Early in every season, there always happens to be one Portland Timbers player that becomes a magnet for criticism. As a new season revs up and poor performances and results start to pop up, numerous players across the years have been on the receiving end of much consternation from fans — regardless of whether it was warranted or not.
In 2021, that early season lightning rod appears to have been Claudio Bravo. The 24-year-old Argentinian left back brought in on a TAM deal was the subject of much fanfare from the front office and technical staff, and very quickly became the subject of frustration for fans. High profile mistakes such as the penalties he gave up against Club America in the CCL, or how he got beat on the dribble repeatedly in the home match against Houston, loomed large in our collective brains. Many thought the signing was trending more “Lucas Melano” than “Sebastian Blanco.”
Turns out, a lot of us might have been jumping the gun a bit. Because Claudio Bravo has looked very solid this month. One might say even pretty darn good.
His recent performances suggest that Bravo has shaken off the early season rust and is starting to come into his own. The young player is looking like he is settling into his new home and his new locker room, and is growing in confidence. While that process has been building over the past few months, the last few games in particular have stood out as impressive signs of growth.
It started to really be visible in Portland’s 2-1 win over Sporting Kansas City. After some early pressure from Johnny Russell, one of the most potent wingers in the league, Bravo did very well to limit the SKC man for most of the game. The second half in particular stands out, as Bravo was a key piece in limiting Sporting’s wingers and helping the backline defend Portland’s lead — wherein he tallied the most tackles plus interceptions for the Timbers on the night.
Bravo was once again solid in the Timbers’ next game at Houston. He did a commendable job of limiting Houston’s dangerous wingers, and helped to contribute to a new-look five-man backline for Portland that bent but didn’t break, keeping the game within reach for Portland.
He also notched his first Timbers assist by being an integral part of one of the cleanest looking counterattacking goals I think I’ve ever seen Portland score:
That's how you execute a counter-attack. #RCTID pic.twitter.com/anLjhdgZlD— Portland Timbers (@TimbersFC) June 24, 2021
And last Saturday, while the Timbers didn’t score, Bravo turned in his strongest attacking performance yet. According to FBref.com, he contributed ten shot-creating actions in that game (three more than Diego Valeri and Eryk Williamson) and completed twelve progressive passes (two more than Diego Chara and four more than Valeri). He was tops on the night for the Timbers in both those categories.
He put in another strong shift on both ends of the field, as evidenced by his defensive and attacking chalkboard. The triangles show his total defensive actions (tackles, interceptions, and recoveries), and the yellow-bordered squares are his key passes (passes that lead to shots) on the night:
He was all over the left side, doing all things for the Timbers- and doing them all quite well.
Also, it needs to be said that Bravo has been an absolute iron man. Out of the 900 total minutes that Timbers have played in MLS, Bravo has been on the field for all but 51 of them. He’s started all ten of Portland’s MLS matches thus far, and has only been subbed off twice. His durability has no doubt contributed to his acclimation, and that kind of steadiness and consistency is much needed for a Timbers team that has juggled injuries and absences basically from the jump.
Even before his recent games, Bravo’s underlying numbers weren’t as bad as the eye test was suggesting. He was averaging in the 97th percentile or above among fullbacks in the league in the defensive categories of successful pressures, tackles, interceptions, and blocks. The big plays were just the ones that stuck in our brains though. Not for undue cause — any penalty given up by a defender is, um, not ideal. But even through those moments, Bravo was showing the flashes of talent that he was brought in for.
Bravo hasn’t reached the “one of the best fullbacks in the league” status that Merritt Paulson promised on twitter many months ago. He still shows a tendency for giving up some perplexing fouls in alarming areas, and will no doubt have to stay on top of his one-on-one defending in order to shut down the many dangerous wingers he will go up against in MLS. But he can grow in those areas. Most importantly, Bravo now looks the most settled and confident he has in a Timbers jersey.
Thus is the nature of sports, and the nature of soccer. Not all players will immediately run onto the field and light up the pitch. Even Sebastian Blanco needed a year before he started to look like Seba “Scores bangers when he wants” Blanco. Bravo appears to have gotten through his “Welcome to MLS” adjustment phase, and now truly looks like he is settling into the team and coming into his own. And for a Timbers team that is still looking to find its footing, it is a welcome sight.