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Redeeming The One That Got Away: The Inside Story of the Timbers’ Pursuit of Lucas Melano

The Timbers’ signing of Lucas Melano has been two years, and one that got away, in the making.

Courtesy Club Atlético Lanús

On Friday morning the Portland Timbers announced that they have signed Lucas Melano to a designated-player contract.

The signing, which has been heavily rumored for more than a week, is finally complete, as the Timbers will bring Melano to the Rose City in exchange, as reported by Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, for a $5 million transfer fee. And as a result of the club-record purchase that broke the previous high by more than $1 million, the Timbers will hold a full stake in Melano’s rights.

But what has been rumored for a little over a week has been a work in progress for much, much longer. And the process that the Timbers will bring to a conclusion on Friday by announcing that they've signed their man has been influenced along the way by the one that got away.

One That Got Away

Late-2012 and early-2013 were transformational for the Timbers.

After the firing of John Spencer in the summer of 2012, Merritt Paulson, Gavin Wilkinson, and the newly hired Caleb Porter set out to rebuild a Timbers side that had lost its way in its second MLS season. In addition to the acquisition of Donovan Ricketts on August 7, 2012, Porter and Wilkinson orchestrated an offseason haul included Will Johnson and Diego Valeri. By the end of 2013, Ricketts, Johnson, and Valeri would be MLS Best XI selections that, together with with a healthy handful of complimentary offseason acquisitions and a batch of holdovers from 2012, took the Timbers from second-to-last in the Western Conference to a first-place finish and berth into CONCACAF Champions League.

By any measure, then, the end of the 2012 season and the offseason leading into the 2013 campaign were stunningly successful for the Timbers. And, even though there have still been some periods during which the team has struggled, the Timbers have been a significantly improved club since 2013.

But, for all its success, the Timbers' 2013 wheeling and dealing had one significant near miss; a signing that could have made Valeri - the 2013 MLS Newcomer of the Year - perhaps the Timbers' second best acquisition of the breakout season: Darío Benedetto.

The one that got away.

At the time, Benedetto was playing for Arsenal de Sarandí in Buenos Aires. During his time at Arsenal between 2008 and 2013, the Argentine forward scored 9 goals in 50 total appearances for Los del Viaducto.

But within that period, Benedetto had his share of ups and downs: a largely unsuccessful loan spell with Defensa y Justicia in the Primera División and a much more prolific goalscoring spring of 2012 with second-division Gimnasia y Esgrima de Jujuy. Back at Arsenal the following fall, however, the then-22-year-old Benedetto registered 7 goals in 28 appearances and 12 starts during the 2012-13 campaign.

On the whole, by the summer of Benedetto had established himself as a promising talent that hadn't yet shown overwhelming goalscoring prowess in top-flight football.

Back in Portland, however, the Timbers had identified their 2013 summer target. Adding a talent like Benedetto to a team with a stingy defense and a long unbeaten streak, Porter, Wilkinson, and Paulson thought, could give Timbers fans something special come the fall if Benedetto's raw talent translated to the scoresheet in MLS.

The Timbers, however, weren't the only ones that thought highly of the 23-year-old Argentine striker. And as the bidding process for Benedetto entered its late stages, it became apparent to the Timbers that Mexico's nouveau riche Club Tijuana was not going to be outbid by Portland.

And so the Timbers gave up their pursuit of Benedetto.

His record since then speaks for itself: 21 goals in 43 appearances for Xolos, a December 2014 transfer to Liga MX powerhouse Club América, and the 2015 CONCACAF Champions League Golden Ball and Golden Boot.

The one that got away.

Another Target

But the Timbers had another target in the summer of 2013. Along with Benedetto, the Timbers pursued an even younger Argentine striker at Primera División side Club Atlético Belgrano. Between the Torneo Inicial of 2012 and Torneo Final of the spring of 2013, the Timbers' then-20-year-old target registered 5 goals and 3 assists in 37 appearances and 29 starts while playing largely on the wing for the Córdoba side.

That target's name was Lucas Santiago Melano.

But he, too, got away when manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Club Atlético Lanús purchased Melano on July 23, 2013; just 22 days after the Timbers lost Benedetto to Tijuana.

Perhaps coincidentally, just two weeks later on August 6, 2013, the Timbers finalized their purchase of Valeri from Lanús.

But the Timbers weren't ready to give up on Melano. Although Lanús had the player at the time, Wilkinson and Porter agreed the young striker was worth keeping a close eye on. Accordingly, among the database of international players that the Timbers track, Porter and Wilkinson kept Melano listed as a high-priority target despite their Timbers’ unsuccessful bid to bring him to the Rose City.

