20210112 mabiala pregame
Craig Mitchelldyer-Portland Timbers

Why it matters: Retaining Larrys Mabiala was key to Portland's offseason

Larrys Mabiala’s contract expired at the end of Major League Soccer’s 2020 season, but based on how the Portland Timbers navigated their offseason, re-signing their most experienced defender was a top priority. The team’s President of Soccer, Gavin Wilkinson, hinted as much in his end-of-season press conference, and with no other central defenders being linked to the Timbers, Mabiala’s return appeared to be Plan A for Portland.

Today, Plan A came to fruition, with the Timbers announcing Mabiala’s new, multi-year deal.

“I am very happy to renew my contract here with the Portland Timbers and it wouldn’t be possible without my family,” Mabiala said in the team’s announcement. “I’m so blessed to extend my journey with such an incredible organization from top to bottom …”

How We Got Here

Between Liam Ridgewell and Dario Zuparic, Mabiala has played next to valuable center backs in Portland, but over the three-and-a-half years he’s been in the Rose City, he’s likely been the Timbers’ most valuable defender.

When healthy, Mabiala has been a given in the starting lineup, making 83 regular-season appearances (81 starts) while scoring eight goals - a prolific amount for a central defender. In each of his MLS seasons, the Timbers have made the postseason, reaching MLS Cup in 2018 and claiming the MLS Is Back Tournament title last summer in Orlando, Florida.

Larrys Mabiala Portland Timbers

Photo: Matthew Stith-MLS/adidas Creators Network

That history, along with the current state of Portland’s depth chart, meant Mabiala’s return was crucial, and while it’s true the team’s goal prevention took a small (perhaps statistically insignificant) step back last season — going from 1.44 goals allowed per game in 2019 to 1.52 in 2020 — the heights the Mabiala-Zuparic pairing reached during MLS Is Back spoke to the defense’s best-case scenario.

“Larrys is a quality, proven player in MLS and a leader in the locker room who provides valuable experience and knowledge of the league,” Wilkinson said in his team’s announcement.  “We are thrilled that Larrys and his family will continue to call Portland home.”

Why This Matters (For 2021)

Here’s the reality of that Timbers’ depth chart: If for whatever reason Mabiala didn’t come back, the team would have Zuparic, Bill Tuiloma and Zac McGraw as center-back options. Not only is that not enough in terms of sheer numbers, but when it comes to established starters, only Zuparic is the only one who has consistently held down the center-back position.

Defender Games Played* Minutes Played*
Mabiala, Larrys 83 7119
Tuiloma, Bill 50 3456
Zuparic, Dario 19 1611
McGraw, Zac 0 0
* - MLS regular-season totals

There are also aspects that go beyond games started and depth charts – aspects Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese alluded to in the Timbers’ announcement.

“We feel very excited that Larrys will continue to be part of the Portland Timbers family,” Savarese said. “He is a veteran defender who is a strong leader on and off the field. His quality as a player will continue to contribute to the Timbers’ success.”

The Timbers don’t lack for strong personalities in their locker room, but Mabiala provides a specific kind of leadership. When, over the course of the last few seasons, the team struggled, Mabiala was the team’s barometer. If one or two games didn't go Portland’s way, he was patient; slow to panic. But when bad habits started to set in or the team sought excuses, Mabiala was quick to say the obvious. The team had to take responsibility for their results.

Portland has a few other players who serve that role, but as much as anybody, Mabiala is a pulse. When he’s steady and calm when it fits the occasion: when it is too soon to get too high, or too low. But when it’s time to step up, like in a tournament final …

… or it’s time to hold the group accountable, Mabiala is among the first to do so.

Why This Matters (Beyond)

With Mabiala’s contract settled, Portland brings back their locker room’s most important defender, but they also preserve a deliberately-sought balance in the center-back corps. To see part of that balance, consider the age and experience of the four players under contract at that position.

Mabiala is 33, the team’s most experienced defender, and has become a leader within the group. His time in MLS complements Zuparic, who is coming off his first season in North America. At 28, Zuparic helps split the difference between Mabiala and Tuiloma (25), who can not only step in at center back but also provides value in midfield and at fullback. Then, rounding out the group, the 23-year-old McGraw continues his development.

Larrys Mabiala Portland Timbers

Photo: Matthew Stith-MLS/adidas Creators Network

There’s a succession that’s endemic there, one that allows Mabiala and Zuparic to continue as projected starters while still leaving minutes for Tuiloma. As Mabiala continues in Portland, he can also continue bringing the rest of the group along, be it through his level in training and in games or the more explicit guidance he gives to his teammates.

At least, that appears to be the theory of the group. And until there are games to play, that’s all any group can go on: the theory. That, and its track record. Coming off 2020, there’s room for that group to improve, but between MLS Is Back and other data points from the last three years, there’s reason to think the best parts of their track record can be harnessed for something more. There’s reason to believe the success Portland had in the middle of 2020 can lead to more in 2021.

What’s Next

Going back to Wilkinson’s postseason press conference, the Timbers have made it clear that acquiring a young center back is among the team’s offseason goals. When you look at the balance of their center-back depth chart, that makes sense. Not only does the team need more players at that position, but across the spectrum of ages they currently have, there’s room to add a player who still has room to develop.

In that light, Mabiala’s re-signing becomes even more important. There is a value to standards that are set and enforced on a day-to-day basis – that set a bar for a team’s improvement. Coaching staffs play a huge part in that, but the process becomes easier when players can set an example. You need people who, during those moments when coaches aren’t around, reinforce what the team should be about.

Mabiala is that guy; or, at least, he’s one of them. And in terms of the backline, he’s the most prominent one. That, in addition to what he brings on gamedays, is why Wilkinson and Savarese are so happy with his return. That is why Mabiala needed to stay in Portland.


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