to learn a new language but also embrace a different culture, a transition every player in the locker room can help or hurt, in some small part. The small steps people like Attinella, Ebobisse, Ridgewell and the staff take to understanding teammates’ cultures not only pave paths into a new world, but they’re efforts that are noticed by those who’ve been asked to change so much.
“It’s a good example to show us that they really want to improve as people, first, improve as a teammate (second),” Diego Valeri explained. Ebobisse’s curiosity, in particular, stood out.
“He’s very smart, very humble, very [talented],” Valeri says. “His potential is amazing, and it’s showing us Spanish speakers that he’s a good guy.”
Both Ebobisse and Ridgewell confess that, to this point, there haven’t been a lot of on-field benefits to their Spanish journeys. Basic words like derecha (right), izquerida (left), arriba and abajo (up and down) can be picked up without actual course work. But to focus only on on-pitch life would miss the point. Spanish, as well as players’ willingness to learn it, has a value that transcends the field.
“The reality is some of those guys struggle with English, so I would want them feel comfortable struggling in English the same way I feel fine, not embarrassed struggling in Spanish with them,” Ebobisse explains, with Ridgewell taking the sentiment a bit further.
“(I know a) very bit part, and it’s very hard,” Ridgewell admits, “so, I certainly respect everyone who puts in the time to learn English, that’s for sure.”