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Forest for the Trees: Jebo up Top

Jeremy Ebobisse might finally be showing enough to be the man leading the line for the Timbers.

MLS: Portland Timbers at San Jose Earthquakes Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Forest for the Trees, a space where I take a look at something unnoticed or underreported from the week about the Portland Timbers. Kicking us off: we take a look at Jeremy Ebobisse staking his claim for the starting striker role

I think slam-dunking a basketball on someone is one of the coolest and most disrespectful things you can do in sports. Not disrespectful in a bad way, but disrespectful in a “I don’t respect you, I am going to dunk on you and embarrass you” kind of way. Sadly, soccer does not feature basketballs, rims, or hoops, so there is no literal dunking in our game for me to enjoy.

There is, however, this:

That’s Jeremy Ebobisse doing the soccer equivalent of dunking on someone. If you’re counting, that was three San Jose defenders (four if you count the man that was shrugged off and thrown aside) that Ebobisse told “I don’t respect you, I am going to dunk on you and embarrass you.” It’s not quite the same, but it’s just as cool.

And I think Ebobisse’s “dunk”, plus his performance on the whole on Saturday and this season, tells us a lot about who should be starting at forward for the Timbers. Specifically, I think it tells us that Jebo should be the man to start up top for boys in green.

Big offseason additions Jaroslaw Niezgoda and Felipe Mora made the question of “who should start at center forward for the Timbers” an interesting one. Significant outlays for Niezgoda (a Designated Player) and Mora (a TAM signing) sure seemed to imply that they would both get their chance — and a decent chunk of playing time. Those chunks would directly affect the playing time of Jeremy Ebobisse, Portland’s remaining center forward holdover from last season.

Since Ebobisse spent a decent amount of time last season as a winger, it stands to reason that the Timbers coaching staff may have envisioned a 2020 season with one of their new forwards leading the line, and Ebobisse was shunted to the wing yet again. But the numbers show that Ebobisse has historically (and expectedly) been more effective as a true center forward rather than a winger.

According to transfermarkt, in the 2019 season Jeremy Ebobisse scored seven goals and had one assist when starting up top, compared to just four goals and one assist when starting on the wing. In addition, as a center forward he’s just looked more comfortable with his movement, and that’s including his “good try, good effort” less-than-lockdown defensive prowess he’s put on display while on the wing. It’s just not feasible for the team long-term to continue to shift one of their starting forwards to an unfamiliar position. It left Portland with a lingering question about Ebobisse’s position going into 2020.

In answering that question, both the numbers and the eye test suggest that Ebobisse starting outright at center striker is Portland’s best attacking option moving forward. The still only 22-year-old striker is developing a stronger scoring instinct, and is creating more opportunities for Portland’s other attacking options, leading to an overall more cohesive Portland attack and team.

Going off pure numbers, Ebobisse leads the forward corps with 6 goals across all competitions. He’s done that in roughly double the amount of minutes both Niezgoda or Mora have gotten, but that’s a testament to his consistency and key contributions to the attack (more on that in a bit). He’s already halfway to his goal total from 2019, and has done so almost entirely as the lone central striker. He’s also making smarter runs to create better chances for himself, demonstrating an evolution in his game:

In that clip, Ebobisse makes an excellent run to find space, takes an early touch, and then rifles it home — all things we didn’t see as much of last season. The fact is that when starting as a center forward, Jeremy Ebobisse is scoring goals, and doing so in an impressive way.

In addition, the numbers show that Ebobisse is developing a much stronger ability to create opportunities to score, both for himself and his teammates. He has already matched his 2019 regular season assist total through 16 games across all competitions in 2020, one of which was the assist for the winning goal in the MLS is Back final. The underlying numbers also suggest that Ebobisse’s play is creating more opportunities in front of the net. According to stat tracking from FBref, across all competitions in 2020, Jebo has had 24 offensive actions that have lead directly to a shot, including 2 offensive actions that have lead directly to goals.

This goal from Saturday night helps illustrate how he has done that:

Ebobisse has dropped deeper into the midfield, and takes advantage of the giveaway to drive at the defense. He makes space for himself (RIP Tanner Beason’s ankles), and gets a good shot off. He of course wasn’t intentionally getting an open shot for Yimmi Chara there, but his movement and play created a dangerous opportunity, and Chara was very willing to pounce on it.

Ebobisse has been getting minutes, and is making the most of them by scoring and creating chances for others to score. And when considering that there is now a Sebastian Blanco-sized hole on this team, finding more diverse ways to attack and score goals is even more important. At the moment, Ebobisse is the striker that is making it easier to do just that.

It also doesn’t hurt his case that neither Mora nor Niezgoda have quite shown enough yet to fully claim the job as theirs. Niezgoda sits at four goals on the season in almost 500 minutes across all competitions, and has shown some signs that his soft touch and smooth feet could become weapons in the buildup. However, he hasn’t yet shown the same level of sync with other attackers or the sustained scoring threat to say he’s 100% the guy. Mora had a good run of three goals in three games, including a winner against Seattle, but all three of those games featured him as a later game substitute, and his running and overall game appear better suited for a cameo role.

Of course, the state of the forward race could change multiple times very quickly before all is said and done. The numbers are but one perspective on Ebobisse’s performance, and I’ll concede they aren’t lights out definitive. Everything I wrote above could become moot with a strong Niezgoda run of form, or a downturn in Ebobisse’s performance. And as I wrote earlier the new forwards will undoubtedly get starting opportunities due to their price tags, so we should all probably buckle-up for more of the “Ebobisse running down the wing” experience before all is said and done.

But if I were the coach of the Timbers, and I had a must-win game tomorrow, I’m writing Jeremy Ebobisse’s name on the lineup sheet as starting center forward. He is by no means a finished product yet, but he is starting to bring out the best in Portland’s attackers, is scoring goals, and is growing from game to game. Doesn’t hurt that he can dunk all over defenders too.