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Forest for The Trees: Do the Timbers need a left back?

Analyzing the reported Claudio Nicolas Bravo signing, and why maybe Portland doesn’t need to do it.

Portland Timbers v San Jose Earthquakes Photo by Lyndsay Radnedge/ISI Photos/Getty Images

So, it looks like the Portland Timbers are close to signing Claudio Bravo.

No, not that Claudio Bravo.

This one, Claudio Nicolas Bravo, is a 23-year-old Argentine left back who currently plays at Banfield in Argentina. If reports are to be believed (and all signs point to this happening), Bravo will join the Timbers next January.

On its surface, it’s got all the hallmarks of a prototypical Timbers signing: Young exciting South American? Check. Player with a relatively understated resume that could be destined for more? Check. From Argentina? Check.

A signing that doesn’t make a ton of sense that could bury a promising young player on the depth chart? Sigh, check.

With a solid veteran and steadily improving homegrown left back already on its roster, Portland’s rumored first signing for the 2021 season is one with questionable efficacy. It raises questions around if this move is the best use of the transfer budget, and whether it’s what’s best for the roster in the long term.

Before we pass final judgment, let’s take a look at the cases for and against the lesser-known Bravo.

The Case For

Based on the way Banfield utilized him, it appears that Claudio Nicolas Bravo was deployed as an attacking fullback, a trait which he shares with basically every fullback the Timbers have used since 2013. This could make him a potentially strong system fit for Giovanni Savarese’s squad, with his game naturally fitting into the current setup of the team.

The numbers reflect this potential to contribute. In roughly 1,500 minutes played in the 2018-19 season, Bravo averaged 3.65 interceptions and 3.76 tackles won per 90 minutes, according to Broadly, those numbers compare favorably to the current starter at left back for Portland, Jorge Villafaña. Through about 2,000 minutes in 2019, Villafaña averaged 1.16 interceptions and 1.53 tackles won per 90.

It’s a bit apples to oranges to compare (admittedly narrow) defensive statistics for two players who play on two different continents, but the point stands that Bravo is most likely not a scrub, and can put in a decent defensive shift.

And if we’re being honest, Bravo is presumably being brought in primarily for his propensity to get forward and contribute in the attacking phase. The numbers again back this up; he averaged 3.65 crosses per 90 in 2019. For reference, Villafaña averaged 3.10 for Portland in that same year. And while his defending numbers are dipping a bit in 2020, his attacking ones aren’t, as he is still averaging 3.43 crosses per 90.

And I mean, c’mon how can you not sign a guy with this groovin’ of a 2020 highlight video:

All sarcasm aside, Bravo clearly has some talent. Plus, having more depth is huge in a league that packs the minutes in like MLS. Being two or three players deep at a position gives greater flexibility and adaptability for the Timbers. Having Bravo in the fold only increases the team’s options in the event of injury or fixture congestion.

With the look and numbers to back it up, as well as the high likelihood he would integrate quickly into a locker room with a large Spanish speaking and Argentine contingent, Bravo is basically everything the Timbers could want at left back. The problem is… Portland might already have everything they need at left back.

The Case Against

2019 Jorge Villafaña was not a good Jorge Villafaña. He looked slower and not as effective both in the attack and behind the ball.

But this goal from the 6-1 thrashing of San Jose last month showed that Villafaña might be revived in 2020:

He’s found his crossing boots again, and in that above game he put in maybe his best defensive performance this season. In recent games, he’s started to look more and more steady and like his old self, 31-years-young and all.

This makes the Bravo signing all the more perplexing. Jorge Villafaña is a steady starter for the Timbers, and recent performances suggest that he isn’t hasn’t showing the consistent signs that he needs to be urgently replaced. It would be one thing if Portland were signing a depth piece, but Bravo is presumably being signed to compete to supplant Villafaña, and doing so rather soon.

You could maybe make a convincing argument that Bravo is thought to be the heir apparent to Villafaña, and will presumably be working towards taking over the starter job over the course of the next season. And that all would make sense until you remember that Marco Farfan is still on the roster.

MLS: Portland Timbers at San Jose Earthquakes Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The 21 year-old homegrown player is in the midst of enjoying maybe his strongest stretch in a Timbers jersey. He started three out of the previous four Timbers matches and contributed to a backline that only conceded two goals over the course of those three games. He’s also been passing the eye test, looking more confident in his one-on-one defending and more assertive in closing down space.

By a lot of measures Farfan is improving and growing with each game he plays. He is making the most of his minutes, becoming a meaningful contributor to the Timbers. He may have a real chance to push for more time and a starting role over the course of the next season or two.

But signing Bravo would stymie that and most likely bury Farfan further down the depth chart in 2021. I do not profess to know much at all about player development, but I have a strong suspicion that a good way for a young player to continue to improve is to continue to give them meaningful first team minutes. Having a new fullback on the roster would eat into that chunk of minutes that Farfan would get, and thus presents a potential road block to his development.

Which, again, may make sense in a certain context. Having competition at every position is something Savarese values, and bringing Bravo in would do just that. But is it an area where the team needs to spend money? Portland will presumably be paying a transfer fee plus wages for a player that will be asked to do basically exactly what Farfan and Villafaña are already both doing for Portland, and they’re both doing it fairly well. I can’t shake the feeling that those funds could be better served elsewhere.

The above will most likely wind up being just spilled milk, as the Bravo transfer looks very likely to happen. I’m not saying that Bravo is a bad player or that he is going to make the Timbers worse. He very clearly has talent and can contribute for the side (I mean, just look at that hype video).

The point is that this may not be an allocation of resources Gavin Wilkinson and company need to make. Rather than focus on developing and building around talent they have, they are choosing to go buy someone new. It mirrors the efforts made to sign a starting forward while there may have already been a pretty good one on the roster. Time will be the final judge of whether this proves to be a good use of limited resources, and I will be the first to raise my hand and say I was wrong if this works out well. But out of the gate, I’m not sure the Timbers need a new left back.