With Melano never off their radar, the Timbers brass jumped in 2015 when Melano once again became available. And after scouting Melano's evolution from a winger into a lone striker in Scholetto's setup at Lanús, taking in a handful of Melano's games in person, and putting together statistical comparisons with top-level MLS strikers, the Timbers had amassed a cache of information about the player that Melano had become by 2015.

But, in addition to comparing Melano's tendencies to current MLS strikers, the Timbers had an excellent, albeit bittersweet point of reference from which to gauge Melano's most recent Primera División season: Benedetto.

The one that got away.

Of course, any statistical analysis of a forward prospect begins with the player's goalscoring record. But the number of goals that a player has scored is an imperfect measure of the player's quality, especially when dealing with a young striker who has played in a system that has moved him between different roles. Benedetto's relatively modest Argentine goalscoring resume at the time of his transfer to Tijuana is proof enough of this point.

So the Timbers dug deeper into Melano’s statistical profile. Compared to Benedetto's final Primera División campaign, Melano's 2014-15 season yielded a modestly lower shot-production rate, but a somewhat greater shot-production rate in the box where the expected-goal value of a shot is higher. Stylistically, Melano was considerably more likely to take players on with the ball at his feet and to be successful in those dribbles than Benedetto, likely as a result of Melano's experience on the wing. Finally, although over the past year Melano has largely played alone up top in a fairly direct system at Lanús, Melano had a lower percentage of long passes than Benedetto, which suggests that Melano likes to link up even when playing by himself up top doesn't lend itself to a lot of easy opportunities to do so.

As for the eyeball test, it doesn’t take long to notice some of Melano's primary physical attributes, including his size (6'1") and pace (blistering). From this profile, the Timbers saw a player in Melano who can play any of the four primary attacking positions in Porter's system and who, if Benedetto is any indication, may also be poised to blossom into an elite goalscoring threat.

That last point, however, is notoriously fickle. And although a player's statistical and scouting profile can be a useful tool to gauge whether the player has the potential to break out, it is by no means the shibboleth of a can't-miss signing.

Competition and Commitment

Based on everything they'd seen of Melano and with the Benedetto experience behind them but not forgotten, the Timbers reached the conclusion that the promise that Melano presents was worth the placement of a considerable bet on a young player who had yet to show goalscoring dominance.

Quite simply, the Timbers decided Melano is the man to redeem the one that got away.

But if the Timbers had any doubts about the conclusion they reached with regard to Melano, those were quickly put to rest when the front office on Morrison Street realized that top-flight clubs from Spain, Mexico, Germany, and Italy had joined in the pursuit of Melano. Of those in the bidding, Celta de Vigo in Spain's La Liga outwardly appeared to be the most serious by reportedly offering €5 million for Melano, with Santos Laguna and Toluca of Liga MX not far behind, and a reported late bid from Villarreal in La Liga making for a nerve-wracking final few days to the transfer process.

The Timbers were serious players in the Melano sweepstakes from the start, however, in no small part because Portland's previous dealings with Lanús lent credibility to the Timbers' bid for Melano. Although Melano's presence at Lanús was not the driving force behind the Timbers' interest (they were interested in Melano before he went to Lanús, after all), the starting point of trust between Lanús and the Timbers was undeniably helpful in a transfer process in which trust between suitor and seller is often in short supply.

And with Benedetto's performance in CONCACAF Champions League serving as a fresh reminder of the missed opportunity in the summer of 2013, Wilkinson, Porter, and Paulson were determined not to let Melano land anywhere but the Rose City.

On Friday the Timbers announced they have their man. And in doing so, they brought to a conclusion a process of scouting, recruitment, and negotiation that spanned more than two years.

Whether Melano will boom or bust, and ultimately whether the Timbers are correct that Melano has the qualities to become a star, however, can only be determined by his performance over the course of the next months and years in the Rose City. No signing is a sure thing, especially when dealing with young, largely unproven talent.

Benedetto, as we now know, would have been an immense success in MLS despite having a less-than-dominant goalscoring resume in 2013. But others coming to MLS with a similar resume have fallen short. In Melano, however, the Timbers feel they've found another attacking talent that is capable of becoming a dominant force in Porter's attack.

And by completing the transfer of Melano on Friday, for better or for worse the Timbers can rest assured of one thing: Melano won't be another one that got away.