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The Timbers are betting big on their young fullbacks in 2021

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After trading away their depth, Portland will be leaning on two young, talented, but unproven fullbacks in 2021.

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Portland Timbers v Los Angeles FC

Alas, Jorge, we barely knew ye (again). Just as sudden as when we saw him return to Portland in 2018, Jorge Villafana is officially gone. With his departure to the Los Angeles Galaxy — along with Marco Farfan’s trade to the other part of LA — the Portland Timbers fullback pool now stands at just two (2) players: Pablo Bonilla and Claudio Bravo.

Bonilla is a Venezuelan sparkplug who just turned the legal drinking age in the United States. He was originally signed as a Timbers 2 project, but got pressed into first team service this summer after the unexpected departure of Jorge Moreira, going through quite the journey with his hairstyles.

Bravo is the newest addition to Portland’s Argentine contingent. He has youth national team experience, comes from a club that wears green & white just like our guys, and shares his name with a pretty famous and pretty talented 37-year-old Chilean guy.

One fullback has played just over 1,000 minutes across all competitions for Portland, and the other probably hasn’t even set foot in the Rose City yet. And they’re now the guys the Portland Timbers are presumably going to bet on to be the difference makers in the fullback roles in 2021.

Now, that sentence is not meant to be misleading at all. Both Bonilla and Bravo very clearly have talent and have shown it on the field. But Portland is making a big bet by sacrificing essentially all of their experienced fullback and trusting players who haven’t really cut their teeth in MLS yet.

It’s also not like the fullback corps Portland gave up was particularly bad in 2020. In fact, both Villafana and Farfan put in perhaps their best seasons with the Timbers. After a shaky start to the 2020 season, post-pandemic break Villafana looked like a player reborn, putting up the best numbers of his career. He finished the season with two goals and five assists, becoming a constant fixture of Portland’s attack down the left side due to his chemistry with Yimmi Chara. Farfan finally looked to be growing into a more complete player, seeing consistent playing time for the first time since he was signed as a homegrown player.

Now both players are off to play on rival teams in LA. But the moves (along with the release of Chris “also barely knew ye” Duvall) deprive Portland of the entirety of their fullback depth as the roster currently stands. And for now, the losses hurt a bit. Farfan, the local kid, finally seemed to be on an upward trajectory, and projected to be an impactful and important bench player. Villafana could have been key in 2021, playing the role of elder statesman who begins as a starter and then eases the transition for Bravo, providing bench depth himself.

We can debate how much sense both trades made, or if the Bravo acquisition needed to even happen, but we can’t debate the reality that they’ve left the team with: Pablo Bonilla is now the most tenured full-time fullback on the team with just the one season of experience under his belt, and Portland’s starting left back will be a player who hasn’t suited up for the Timbers before.

Again, it’s not like Portland is putting scrubs out there. Bonilla, unexpectedly thrust into first team minutes as previously mentioned, proved himself to be a dynamic presence on the right side of the defense. He quickly earned the trust of the coaching staff and became the preferred starter at right back for the majority of the 2020 regular season.

He also seemed to grow as the season progressed, becoming more and more comfortable in the Timbers offense. You could expect more and more to see Bonilla staying higher up the pitch, drifting further in towards the central channel to link up play. His tendencies and proficiencies can be seen in the assist he provided during Portland’s 5-2 rout of the Galaxy last season:

(He was so totally shooting there and Niezgoda was just in the right place at the right time, but the overall offensive positioning point still stands).

Still, for all of the improvement he showed last year he is still fairly green in this league. He’s only had a dozen starts across all first team competitions for the Timbers thus far, which is still a ways away from “experienced veteran” status. He is also just 21 years old and still has lots of room for growth. He still has a tendency to get caught out as he drives upfield, and his individual defending is still a work in progress at this point.

As a raw player, Bonilla is still a bit off from being considered a lockdown starter. Even if (when?) Portland signs a new right back — which is starting to look like a possibility with a rumor popping up on twitter yesterday — that leaves a 21-year-old developing player and an unknown quantity as the two options at right fullback. And that carries some risk in MLS.

Giving the keys to the starting left back job to a new arrival yet to even play in MLS carries even bigger risk. The Timbers seem to rate Claudio Bravo very highly, touting him as potentially one of the best left backs in the league. And the passages of play we’ve seen from him at Banfield definitely seem to suggest that he has the tools to be a good player for Portland.

But the fact remains that Bravo is still new to the Timbers, and new to the league. We just simply have no idea how he’ll adapt to life in MLS, or life in Portland.

You can have all the talent in the world and still struggle in MLS. The history of MLS is littered with skilled players who simply couldn’t adapt to the league and never quite fit in. Portland has had their share of those as well (hat tip to our old friends Lucas Melano, Kris Boyd, and Gaston Fernandez), so it’s interesting to see them trust the left side of their defense to a somewhat unknown quantity. Bravo could wind up being the best left back in the league, and he could also wind up being a bust.

Both of those realities are underscored by the fact that Portland don’t have any more, y’know, fullbacks on the roster as of yet. That will of course (hopefully??) change as the offseason progresses, as one can expect the Timbers to make signings to give themselves more any amount of depth at the fullback spots. But at least for left back, these signings can be expected to be a backup to Bravo, and will also be an unknown at this point. Even if one of them is brought in to be a starter, they will be new to the current personnel on the Timbers’ backline, so there won’t be a lot of cohesion on either side of Portland’s defense, which is a tenuous proposition for such an essential position group.

Now, could I also be completely wrong and could Portland go a completely different way with their fullback choices? Of course — I know just as much as you do about the course of the offseason, and this offseason indeed has quite a bit still to go. The Timbers could wind up signing or drafting a player that challenges or supplants Bonilla on the right, similar to how Zarek Valentin supplanted Alvas Powell in 2018. And maybe the depth piece they sign at left back does enough to mitigate Bravo’s transition into the league over the course of next season. I will gladly be the first to write the “Portland’s big bet on the fullbacks paid off” article at the end of the season if this all turns out well.

At the moment though, the truth is that Portland sacrificed known quantities and steady depth for players who still have question marks. And that’s a risky move to make with a roster that still has the talent and stability elsewhere to compete for trophies.

As is most things with the Timbers roster nowadays, the end result of this is still “TBD.” Only the product on the field will validate or condemn Portland’s decision to put their faith in their young options for fullback, and if the signings they make gel with the rest of the backline and lift the unit as a whole. But right now, it looks like the Timbers have pushed their chips in on Bonilla and Bravo for 2021. As the cards of the 2021 season start to be dealt, we’ll see if that bet pays off.