ORLANDO, Fla. — The Portland Timbers’ winter acquisition of Jaroslaw Niezgoda was about more than upgrading a position. When a Major League Soccer team expends a Designated Player spot – one of their scarce opportunities to transcend a squad’s salary restrictions – they don’t do so for mere depth. Signed while leading Poland’s top league in scoring, the 25-year-old Niezgoda was expected to compete for a starting spot, at the minimum.
After last Thursday’s performance, that competition is officially on. Seven minutes into his first start in MLS against Los Angeles FC in the MLS is Back Tournament, Niezgoda was put into space in front of LAFC goalkeeper Pablo Sisniega. From just inside the penalty area, Portland’s newest DP slotted home a left-footed finish and celebrated as if his first MLS goal was an obligation, not an accomplishment.
“If I have to say something about the last game,” Niezgoda shared on Sunday, “the tempo was very good, but there were a lot of free spaces, empty spaces behind defenders.” For him, the goal was part of his job. He’s supposed to score goals in those moments.
We’ll get back to Niezgoda’s thoughts on his new league at another time. Or maybe somebody else will write about it. The topic was reoccurring during his first English-language interview. For now, let’s stay with Portland’s striker competition.
In March, Chilean forward Felipe Mora, a player on loan from Mexico’s Cruz Azul, started the team’s two regularly scheduled games. Jeremy Ebobisse, a player who has made steady progress up the team’s depth chart over three-plus professional seasons, was a substitute in each. Niezgoda was still recovering from a heart ablation procedure at this time, leaving the full race for the Timbers’ striker position idling on pit row.
That’s where the race stayed through the coronavirus hiatus, with players isolated in home training for over two months, as well as in the opening days of the tournament. Mora was suffering with a leg injury upon arrival in Orlando. Now, however, all three strikers are available, and while squad rotation may have been a factor in last Thursday’s choice – Niezgoda starting over Ebobisse, who’d been selected for Portland’s first two MLS Is Back games – the beginning of the tournament’s Knockout Round provides a reset with the Timbers facing FC Cincinnati in the Round of 16 on Tuesday (7:30pm, ESPN). Who will be the Timbers’ starter when the margin becomes win or go home?
“At the moment, Jebo is doing very well,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said on Sunday, referring to Ebobisse by his nickname. “Niezgoda showed when he came in that he is capable of starting, as well. Mora is doing very, very well in practice. So, hard decisions to make.”
From a fan’s perspective, games are all the evidence available. Sports teams set it up this way. Players and coaches talk about what happens in practice, meetings, or treatment and therapy sessions, but the information goes through a filter. Savarese, for example, tends to take a positive view of players and is highly unlikely to say, “that player’s training has been terrible.” Hearsay has to be corroborated, and almost always, that corroboration comes through performance on the field, in matches, in front of other observers.
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To those hoping to provide scrutiny, it makes reality uncomfortable. Ninety minutes is only part of a larger, unseen sample that contributes to coaches’ decisions, even if it is the most important part. How players performed within the week’s training matters, with how they’ve adapted to new demands hinting at how they might perform against a week’s new opponent. Wear and tear from activity accumulates, changing a player’s physical profile. All these things contribute to a coaching staff’s decisions.
On a week-by-week basis, so do the players’ styles. How you trouble an opponent is impacted by each players’ strengths. Does the short, in-box darting of Mora’s Sergio Agüero-lite style make the most sense against the coming opponent? Or will Niezgoda’s one-touch finishes and ability to stretch defenses in a Robin Van Persie-esque break the backline? Other times, Jeremy Ebobisse’s version of Edison Cavani’s physicality and Alexandre Lacazette’s movement may offer the best approach.
“It’s competition, it’s performance,” Savarese said, when asked what factors go into selecting one player over another. “It’s what we see, what we analyze with the teams that we’re playing against and what we think the plan will be against that team.
“All of that plays a part in the plan, and the good thing is that we have a lot of players that are battling in practice. They want to show, they want to prove, they want to play. It’s been very positive.”
This is the scenario the Timbers envisioned when they brought Niezgoda and Mora in this offseason, albeit the best-case version of that vision. The team wanted depth, it wanted options, but it also wanted to keep raising the bar for Ebobisse. Not only has all that happened but each player has responded to the dynamic in their own way. Mora claimed the starting job coming out of training camp. Ebobisse came out of the coronavirus hiatus ready to claim more time. Now Niezgoda is challenging for more minutes. This is how the depth chart was supposed to work.
For the first time this year, the striker competition is truly on. This is the full version of it. And just as the last five months have challenged each striker to reach new levels, so might the next five months bring new responses out of Ebobisse, Mora, and Niezgoda.