One of the biggest question hovering over the Portland Timbers’ offseason was answered this morning when the team announcing the permanent signing of Felipe Mora. Having spent last season on loan with the Timbers, the 27-year-old Chilean international was originally set to return to Pumas UNAM in Mexico. With today’s announcement, Pumas has a transfer fee for their former attacker, and the Timbers have Mora back on a new, multi-year deal.
“Having Felipe on loan in 2020 provided an invaluable extended scouting opportunity and reinforced the fact that he is a high quality player with tremendous values who will continue to help the Timbers win,” Gavin Wilkinson, the team’s general manager, said in the announcement. Perhaps as important as that backstory was another reality of the transfer. “Felipe pushed for the chance to stay in Portland,” Wilkinson revealed, “which made it possible to acquire him at a favorable transfer fee. We are fortunate and excited to add a proven player in Felipe to an already tremendous group of attacking players.”
Keeping that group of attackers intact may be the biggest takeaway from today’s news. But before talking about that, let’s look at how the Timbers got to this point, where a one-year solution became a new home for Mora.
How We Got Here
When Mora’s loan began last January, all involved expected his time in Portland to be relatively short. But over the course of 2020, the connection with his new team proved stronger than expected. When the season ended, both Portland and the player wanted to make the deal permanent.
He’d scored seven goals and added two assists in 1,204 minutes (19 appearances; 13 starts), numbers that placed him among the Timbers’ most productive. He was part of a quartet of players who vied for the club lead in goals – players who, when complemented by the wingers and midfielders who helped created opportunities, formed perhaps the deepest attack in Major League Soccer.
|Portland goals+assists/90 leaders, 2020 MLS regular season|
|* - primary (first) assists only|
All of those pieces were rarely healthy at the same time, but when they were, Portland’s attacking depth became the team’s biggest competitive advantage. It came through in outbursts against San Jose (six goals on Sept. 19), the Galaxy (six goals on Oct. 7), and Real Salt Lake (four goals on August 29). It also helped as Niezgoda missed the season’s start, Mora missed the summer MLS Is Back Tournament, and more injuries meant Blanco and Niezgoda would miss the final months of the season. While Portland finished 2020 with MLS’s second-most prolific attack, the depth of that attack was pushed to its limits.
Within that depth, Mora was more than just an additional option. Stylistically, he was unique. While Ebobisse, as a striker, allowed the Timbers to play more directly and Niezgoda stressed backlines with his speed in running in channels, Mora’s tendencies often saw him dropping away from the defense to connect play, peel off once he’d found teammates surging in transition, then occupy spaces that forced defensives to account for his presence away from the ball. When they failed to do so, Mora made sure to test the other team’s goal, leading the Timbers last season with 17 shots on target.
Off the field, Mora’s fit with the team was just as strong. Quiet and even-tempered, Mora was an easy fit within a Timbers culture that is defined by the team’s veteran players. Be it early in his stay when he claimed early minutes or during a summer stretch where an injury kept him from the field, Mora’s approach was consistent, so much that he was able to reclaim playing time when the regular season resumed. By then, Mora had become comfortable with his place among the team’s attacking options, explaining to the media how Portland’s three main forward options could feed off each other.
“In terms of the players, we've gotten to know each others' movements well,” Mora said in early October, “and thankfully, that's resulting in goals from me that can help the team. But also, that's a credit to the help I'm getting from [my teammates], because without that, I wouldn't be able to score these goals.”
All along, Mora’s future seemed to be back in Mexico, where his rights were still held by Pumas. But after 2020’s success, both Mora and the Timbers were determined to prolong their relationship. Now, with a transfer fee paid and a new contract in place, both player and club can extend their fit into a second season, and more.
Why This Matters (for 2021)
There are two ways Mora’s signing should have a major impact on 2021: where he fits among the team’s possible, early-season absences; and where he fits when the team is at full strength. Unfortunately for Portland, full strength might not come until well into the season, though when it comes to Major League Soccer, well into the season is when you need your team healthiest most.
Before then, the Timbers will likely be without Niezgoda, whose recovery from a late-2020 ACL tear isn’t expected to be completed until well into the season. Before that, Blanco (recovering from his own ACL tear) should be back, though with any major injury, it’s best not to make assumptions about timelines. Everybody’s injury and process are different, and while the Timbers are hopeful to have Blanco back early in the 2021 season, nothing is guaranteed until he returns.
Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer-Portland Timbers
There’s also the potential to lose Ebobisse in the middle of the season. With the United States potentially qualifying for the rescheduled Olympics, both Ebobisse and Williamson could spend part of their summer in Japan. Should that happen, Portland’s depth at striker will be especially important, with Niezgoda not guaranteed to return by the time the Tokyo Games start.
By year’s end, though, the Timbers could have all of Ebobisse, Mora and Niezgoda available. As well as Blanco. As well as players like Yimmi Chará and Diego Valeri. The depth that became Portland’s biggest advantage in 2020 could be in place again next fall, and though there are other places the team needs to improve, the attacking options at head coach Giovanni Savarese’s disposal mean goal scoring should again be a virtue.
|Team goals/game leaders, 2020 MLS regular season|
|Los Angeles FC||22||47||2.14|
|Sporting Kansas City||21||38||1.81|
Why This Matters (Beyond)
Mora’s new contract means that, for the foreseeable future, the Timbers’ attacking depth is relatively locked in. Major League Soccer may not disclose every detail of their players’ contracts, but with all of the Timbers’ main attackers having signed new contracts over the last 15 months, it’s reasonable to assume there’ll be some stability to this group.
Or, security might be a better word. After all, this is world soccer, and when you consider the performance and ages of the Timbers’ forwards, you also have to consider their futures:
|Team goals/game leaders, 2020 MLS regular season|
|* - age as of January 19, 2021; ** - career MLS regular-season appearances|
As we’re seeing at the moment with the Timbers’ main rivals, Major League Soccer isn’t immune to the world market. On the contrary, more and more often, the league seems intent on playing a significant part. This week, it’s the Sounders losing a key player. At some point soon, it might be the Timbers’ turn.
Should that happen, the team’s now positioned to withstand a loss. Not only do the Timbers have their depth, but with contracts that give both the team and players security, there are fewer scenarios to compromise the team. If one forward leaves, the Timbers have the ability to be patient finding a replacement, secure in the knowledge they still have all positions covered.
That coverage also means the team can focus on its main needs, which team president Gavin Wilkinson has defined at depth in defense. The team needs cover at fullback, and it wants a young option in central defense. Now, with the attacking positions taken care of, Portland can use the rest of its 2020 resources on those concerns.
Until those concerns are addressed, Portland still has work to do. But they’ll go about that work knowing one of the offseason’s biggest questions has been answered - and answered in a way both the player and team wanted.