On Thursday the Portland Timbers announced they have signed Rennico Clarke and Victor Arboleda, a pair of T2 products, to first-team contracts. Together with homegrown player Marco Farfan, Arboleda and Clarke make three 2016 T2 contributors now signed to the first team. But more than just an infusion of young talent into the first team, the signings of Arboleda and Clarke represent the first wave of a new development era in Portland.
Clarke came to Portland in 2015 from Harbor View FC in Jamaica at the age of 19 and very quickly worked his way into the T2 lineup, starting 14 games before tearing his ACL against the Austin Aztex in August. Clarke, who didn’t play soccer until the age of 15, progressed considerably throughout 2015 and before his injury was said to be in consideration for a first-team spot in 2016.
The towering Jamaican centerback returned to T2 in June 2016 and, after a couple months of a re-adjustment period, was one of the central pieces that helped T2 to a five-game win streak to finish the season, a period during with the second team conceded only three goals.
Arboldea came to T2 last spring as the final — and most decorated — piece in a winter in which the Timbers assembled a stable of under-20 talent in the second team. Arboleda, who just turned 20 on New Year’s Day, came to Portland on the heels of a yearlong contract dispute with his previous club, Deportivo Cali, that relegated the then-18-year-old Arboleda to the bench. Before his relationship with the Azucareros soured, however, Arboleda was seen as an up-and-coming winger and forward in Cali’s system, making eight appearances with the first team (six in Categoria Primera A, Colombia’s top flight), scoring two goals including one in the league.
Arboleda immediately made an impact at T2, with his pace causing problems on the right wing. Throughout the spring and early summer, however, Arboleda struggled to work into the T2 system, and an early hamstring injury further delayed his acclimation. But by the end of the season Arboleda looked considerably more comfortable on the right wing with Timbers academic Blake Bodily manning the left side and midseason acquisition Augustine Williams up top. Arboleda’s acclimation had come far enough by October that he earned a cameo with the first team in its final CONCACAF Champions League matchup with Deportivo Saprissa.
Marco Farfan’s signing as the first homegrown player to make the first team from the Timbers Academy was seen by many as a sign of the Timbers’ weakness in their youth-development system. And, although the Academy appears to finally be picking up steam under Larry Sunderland, it’s easy to argue with the Timbers’ track record of bringing youth talent up through the system.
In many respects the Timbers’ first few years in MLS were lost in terms of youth development; the club failed to get the Academy up and running in a way in which it started generating any meaningful amount of MLS-level talent and it had no effective mechanism of growing post-Academy, but pre-MLS talent.
But starting in 2015 with the establishment of T2, the Timbers looked to bring youth from abroad to Portland to supplement the to-date only trickling pipeline of talent feeding the first team. Although the Timbers had dabbled in signing young, not-yet-ripe foreign talent before (Sebastian Rincon and Alvas Powell come to mind), without T2 there was not any consistent source of competitive playing time for such talent and there was not any way to keep them on the farm without sacrificing a first-team roster spot.
With the establishment of T2, however, the Timbers have not only been able to attract such talent, they now have a place to incubate it. And, with the signing of Clarke and Arboleda, it appears the Timbers are starting to see dividends.
Both Clarke and Arboleda fit into the Timbers’ depth chart in spots in which they could viably see playing time in their first season in MLS. Whether they’ll succeed at the first-team level, of course, remains to be seen, as developing young players remains far from a certain proposition. And the Timbers will have to ensure players like Arboleda and Clarke get sufficient first-team minutes going forward to progress.
But it’s indisputable now that the Timbers’ pipeline is producing a mixture of homegrown and imported young talent, and that the pipeline is starting to feed the first-team depth chart.
Perhaps more encouragingly, it doesn’t appear the flow of talent is going to be cut off anytime soon. With another step forward Dylan Damraoui (the 19-year-old Belgian whose debut season with T2 was beset by injuries but nonetheless promising) and Augustine Williams (who scored 3 goals for T2 in barely more than 800 minutes of action at the age of 19) could well follow in the footsteps of Clarke and Arboleda.
On the homegrown side, Bodily is taking a gap year before matriculating to the University of Washington to play 2017 with T2 and, potentially, earn himself a homegrown player contract. And Academy alumnus and current prolific Stanford striker Foster Langsdorf could also be in line to sign with the Timbers within the next year.
Even if the Timbers haven’t done so by dipping into a deep pool of local talent like FC Dallas or LA Galaxy, the Timbers are now actively developing young talent and delivering it to the first team. To be sure, the Timbers Academy remains a work in progress and, in time, could obviate the need to bring in as much young talent from overseas.
The Timbers, however, aren’t yet at that point, and so, in order to get their system producing at the level it needs to in order to stay competitive in MLS, the Timbers need to look overseas to feed their youth-development machine. If the signings of Arboleda and Clarke are any indication, they’re starting to be successful in doing just that.
As a result the Timbers’ once-fallow farm is starting to sprout some saplings. If some of those saplings can turn into full-fledged Timbers, the signings of Clarke and Arboleda will end up being the beginning of a welcome new era.