BEAVERTON, Ore. – It was the type of match that, from its earliest moments, underscored Modou Jadama’s importance.
The final game of Timbers 2 regular season was going to be both test and preview, with the team traveling to Arizona to face one of the Western Conference’s leaders, Phoenix Rising FC. Chelsea legend Didier Drogba is part-owner in that club, one that had beaten Portland, 4-1, at Providence Park earlier in the United Soccer League season. Depending on results around the league, Rising could host T2 again a week later, when the teams’ postseason began.
It wasn’t a situation Portland would have been equipped to handle before: on the road; in front of over 7,000 people; playing an experienced team that was shifting into playoff mode. Phoenix had been struggling in the games immediately before, but a final match at Rising Soccer Complex gave a team laced with current and former MLS talents a chance to turn a corner. Compared to players like fullback Saad Abdul-Salaam – a player with 68 career MLS appearances – T2 felt like practical upstarts.
Jadama, however, has his own experience, having been brought through the youth system of Chilean power Colo-Colo. Midfielder Renzo Zambrano, too, brings perspective to T2’s squad, having playing in Spain with Real Valladolid before landing in Portland. Along with players like goalkeeper Kendall McIntosh, they form one of the leadership groups within Portland’s USL squad, albeit a young one. Both 24 years old, Jadama and Zambrano are part of the reason why the team was equipped to deliver a 1-0, season-closing win in Arizona.
“To have guys with that experience in those positions to bring some calm and composure, to steady the ship in those difficult moments, is going to be really important,” T2 head coach Cameron Knowles acknowledged this week, referencing both Saturday’s victory and Friday’s USL Playoffs return to Phoenix (7:30pm PT, ESPN+). With a win, the Western Conference’s sixth seed will advance to their first conference semifinal. And if results break their way – if Swope Park Rangers defeat the West’s second seed, Sacramento Republic FC – T2’s next playoff game could be in Portland.
“You know it’s going to be a feisty game,” Knowles said of the T2-Rising match up. “We saw how the last one finished. Emotions got a bit high. You know the tension in the game was there for that last five or 10 minutes, and I think we’re going to see that for 90 minutes in the next one.”
Jadama was crucial to managing that tension, with his poise evident throughout a match that tested T2’s defense. Center back partner Arturo Diz Pe had a good day, too, making USL’s Team of the Week, and Marco Farfan had some big moments at left back. But in addition to his own standout plays, Jadama’s key contributions were temperamental, with his ability to defuse attacks and slow play down keeping Portland alive until Augustine Williams’ late, game-winning goal.
“I feel that responsibility,” Jadama says, about his role with the team. “When I come down and play (with T2), I definitely feel that.”
Jadama is signed to a MLS contract, but like other first-team players – Farfan, McIntosh, Foster Langsdorf and Jack Barmby, to name a few – his contributions to the USL team have been vital. Having played last year with the Tulsa Roughnecks, Jadama is familiar with life at the second level, and although this is his first season in Portland, he was tabbed early to serve as an example for the group.
“It started with the coaches,” Jadama remembers about the process that saw him frequently wear the captain’s armband, this season. “As a player, when I come down – from the first team, when I come down – I feel that: to be there for everyone; to show everyone. But the first thing is, I have to play well every game I play and try to help everybody be on that level.”
It’s a by-example leadership style that also rings true to Zambrano, who, when asked about his role as a leader, says, “that’s not for me to say.
“That’s for my teammates and the coaching staff. I always want to go about my work in a good, consistent way, and if that’s leading, that’s only leading to try for all of us to be better players, every day.”
From Zambrano, that style has taken two forms. On the field, he is the metronomic pace-setter teams want from their central midfielders. Strong on the ball, intelligent and tough off of it, Zambrano has established himself as the team’s focal point. Along with attacker Marvin Loría, he has been one of the team’s two best players, this season, but whereas his Costa Rican teammates biggest contributions have come in moments he snaps defenses, Zambrano’s additions must take on a more consistent, steadier form.
“I want to help (the team’s consistency),” he says in Spanish, when asked about setting a tone. “I want to help that improve. You say that I’m one of the players with more experience. Well, that’s probably one of the strongest things I can bring to the team to help.”
It’s not just than Zambrano brings 56 games of Spanish league experience to T2. Nor is it that Jadama offers a perspective that spans his African roots (in Gambia), development in South America and time in U.S. soccer. It’s that they do so as regulars for the team, providing lockdown first XI presences which form the majority of T2’s on-field spine.
It’s also the way that the two men see their new squad.
“Every day, within this team, there’s been such a positive feeling, and I think that’s because everybody here, they’re good people,” Zambrano explains. “When you’re surrounded by good people, you’re always ready to play. It’s the same with the coaching staff. We treat each other like family, and that translates to the field. That’s something that, I hope, comes across to the fans: how we feel about each other.”
Jadama and Zambrano have played their part in helping that feeling form. As has McIntosh. As have other leaders within the team, like defenders Josh Phillips, Jimmy Mulligan and Nathan Smith. But in Jadama and Zambrano, T2 is reinforced with a perspective that helps pull out results like last Saturday’s 1-0. The team is reinforced with leadership that can leverage their talent – leadership that comes from two of the best players in the squad.