PORTLAND, Ore. – Jeremy Ebobisse has made a connection with Portland Timbers fans, part of the reason why their questions seemed so pointed. Publically, their team was expressing loyalty to “Jebo,” saying they saw the 23-year-old forward as a key part of their future. But as negotiations over a new contract became prolonged and the team signed two new forwards, it had to be asked: How did the organization really feel?
Finally, those mixed messages have stopped. Today, the Timbers announced a new, multi-year contract extension for the United States international, one that should link the Maryland native to the Rose City into the heart of his prime.
“Jeremy is a proven player with a very bright future,” said team’s president of soccer, Gavin Wilkinson, said. “We have a great deal of confidence in Jeremy as a person and a player, and we are thrilled to have him re-sign the with Timbers ...”
Quotes from press releases take on a predictable form: something respectful along with something specific, to distinguish the sentiment from what’s been used before. Within Ebobisse’s specific, though, there are hints to why the Timbers think he’s special, hints like noting the “person[‘s]” value before the “player[‘s].”
That discussion can become unbalanced around Ebobisse. His maturity, thoughtfulness and vision off the field can sometimes overshadow what he’s accomplishing on. It’s something he doesn’t seem to mind. But in the context of a goal-driven career, where on-field accomplishments will determine his professional path, it would be a disservice to let his contributions to his team be overshadowed.
Last year, his 11 goals were tied for Portland’s team lead in Major League Soccer’s regular season. He added another score in U.S. Open Cup play, and while his goal-every-210-minutes rate in league play isn’t an eye-popping for a forward, he put up those numbers while splitting time between striker and left wing – the first time in his career he’d been asked to play that second position. In addition, though Ebobisse was in his third season Portland, 2020 was the first where he had a regular starting job. He may be 23, now, but he’s only had 32 regular-season starts.
In other countries, ones where so many elite prospects play professionally by the time they’re 18, players might have three or four times as many starts when they turn 23. But the U.S. has a college path, which Ebobisse was briefly on. The concept of loaning young players to other clubs to get experience is a rarity here compared to leagues abroad. And while Ebobisse’s 18 starts in the United Soccer League augment his professional minutes, he still has relatively few miles on him, for his age. In turn, and with more experience, he may have more room to grow.
Over the last two years, that growth has been pronounced. In 2018, he started the season fighting for time at Timbers 2 but eventually won minutes with Portland’s MLS team after the departure of Fanendo Adi and injuries to Samuel Armenteros. Come the postseason, Ebobisse was the team’s regular starter, walking out as the starting striker with the rest of the Western Conference Champions at MLS Cup in Atlanta. In 2019, his role evolved, with a start at left wing for the U.S. national team in preseason portending a similar role for his club. The versatility Ebobisse showed in 2018, when his holdup play and distribution in front of defenses proved so valuable, took on a different look the next year, when his flexibility helped secure his place on the field.
This year, there will be more competition for playing time. Jarek Niezgoda has been brought in from Poland to supply additional goalscoring. Felipe Mora has also been added to the forward ranks, with the Chilean set to spend the year on loan from his club in Mexico. Even in the wide positions, Portland has added talent, with Yimmi Chara brought in to start at right wing. Ebobisse may have won fights for playing time in both 2018 and 2019, but in 2020, those fights look more difficult.
Perhaps that’s where Ebobisse’s off-field contributions come in. As evident in how he’s approached Black History Month, Ebobisse’s intent on using his sporting profile for social good. Additionally, Ebobisse’s off-field impact throughout the Timbers’ culture is becoming more pronounced, with his approach serving as a model to others being asked to fight through.
"Jebo is a talented player who has developed into a great example for other young players," head coach Giovanni Savarese said, via the Timbers’ announcement. “His versatility at the point of attack will be a strength and his abilities complement our attacking group this year. I am very pleased that Jebo will continue to be a part of the Portland Timbers."
It took an offseason to get to this point, and in the world of sports, things change too often to make assumptions. But at this moment, after months where messages were mixed, there’s no doubt how both sides want to move forward. Ebobisse has made his commitment to Portland, as well the next challenges he’ll be handed. And Portland, while still committed to those challenges, wants Ebobisse to be part of its future.