The Timbers 2 youth movement continues, and on Thursday the second team added perhaps its most intriguing piece yet to cap off an offseason in which the focus has been bringing young, talented international players to Portland and into the club. Thursday morning, T2 signed 19-year-old Colombian forward Victor Manuel Arboleda from Colombian first-division side Deportivo Cali.
Arboleda joins a Timbers 2 team that has been bolstered this winter with young talent having youth-international experience, including Nigerian defensive midfielder Akinjide Idowu, Cameroonian forward and Barcelona Academy alumnus Alexis Meva, and Belgian youth international and central midfielder Dylan Damraoui. These newcomers join second-year Jamaican centerback Rennico Clarke, whose promising first season with T2 ended with an ACL tear, but who appears to be a candidate to lay claim to a first-team spot before the 2017 season.
Together the group of T2 youngsters constitute a high-upside collection of young, international talent on the Timbers' USL side that has changed the landscape of the Timbers' development system and provided hope that the first team can soon benefit from the club's newfound developmental depth.
The movement to fill the system with young, international talent comes on the heels of the success that the Timbers have had developing international players at the professional level. Although Alvas Powell was not the Timbers' first foray into the young international market (José Valencia and Sebastián Rincón came along in 2012), he has been the club's most successful developmental project. And with the added structure of T2, the Timbers are in a much better position to bring 18-to-20 year-old players into the club and see first-team benefits down the line.
Like Meva, Idowu, and Damraoui, Arboleda has youth-international experience on his resume, having appeared for Colombia's U-17 team. Unlike his fellow T2 youth internationals, however, the 19-year-old Arboleda also has meaningful club first-team experience in his background.
Signed to Deportivo Cali in 2014, the then-18-year-old Arboleda quickly worked his way into the first team as a winger and forward for the Verdiblancos. Arboleda appeared six times and scored once for the Deportivo Cali first team in Categoría Primera A and notched another goal for the senior side while appearing in two cup fixtures. As recently as last May, media in Colombia were discussing Arboleda as among the attacking up-and-comers in Colombia.
Just as his career appeared to be taking off and Arboleda looked set to cement his place in Deportivo Cali’s first team, a contract dispute (and not his play with the first team) with the Azucareros resulted in Arboleda being relegated to Deportivo Cali's U-20 side, where he has largely stayed since last May. With his contract running short, however, and with Arboleda being understandably unwilling to re-up with Cali, Timbers 2 has swooped in to make perhaps its most promising acquisition of the preseason.
Although he has been largely off the radar for almost a year - a fact that likely made him a viable target for T2 - Arboleda brings a combination of pace and technicality that could allow him to be an immediate difference-maker at the USL level.
As with all youth prospects, Arboleda’s ascendency into a first-team contributor is no sure thing. But although there will likely be some work to be done to get Arboleda into form after having a bit of a lost year, if he shows even flashes of the promise he displayed in his breakout spring of 2015, it is very possible the 19 year-old will not have to wait long to be called up into the first team.
The 2016 MLS Roster Rules permit a team to sign a player from the team's USL affiliate to up to four short-term (i.e., four-day) contracts in order for that player to play with the MLS side in U.S. Open Cup or CONCACAF Champions League games. Thus, although Arboleda is unlikely to sign on with the first team full-time in 2016, if he shows well with T2 Arboleda will likely get a taste of first-team action in non-league competition as 2016 progresses.
But until then Arboleda adds another piece of young, international talent signed to T2. Although he will face playing-time competition from Meva, Kharlton Belmar, Neco Brett, Michael Seaton, and Ben Polk, it seems unlikely that the Timbers brought Arboleda to Merlo Field to sit on the bench.
And if he can produce in his time on the field for T2 at anywhere near the level at which he performed as an 18-year-old for Deportivo Cali, the wait to see Arboleda in a first-team jersey may not be long.