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How Portland’s U-22 Initiative players could be the key to success in 2023

With minimal turnover on their roster, Portland’s success in 2023 could come down to the development of their young players.

MLS: Houston Dynamo FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Timbers 2023 roster is shaping up to look very similar to their 2022 roster. With a very few new difference makers coming in, Portland’s success this year may come down to the development of their young players.

In particular, it may come down to the success of their U-22 Initiative players. Let’s run through each one, identify their trajectory and set the stage for what their development could mean for Portland’s prospects in 2023.

Santiago Moreno: The star in waiting

The oldest of Portland’s U-22 Initiative players is the one who is the most ready to take on a starring role. Moreno’s first half-season in Portland in 2021 featured flashes of his talent, and his first full season in 2022 showed everyone that he has the potential to be something really special.

He scored big goals in big moments for the Timbers last year, tallying seven goals and adding eight assists on the year. Despite their failure to reach the playoffs Portland surely would not have even been in contention without Santi’s magic.

But the promise of Santi is that he has the potential to do even more. Portland’s inaugural U-22 Initiative signing has the talent and experience to become a bona fide star in MLS. With the addition of Evander to create more service and a full year of a healthy Eryk Williamson (god-willing) to create more space, Moreno has everything in place to have a true breakout year in 2023. The pundits at the MLS mothership seem to think so as well.

Santi hitting that level isn’t necessarily essential for Portland to get back to the playoffs. If Evander does what we think he’s gonna do, that alone might be sufficient for punching a postseason ticket. But Moreno truly leveling up could be the difference that vaults Portland up from “just another playoff team” status to “a favorite for winning silverware” status.

Not to mention that a boost in his numbers would pump up any financial windfall that Timbers could snag for his presumed eventual sale down the line.

David Ayala: The prospect who could be the future

MLS: Nashville SC at Portland Timbers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

David Ayala was signed in the 2022 offseason to much acclaim, as the Timbers had nabbed a highly-rated central midfield youth prospect from South America. Signed with one eye on the future for when (if?) Diego Chara eventually gets that final yellow card suspension from Father Time, Ayala spent most of last year integrating into the squad and only received eight spot starts in less-than-ideal scenarios for a 19-year-old MLS debutante.

In his second year, the task is now for Ayala to step up and start to carve out his path forward. With George Fochive’s departure, Ayala is the lone true defensive midfield depth piece on the roster at the moment. Other options, like Cristhian Paredes or 2023 SuperDraft pick Noel Caliskan, are either less-than-ideal fits for defensive midfield or unproven (and non-rostered, as Caliskan current status is).

So that leaves the young Argentinian Ayala as the main man to back-up Chara in 2023. If he is able to step up and rotate with Diego, it will accomplish two important things: help elongate Chara’s shelf-life and start to establish that all-important path to life after The Godfather.

Accomplishing those goals could be pivotal for Portland’s short-term and long-term future. Chara remains an essential piece of how the Timbers will line up this year, and so anything that can be done to keep his legs fresh is important. And beyond 2023, the Timbers will inevitably have to start planning for when Diego finally hangs up his boots. Ayala starting to show more signs that he is the man ready to step up could be the beginning of ushering in a new age for the Timbers.

Of course, we might have to wait a bit for that to happen: Ayala underwent knee surgery last week and will miss the next two months.

His ascension could still begin this year – we just are going to have to wait until the Summer to potentially see it.

Juan Mosquera: The next man up

MLS: Portland Timbers at Real Salt Lake Melissa Majchrzak-USA TODAY Sports

Right back has always been an… interesting position for the Timbers in the MLS era. Marked mostly by reckless and attack-minded players, it has been an area of the field that Portland hasn’t quite ever been able to nail down.

And of course, that led us to the last two years of the Josecarlos Van Rankin experience. While JVR seemed like a well-liked figure in the locker room, his on-field contributions were, uh, an adventure. And so, right back became an obvious area for the Timbers to improve on in the latter half of 2022.

Enter: Juan Mosquera. The third U-22 signing for Portland came to town as a player pegged as the right back of the future, with some developing to be done before he was ready to take on that mantle.

At least, that’s how it appeared anyway. The now 20-year-old made three appearances (two starts) and played just under 200 minutes last season. And… he didn’t really look out of his depth! According to FBref he totaled one goal creating action (his recycled ball in that Moreno goal clipped above) and five shot creating actions in his few minutes with Portland in 2022. While his defensive prowess can of course continue to be refined, his promising attacking moments suggest that the latest Colombian Timber might be ready to slot into Portland’s setup right now.

With JVR now back in Mexico, and Pablo Bonilla (who is still just 23, by the way) apparently set to start the year as a backup, the spotlight will be on Mosquera to show that he is ready to step up and steady the right back position for the Timbers. If he is able to, then he becomes another piece that pushes Portland into a higher tier of contenders in 2023.

If he isn’t… Well, at least we have extensive experience dealing with inconsistent Timbers right backs.

What do you think? What’s the ceiling for Portland’s U-22 Initiative players? Hit us up in the comments below.