SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica – You can imagine the bemusement MLS newsbreakers had four weeks ago, having checked Twitter on a Saturday night to see the Portland Trail Blazers game day staff had broken their news. That night, at Moda Center, on the big screens that hover above the team’s hardwood court, two Portland Timbers were identified for the crowd, even if only one was actually on the team’s books. The team’s new defender, Dario Zuparic? He’d been signed nearly a month before. The player next to him, though, was supposed to be a secret.
“Jarek is an important addition to the club and we believe he has all the attributes to be successful in MLS,” said Gavin Wilkinson, general manager and president of soccer for the Timbers. “He has natural goal-scoring predatory instincts and the ability to score in many different ways. We look forward to getting him on the field.”
Wilkinson foreshadowed the Niezgoda announcement last Wednesday, telling an assemblage of Rose City media that Portland’s newest Designated Player was back “in market.” Since then, Niezgoda’s undergone a procedure to address a heart ablation condition, the same one (Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome) athletes like Cristiano Ronaldo and LaMarcus Aldridge were treated for in their youths. Having now cleared an entrance medical with EKG readings showing normal activity, Niezgoda is expected to join full training in a matter of weeks, putting him on track for his new team’s March 1’s opener against Minnesota United FC (7:30pm PT, TICKETS).
That timeline also keeps the Timbers on track to, in terms of signings, have their two big offseason goals addressed. In the week following Portland’s elimination from last year’s postseason, Wilkinson and Giovanni Savarese, the team’s head coach, identified two areas they would address with the Timbers’ open Designated Player spots. The first was done so with Yimmi Chara, whose early-January acquisition should upgrade Portland’s threat on the right side of their attack.
The second was always going to be a forward – a position the team also tried to upgrade the last two offseasons. Before the 2018 campaign, that upgrade was Samuel Armenteros, who played an important role in the middle of that season. When his loan expired, Portland’s need resurfaced, persisting until Brian Fernandez’s May arrival. When the Argentine left the club, the Timbers were back in the forward market.
Niezgoda’s profiles as a slightly different type of player than those two, and not only because he’s markedly taller. At 6-foot-1, he’ll be the tallest attacker on the team, but he no typical targetman. Though his hold up game is strong, and his ability to distribute coming back into midfield, away from an opposing defensive line, is also strong, some of Niezgoda’s distinguishing traits happen off the ball. His willingness to threaten new spaces, make defenders account for him, and maintain that position should provide a new, distinct dimension for Portland.
“He’s quick,” Savarese said, beginning his scouting report. “He’s a player that can sense inside the box where the ball is going to end up, and has a good knack [of finding] the ball and [scoring] goals … He’s elusive at finding space. He’s good with the head, reads the game very well.”
For Savarese, how that profile complements Portland’s current striking incumbent, Jeremy Ebobisse, is part of the move’s charm.
“He’s very different than Jeremy,” Savarese explained. “We have center forwards that are very different from each other that can play with each other, as well. That is exciting, for us.”
Beyond the eye tests, there’s also something more objective to Niezgoda’s value: his goals. Twenty games into this year’s Ekstraklasa, Niezgoda had distanced himself from the rest of Poland’s goalscorers, netting 14 times in 18 games to sit three clear of his nearest, former competition. Though back problems limited his play in 2018-19, Niezgoda also put up strong numbers his two previous seasons, combining for 23 goals in 54 league games (44 starts) as a 21- and 22-year-old. After joining Poland’s top flight in January 2016, Niezgoda averaged 0.65 goals per 90 minutes, putting up double-digit seasons in each of his last three healthy campaigns.
In terms of his Major League Soccer move, there are two natural points of comparison. The first is a recent one, with the New England Revolution having also dipped into the Polish ranks to add a DP forward this offseason. In Adam Buksa, though, the Revs added a player with half as many goals this season (seven in 18 games for Pogoń Szczecin), with one double-digit season on his resume. Stylistically, too, while the 6-foot-4 Buksa has a distinct profile, Niezgoda has a more versatile one.
That’s part of the reason a previous MLS move, that of former Chicago Fire forward Nemanja Nikolic, may be more relevant. Like Niezgoda, Nikolic played for Legia. And like Niezgoda, Nikolic left Poland at the top of the Ekstraklasa’s scoring charts. When he moved to the United States as a 29-year-old, the Hungarian international was coming off back-to-back double-digit goal-scoring seasons, and eventually translated that success into 51 goals in 96 games in Chicago.
It would be too much to suggest Niezgoda will come in and replicate Nikolic’s success, but in that success, there is a proof of concept, one that casts Poland’s Ekstraklasa as, in Savarese’s words, “a league that has produced good center forwards.” Those who’ve followed MLS for any period of time know there are no guarantees when it comes to how talents adapt, but at least with this move, there’s more than mere speculation in play. Perhaps Nikolic will prove a poor example, but between the team he came from and a style of play that has commonalities with Niezgoda’s, the parallel provides some reassurance.
Come March 1, though, those parallels will be irrelevant. Niezgoda will either start delivering or he won’t. Should he succeed, though, Portland may finally make some long-term progress at one of the most important positions on the field. After years or trying to reestablish the depth they had five seasons ago, when the tandem of Fanendo Adi and Maxi Urruti were so important in delivering and MLS Cup – and after seasons of seeing their solutions prove short-lived – Portland may be inching closer to real depth at its forward position.