MLS free agency officially opened for business last week, so teams have been allowed to talk with the many players who qualify as free agents in the league. Eligible players must be at least 24 years old, have five years of MLS service, and be either out of contract or have had their options declined.
The Portland Timbers’ history with free agency has been all of two players: Ned Grabavoy (played one season, retired, now Portland’s technical director) and Chance Myers (played 44 minutes, retired, now a scout for Nashville SC), and they haven’t made a free agent signing since 2017. They are a team that usually looks abroad to find players.
But with the pandemic-induced uncertainty around the international market this year, it may be prudent for Portland to look inside the league for reinforcements. With this being the largest free agent pool to date, there is value to find if the Timbers want to look. So here’s five free agents that I think could help the Timbers in 2021:
*All salary numbers are from the 2019 season and are according the MLS Players Association. The 2020 numbers are unavailable.
Waylon Francis (Left Back)
Previous Club: Columbus Crew SC
2019 guaranteed compensation: $199,166.75
With the Timbers trading Marco Farfan to LAFC last week and reports surfacing that they are set to also trade Jorge Villafana, Portland suddenly needs depth at left back. Enter Waylon Francis, left back formerly of the now reigning MLS Cup champions Columbus Crew SC.
Francis has played the majority of his MLS career with the Crew (with a brief unfortunate pit stop in Seattle, but we all make mistakes) and has played the role of a solid left back in the defense. He’s shown a tendency to join in the attack going forward, a trait that Portland looks for in its outside backs. While he has transitioned to more of a backup role in the past two years, he is still just 30 years old and could have a real impact on the field. If new signing Claudio Bravo takes time to acclimate or misses time due to injury, Francis could be a good option for Portland to look to for relief.
Eriq Zavaleta (Centerback)
Previous Club: Toronto FC
2019 guaranteed compensation: $296,962.33
Probably the longest shot out of all of these due to his age and value, Zavaleta could a key rotation and impact player for Portland. A regular figure for Toronto FC since the 2014 season, he was one of their anchors in the back during their run to three MLS Cup finals appearances, with most of his starts and minutes coming during their title-winning 2017 run. He fell out of favor in the 2020 season, making only five appearances for the reds.
At only 28 years old, he is still in his prime as a defender. He fits the bill of a younger defender that Gavin Wilkinson stated he was targeting for Portland’s defense this offseason. He could prove to be a solid backup to the center back corps, especially now that Julio Cascante has departed, and may even have the capacity to win a starting spot if the backline struggles again next season. The challenge for the Timbers would be finding a salary number that is amiable to both parties, as other teams would likely be interested in the veteran defender.
Oniel Fisher (Right Back)
Previous Club: DC United
2019 guaranteed compensation: $74,916.71
Another player that could provide some much needed depth at right outside back, Fisher represents the type of player who could also be a solid starter in a pinch. After being drafted by Seattle in 2015 and playing with them for three seasons he was traded to DC United where he was a regular starter in 2018 before a knee injury sidelined him for 2019. He was a regular contributor for DC in 2020 before having his option declined.
Still a very serviceable contributor, Fisher could be a veteran and steady presence for the Timbers at right back. He provides a similar skillset to Pablo Bonilla and could be a good depth or rotation piece for Portland, especially with Bonilla being the only rostered full-time right back at the moment. An obstacle may be selling Fisher on a part-time role, as with his talent and history he could easily be a starter for other teams across the league.
Fatai Alashe (Midfielder)
Previous Club: Columbus Crew SC
2019 guaranteed compensation: $189,999.96
Another former Columbus Crew player who had his option declined, Alashe could be a much needed depth piece in the center of the park. Mainly a defensive midfielder, Alashe burst onto the scene with the San Jose Earthquakes after being drafted in 2015, becoming a regular starter in his rookie year. He was one of FC Cincinnati’s first MLS signings and was traded to Columbus earlier this year. Having played sparingly, his option was declined.
Alashe could serve as an important depth piece at defensive midfield and other key midfield spots for the Timbers. While no one can do what Diego Chara can do, the backup options of Cristhian Paredes and Renzo Zambrano proved to be underwhelming last year. Alashe has the potential to step in and hold down the midfield when Chara inevitably misses time (most likely due to yellow card accumulation), and in a pinch could also play the box to box role when Eryk Williamson needs a rest. The question is whether the Portland coaching staff and front office believe that their current options can step up this year, or if they want to roll the dice with a new addition. If they do, one would imagine that other dominos would have to fall on the roster to make this potential move viable.
Erik Hurtado (Forward)
Previous Club: Sporting Kansas City
2019 guaranteed compensation: $ 181,249.96
As negotiations with Pumas UNAM over the return of Felipe Mora are ongoing — and not looking likely to be finished before January at the earliest — it may be time for the Timbers to start thinking of plan B at center forward. With Jaroslaw Niezgoda sidelined for a good chunk of next season with injury and Portland in need of a solid backup, one possibility is turning to the man who once called Westview High School in Beaverton, Oregon home.
Erik Hurtado would be a bit of a wildcard pickup for the Timbers. He has talent (the goals he scored against the Timbers back when he played with Vancouver are evidence of that), but he hasn’t been able to pull it all together and show enough production to win a full time starting spot. Still, he was effective in a substitute and spot starter role with KC last season, scoring five goals in just under 400 minutes played. His skillset is similar to Mora’s and different enough from Niezgoda’s or Jeremy Ebobisse’s to add a different perspective to the attack. If Portland can sell him on a role as a rotation player (which I think they might be able to do based upon his history in KC), he could be valuable add for the Timbers.
That’s my take on it — what do y’all think? Should Portland make a run at any of these free agents? Anyone on the list that I missed (Matt Besler? Kei Kamara? Fanendo Adi???)? Let me know below!