Earlier this week, a report surfaced via ESPN that the Portland Timbers were exploring options for sending Jeremy Ebobisse out on loan to a team in the German 2. Bundesliga. It set off a bit of a discussion amongst Timbers fans, both on twitter and in the comments section, around its validity, rationale, and potential impact for both player and club. Despite being only a reported rumor in its current state (one that doesn’t even merit a post on the league website at this moment, for what it’s worth), the prospect clearly struck a nerve amongst the Rose City faithful.
In that spirit, it seems appropriate to take a moment to look at why the rumored move might make sense, why it actually might wind up being only a rumor, and what the news itself represents for the future of Jebo in Portland.
Why a loan might make sense for both parties
The biggest beneficiary of a potential loan might be Jeremy Ebobisse himself. After putting in another solid season in 2020, Jebo was treated to a December filled with … reports of Portland working their hardest to bring back Felipe Mora. This is nothing against Mora, who has proven to be a solid addition to the Rose City. But Ebobisse, despite putting in the work to perhaps earn a starting job, has instead been stuck behind forwards each season he’s been in Portland. Now, he faces the prospect of being behind another player who may start ahead of him for another season. With no signs that he will undoubtedly be the starting striker next season, if he wants to start and develop, moving to Europe might make sense.
It might also make sense for the Timbers if they are choosing to prioritize the impact that Mora and Niezgoda may bring. Rather than deal with a striker conundrum and potentially scorned players, they could make their 2021 forward hierarchy the clearest it can be by letting Ebobisse spend some time away. Of course, they would need to sign at least one player to shore up depth at the forward position, most likely even a couple. But it would make the depth chart much more straightforward for this season at least.
It may also make the beginning of the season more straightforward as well — at least from a playing time and competition perspective. The 2021 season start date is rumored to be in March, but that isn’t confirmed at this point, so it could wind up being later in the year. Another complication are the reports from ESPN suggesting that the league is seeking to terminate the current collective bargaining agreement with the MLS Players Association, setting up a potential work stoppage next year (that is a whole can of worms worth its own article at some point in the future).
In either of the above scenarios, players may be faced with the prospect of not having games to play for an extended period of time. Sending Ebobisse out on loan to play games when he would have none available is good for his development and for the Timbers, as they have a key player getting meaningful minutes where there may be none to be had stateside.
There are indeed arguments in favor of a loan move for Jeremy Ebobisse. But, as appealing as it may seem on the surface, the deeper you go the more you realize that a loan move probably isn’t in the cards.
Why it isn’t likely to happen
Is saying “it’s the silly season” enough of an explanation? No, seriously — rumors and reports like these around talented players popup every single gosh dang winter. It doesn’t matter how many years they’ve been with a club, scuttlebutt around players moving or being loaned to places make the rounds on the internet without fail.
This recent rumor has all of the trappings of one of those. Rather than being shared by a specific journalist or having its own dedicated article, it was included in a running log of transfer notes and rumors. The tweets that have been circulating also do not cite a specific report or journalist, only including that “sources” have shared the news with ESPN. I do not doubt the stature or reputation of the worldwide leader, but this rumor doesn’t quite crack the level of “there’s some smoke there” if you’re looking for a fire.
Plus, Portland will be in dire need of depth at forward this season. Jaroslaw Niezgoda is sidelined for the foreseeable future with an ACL injury, and even if Mora is the presumptive starter, there is need for a backup. The MLS season is long and arduous, and balancing fatigue and injuries are essential for success, with the pandemic making this even more true (just look at how 2020 ended for Portland for evidence of that).
The Timbers will also be embarking on another CONCACAF Champions League campaign, which in addition to league play and the potential return of the U.S. Open Cup makes three competitions that Portland will want to be competitive in. Managing minutes with depth will be all the more important next year. Moving a player in a key position doesn’t make sense- at least, as the roster is currently constructed.
Does the rumor have legs? Potentially! There’s always at least a grain or two of truth to any transfer season rumor. It is a possibility that a 2. Bundesliga team dialed up the Timbers and potentially inquired about acquiring Ebobisse on loan. Or maybe Portland is doing their due diligence and is asking around for potential fits and taking a player’s interests into account, as they did with the Marco Farfan and Julio Cascante trades. But the confluence of evidence really doesn’t add up to Portland being without one of their key and proven players for such a busy season. I will gladly raise my hand and say I was wrong if it does come to pass. But based on the evidence in front of us right now, a loan move feels unlikely at the current moment.
Whether the loan happens or not has a to be determined outcome. But that doesn’t mean that the news itself won’t have immediate impact for the next season of Portland Timbers soccer.
What it means for next season
The loan happening or not has no bearing on the questions that are now being asked around Portland’s development plan for Jeremy Ebobisse. He just signed a contract extension with the team in the beginning of 2020, so presumably he still figures into their plans. Whether it’s as a contributor on the field or a potential asset to be traded or transferred, however, is the question that remains unanswered. And all of that is after you consider what Ebobisse wants for his own career. He has talent and wants to be in a situation to showcase it, but the current situation in Portland may not allow him to do so.
The fact of the matter is that if Mora returns, Portland has three starting caliber strikers once Niezgoda heals. All are in or are entering their prime, and all represent significant investments. None of them want to be perpetually riding the pine. It’s like having three expensive and fancy sports cars; you can’t just leave one sitting in the garage collecting rust all year, but you may not have time to drive all three.
Let’s game this out: We can assume that the likeliest outcome will come to pass, and Jebo stays in Portland for 2021. He spends the first chunk of the season backing up Mora, making some spot starts at either forward or as a winger, but mainly comes off the bench. Niezgoda returns around the summer, and then all three forwards trade time a la the way they did in the 2020 season. Let’s say Ebobisse has a similar return to what he did in 2020, something around the eight to nine goals, three to four assists range. Solid for his role, but not spectacular numbers or much of an improvement from 2020.
Ebobisse is a soon-to-be 24-year-old talented forward, a fringe national team player, and one who has been discussed in some circles as having a potential future on the senior USMNT if he can put up better numbers. Can he afford to have his fifth full professional season in MLS be one where he is still a backup and spot starter, even though he has shown that he likely can reach full starter level? Is he satisfied in that role? I’m not him or a professional player, so I have no idea. But my gut tells me that a rising young player would want to play as many minutes as they can.
2021 may represent an inflection point for the Timbers and Jeremy Ebobisse, loan or no loan. Giovanni Savarese, Gavin Wilkinson, and the rest of Portland’s decision makers need to decide how they view Jebo as a player. If they still see him as the future of the forward line, there may be some decisions that need to be made around either Mora’s or Niezgoda’s futures in Portland. If they see the newer additions as their best chance at sustaining success and winning trophies, it may be in their — and Ebobisse’s — best interest to make a call on his fate in green & gold sooner rather than later.
Either decision carries hefty long term implications. Do you gamble that Ebobisse will develop and blossom, while moving on from proven veteran entities? Or do you potentially miss out on Ebobisse turning into a game-changing forward for your team by moving him? When Portland traded up to draft Ebobisse in the 2017 SuperDraft, they showed that they weren’t afraid to take a risk to try to find future success. The decision that they make around what to do with Ebobisse in 2021 may prove to be just as risky, and just as impactful.