The Lucas Melano Era in Portland is over.
The Timbers announced today that they have loaned the 23-year-old winger back to his hometown club of Belgrano in Argentina's Primera División ahead of the 2017 season. Belgrano will have the option to buy Melano outright at the expiration of the loan deal.
Melano exits Portland as one of the biggest busts in club history — albeit one who played a significant role in delivering the club's first and only MLS Cup. His departure opens up a Designated Player spot for the Timbers, which is expected to be filled before the 2017 season kicks off at Providence Park on March 3rd.
Melano was acquired for a fee of $5 million from Lanús midway through the 2015 season, smashing the club transfer record, in an attempt to jumpstart what was then a languishing Timbers offense in the midst of an uncertain season.
From the get-go, Melano fizzled. His pace — which was and is phenomenal, there was faster player in MLS — so far exceeded his ability to play soccer that he quickly became the team's most frustrating player.
Melano didn't appear to be altogether coordinated — a condition that manifested itself most cruelly when he missed an open net in Vancouver on the final day of last season in what would be the final game of his Timbers career. In a nutshell, his body — and brain — rarely could catch up to his feet.
Over his year-and-a-half in Portland, Melano did show flashes of the talent that convinced the club's braintrust to spend so lavishly to bring him to MLS. In a game against Seattle last July, Melano carried the ball from box to box in ten seconds — setting up Fanendo Adi for Portland's third goal.
It was the kind of moment that ensures Melano need not worry about running out of suitors in soccer, and that the Timbers will be able to recoup a good portion of the investment they made in him two summers ago.
But those moments were so few and far in between, the Timbers finally ran out of patience. Melano never fully committed himself to defending from his position on the wing — which increasingly irked Caleb Porter last season — and he could never be trusted to do the simple, little things that pick up points for teams week in and week out.
Between his DP spot, high cap number, and disappointing production, Portland had to move on.
Melano leaves the Timbers with some in the club still under his spell. GM Gavin Wilkinson's statement in today's press release announcing the news, for instance, includes the lines, "we believe he is a talented player," and, "We expect him to regain his form at his home team in Belgrano."
In a sense, by loaning him out for a year, the Timbers are still betting on Melano — betting that he'll increase his value in the transfer market from where it currently stands.
The consensus around the Timbers is a change of scenery and return to Argentina will do him a world of good. Melano had never lived abroad when he moved to the Timbers in 2015, and that transition was, by all accounts, a difficult one — as it has been for many players over the years.
Melano leaned heavily on the Timbers' Argentinian contingent of Diego Valeri, Gaston Fernandez, and Norberto Paparatto when he arrived in Portland two years ago, but of that Argentine core, only Valeri remains with the club.
The Melano move was a gamble, and, by almost every metric, it backfired. Except one.
Melano did, in 2015, play his part in landing the Timbers MLS Cup. Platooning on the wing with Dairon Asprilla, he accounted for the goal that sealed the Western Conference Championship in Frisco, Texas, and then, a week later, added what would be the game-winning assist to Rodney Wallace in MLS Cup.
By measure of the Timbers' championship, the Melano experience was worth it.
Even as he leaves, there is still an air of tantalization around Melano. Portland's hierarchy, which bet so heavily on him, will continue to root for his success in 2017. The final chapter on Melano's career still might be some ways off. But his time with the Timbers — mercifully — is over.