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Getting the band back together: Lucas Melano

How the Argentine factors into the attacking equation

MLS: Portland Timbers at FC Dallas Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since a mid-July interview with Portland’s front office revealed that owner Merritt Paulson and general manager Gavin Wilkinson were considering bringing back a player, speculation has linked those rumors to both the Timbers’ 2015 championship wingback Jorge Villafana, and Portland’s most expensive purchase to date: Lucas Melano, the $5-million dollar man.

Well, surprise, because we got both of ’em. In this first article, we’ll examine Lucas Melano’s return to Providence Park.

Since his addition in the summer of 2015, the young, dynamic Argentine has generated what can only be described as a mixed reaction among the Timbers’ faithful. In a season and a half in the Rose City, Melano failed to live up to the hefty transfer fee that Portland shelled out to Lanus of Argentina’s Primera Division.

At the end of the 2016 campaign, Portland elected to loan out the struggling forward to his childhood club Belgrano, and from there he was moved to Estudiantes, where he spent the 2017–18 season. After his loan deal expired, Portland decided to bring back their prodigal son for a shot at redemption in the second half of the 2018 MLS season.

But where does Melano fit into the retooled roster? Since his departure, Portland has seen significant transitions, including a new coach, star striker, designated player, and tactical shape. What follows is an examination of the 25-year-old Argentine’s potential role and production back in a green and gold kit.

Contract Status

With MLS contract information not easily accessible, best available reports show that Melano is nearing the end of his four-year deal with the Timbers. The deal pays him just north of $1 million per year ($1.05M), with an option for a fifth year (which would extend until Dec 31, 2019).

So the first and most obvious question is: Why would Portland bring back their most expensive, underperforming player?

The answer is two-fold:
First, Melano is under contract already. Portland is responsible for his salary regardless, and with no plausible buy options, it makes much more sense for him to be on the roster and participating with the club than placed on free loan with another team. With the trade of Fanendo Adi and no immediate designated player replacement for the playoff push, Lucas can fill the third DP slot with no additional cost to the team.

Second, Portland is in a position where they’re looking for reliable attacking depth. Behind Samuel Armenteros, no clear No. 2 center-forward exists on the senior roster, and the starting right wing has gone through multiple iterations. Melano has an opportunity to seize a significant rotation spot and potentially work his way into a new contract. Let’s examine his main competition.

Lucas Melano vs Dairon Asprilla

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Portland Timbers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

At first glance, Melano and Asprilla have similar player profiles. Both players are younger (25 and 26 respectively), and both are capable of individual moments of brilliance, such as Asprilla’s golazo vs. FC Dallas in the first leg of the 2015 Western Conference finals:

Or Melano’s beautiful finishing touches to cap off the second leg in Dallas:

Both players offer a great deal of pace on the wings and a good work rate, but also suffer from ill-timed decision-making and a disappointing finishing rate. The question isn’t if these players satisfy an objective production standard, however, but which player has shown more to seize the playing time available.

Let’s examine the yearly statistics for both players regarding goal scoring:

In 2015, both players’ first year with Portland, Dairon Asprilla placed 22.2 percent of his shots on target, with a 3.7 percent finishing rate; Lucas Melano placed 37 percent of his shots on target, with an identical 3.7 percent finishing rate. Not great.

For the 2016 season, Asprilla was loaned out for the majority of games, so we’ll skip this and examine his performance for the next year. Melano placed 31.8 percent shots on target, and 6.8 percent hit the back of the net. He was loaned out on the conclusion of the 2016 campaign.

In 2017, Dairon took on a larger role with the team, but placed just 19.4 percent of shots on target and 5.5 percent in the goal. During the 2017–18 season for Estudiante, Melano placed 45 percent on target, and 12.5 percent of his shots resulted in goals.

And so far in the 2018 season, Dairon Asprilla has put 38.8 percent of shots on target and a 5.5 percent scoring rate. It should be noted, however, that his lone goal was a penalty, not an open play goal.

In the years both of these young players have been in Portland, Asprilla’s personal best is a pedestrian 5.5 percent finishing rate, while Melano has gone through ups and downs, but shown promise in his past year and a half away from MLS.

When it comes to creating opportunities for teammates, Melano has the edge as well: In 1.5 seasons in Portland, Lucas assisted on eight goals (which doesn’t include his game-winning assist in the 2015 MLS Cup Final). In 3.5 seasons, Asprilla has only had six assists.

All of this information comes with a grain of salt. Different competitions, a variety of roles and responsibilities, and tactics mean that the stats can’t be directly compared, but it does at least imply that Melano has the capability of supplanting Asprilla in the depth chart.

Same Team, Different Outlook

In the locker room and tactically, Melano seems to have a stronger opportunity in his second stint in the Rose City. Head coach Giovanni Savarese has a history of working well with young South American players, and Portland’s offense favors open space and hard attacking play on the counter, where players like Melano and Asprilla spend less time overthinking decisions and more time outrunning slower defenses.

Looking at the highlight package provided by PTFC’s official Twitter page above, you’ll see that Melano’s goals were scored in a poaching role within the 18 and 6 yard boxes. Those kinds of opportunities were hard to come by in 2015–16, with Fanendo Adi patrolling the top of the line and taking up a lot of space in the 18-yard box. Playing alongside Samuel Armenteros (who is more willing to come back for touches on the ball outside the box and hunt for space), or backing him up, may very well provide Melano with more scoring opportunities that suit his strengths.

With Melano’s second stint comes the possibility the Argentine will be better prepared. MLS is notorious for being a much more physical league to play in and, for a young player coming from South American leagues, it can take some time to adjust. With years to mature and strengthen, Melano will be more aware of the demand mentally and physically. He seems ready to embrace the challenge, as general manager Gavin Wilkinson mentioned in the team statement, “Despite numerous options in South America and Europe, Lucas showed a strong desire to return to Portland.”

As Lucas Melano gets into form on his return to Portland, there is a strong likelihood that he can seize a starting XI or 12th man role. He has the talent, and the team’s staff, style, and needs create a clear opportunity for redemption.