BEAVERTON, Ore. – He was one of the new faces in preseason camp last February, though in the recesses of our memories from the 2018 season, winter’s camp in Tucson feels like too long ago. But that was when players like Foster Langsdorf, taking time away from Stanford to be with the team, and Andrés Flores, having followed new head coach Giovanni Savarese from their stays with the New York Cosmos, were getting their first taste of an MLS preseason. As other new arrivals came – players like Samuel Armenteros, Julio Cascante, Cristhian Paredes and Andy Polo – inquiring minds wondered what the new first-teamers would bring to Savarese’s first MLS squad.
Renzo Zambrano was there, too, even if few noticed. But through the first weeks of the Timbers’ camp in Arizona, the Venezuelan midfielder was on hand, both making up the numbers and trying to build on the first impression he’d made during the previous year – his half-season in 2017 with T2.
On Monday, the Timbers’ Major League Soccer arm confirmed what most saw back then: that the former Real Valladolid man had a future with the first-team squad. Now signed to an MLS contract, the 25-year-old Venezuelan is ready to build on last winter’s start.
“However Portland sees [my role], that’s my objective,” Zambrano said, having just finalized his first MLS deal. “I’m going to always have personal goals, but now – now that we’re going to start a new year with the first team, with a new contract – the first thing I want to do is what they’ve kept me here to do.”
That “to do” is provide another option in midfield, with Zambrano capable of helping anywhere between an attacking, central midfield position or deeper, where he was a commanding presence through the 2018 campaign for T2. He led Portland’s USL team in passes this season, as well as passes per 90 minutes and completion percentage in the opponent’s half. Without the ball, he led the team in interceptions, tackles and tackles won, as well as duels and duels won.
Whether he ends up being a playmaker, holder, deep-lying distributor or box-to-box player at the next level remains to be seen, but the most intriguing part about Zambrano may be his potential to be any of the above. Or all. Having led T2’s engine room, Zambrano’s future could go a number of ways, with the player open to whatever his path offers.
“I want to do [whatever is asked] because I believe this is an opportunity where, well, I want to take maximum advantage of it,” he says, the perspective of two seasons in Spanish soccer evident in his measured, openminded tones. “If I’m doing what the team asks of me, that’s all I can give.”
A two-time full Venezuelan international, Zambrano began his professional career as 16-year-old with Monagas SC in Maturín. Three seasons there and another at Deportivo Lara paved his way to Europe, where has signed with Valladolid as a 20-year-old. After two years with their B team, making two appearances with the senior squad along the way, Zambrano found himself in Portland, trying to establish a new life with T2.
“I believe this team is very important team in the United States …,” he explains. “This is a fanbase that’s known all over the world. When I was playing in Spain, when I was playing in Venezuela, I knew about it.”
Zambrano arrived in the middle of what would be a difficult 2017 for T2, with the team settling at the bottom of the United Soccer League’s Western Conference standings during a three-win season. What Zambrano saw, though, was a talented team that didn’t have the right mix, one that had the potential to be much better going forward.
And in Portland itself, the newly-arrived midfielder saw a place that could be a fit, long-term.
“When I first arrived, it felt right,” he remembered. “Everything that I’ve hoped to do, as far as working to improve, it has gone so smoothly. So, I felt really happy with the situation.
“When your mind is at ease and the fit is right, that’s where you should be.”
Zambrano’s time with the first team in Arizona only cemented that feeling, but for his first full year in Portland, he was destined to serve another role. Both in age (24, at the time) and playing time, Zambrano was one of the most experienced players at T2’s disposal. His consistent place in the middle of head coach Cameron Knowles’ 4-2-3-1 formation (where he played one of the midfield’s “2”) proved foundational to the vastly improved squad.
“Especially with this latter part of the season, we had more consistency with the players …,” Knowles explained, in September, “which obviously helps. That familiarity is key.
“So, that’s been big with guys like Renzo, in the middle of the park, taking control of games … He has been huge, for us.”
He was identified by Knowles as one of the team’s leaders, joining with players like defender Modou Jadama and goalkeeper Kendall McIntosh to blend potential with perspective. Together, along with talents like Marvin Loría, Langsdorf and Andre Lewis, the trio helped guide T2 to their first postseason appearance, though Zambrano’s highlights went beyond the USL level.
In late spring, Zambrano made his full first-team debut, joining Jadama, Loría, McIntosh and other T2 mainstays in a lineup that saw Portland advance past the San Jose Earthquakes in U.S. Open Cup.
“I want to be here,” Zambrano said. “The work we’re going here? I like it, and I like what it does to help my family. I’m really happy with the people around me, the people here that support us, the coaches … everybody who supported us this year …
“It always feels good to be in a place where the people feel important. Every time I come back here, I feel it’s right, because everybody treats each other with respect.”
It’s a respect that, for Zambrano, reflects more than the people he sees each day in Beaverton, or at Providence Park. From the training pitch to the stadium, the locker rooms to the stands, the Timbers’ latest signing sees every reason to commit his future to Portland.
Now, when the team returns for preseason, Zambrano won’t be a name in the background. He will be a full member of the first-term squad.
“I’m going to give all of me to the community,” he explains, “because from T2 until now, they have given me an opportunity to play. That makes me happy to be part of this team – to be part of the Timbers family.”