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Shades of Gray: Lucas Melano’s Legacy in Portland

Match Gallery: Portland Tim Roscoe Myrick

His arrival came with great fanfare.

His departure to Club Atletico Belgrano, on the other hand, came with something more akin to relief.

Lucas Melano’s time in Portland has likely come to an end, as on Monday Club Atletico Belgrano announced the enigmatic winger will be returning to his hometown club in Córdoba on loan with an option to buy.

But even if Melano will no longer take the field for the Timbers, his legacy is one that will stay in Portland for some time. And by virtue of the nature of his coming, his roller-coaster tenure in the Rose City, and his ultimate departure, Melano’s legacy in Portland is far from simple.

Brought in for a club-record $5 million transfer fee from Club Atletico Lanus in Argentina, Melano was the Timbers’ first real swing at a game-changing designated player that would not only produce at MLS-elite levels for the Timbers, but could have also fetched the Timbers a sell-on payday if his talent flourished into production in the Rose City.

By and large, however, it didn’t.

Melano’s five goals and nine assists in 50 appearances with the Timbers fell well, well short of expectations. And although Melano at times showed the extraordinary talent that justified his transfer fee, those flashes were separated by weeks or, at times, months of ineffectiveness.

Particularly frustrating was Melano’s failure to take a step forward in 2016, when the Timbers relied heavily on Luca to balance an attack that had previously been largely reliant on Fanendo Adi and Diego Valeri. But to the extent there was hope based on his play in 2015 that Melano would break out in his sophomore season in MLS, that hope was crushed after a 2016 season that can only be described as a disaster for Melano.

By these measures Melano didn’t come close to living up to his transfer fee. And, as such, Timbers fans could understandably rue his signing.

Even still, shortly after Melano arrived the Timbers went on their run to MLS Cup. During that run it was Melano’s goal that sealed the Western Conference crown and the Argentine’s assist that gave the Timbers their winning margin in the Cup Final.

Although Melano’s play wasn’t perfect during the Timbers’ historic fall of ’15, it was important. So much so that given the razor-thin margins in MLS, without Melano it’s unlikely the Timbers would have won MLS Cup.

And by that measure his transfer was worth every penny.

So Melano’s legacy in Portland is a complicated one. He was as unquestionably talented as he was disappointing. He was as critical in 2015 as he was a hindrance in 2016.

And although it’s easy in hindsight to question the Timbers’ assessment of Melano’s potential, at the time the Timbers brought Melano in Celta de Vigo, Santos Laguna, and Villarreal (among others) shared in Portland’s conclusion that Melano was a talent worthy of a considerable investment.

But in light of the limited number of designated players an MLS team can carry, using a DP spot on a relatively unproven player like Melano represents considerable risk. Although attracting talented young players is undoubtedly good for MLS in its effort to become the best league in the western hemisphere and to shed its image as a retirement league, taking risks like Melano with a DP spot may not be wise for MLS clubs in light of the growing competitive pressure on maximizing production from designated players.

Even if the Melano deal represents a lesson for the Timbers in the risk they can afford to take with a DP spot, it shouldn’t be a deterrent to taking more measured risks in the future. Every deal as big as Melano’s carries some degree of danger that it ultimately will not work out. And increasingly those sorts of deals are becoming vital to being competitive in MLS.

So even if Melano’s performance was a disappointment, the signing showed the Timbers have the type of organizational ambition that will be necessary to continue to compete in a growing league.

At the end of the day, to call Melano a total loss would be incorrect. Regardless of what the Timbers ultimately receive for Melano in return, their investment in the Belgrano product bought them an important piece of a championship team, even if his overall production never lived up to expectations.

So the book on Melano’s spell in Portland can't be written in black-and-white terms. Although it’s easy to look at Melano’s individual accomplishments in Portland and condemn the Argentine’s signing as a failure, such an assessment ignores the winger’s significant contribution to the Timbers’ greatest achievement in club history. But to call him a success would overlook Melano’s failure to produce at a designated-player level and justify his transfer fee.

Melano’s legacy in Portland, therefore, must very much be viewed in shades of gray.