Jeremy Ebobisse, one of the Timbers' brightest young players, the club's reigning Supporters' Player of the Year, mounted the steps to the main capo stand in front of the Timbers Army to say goodbye. Ebobisse had not dressed for the game. He had been traded to San Jose before it had started in exchange for just over $1 million in allocation money.
The Timbers are making the case that Ebobisse's move was inevitable, a win-win for both a club trying to alleviate salary cap stress due to circumstances largely outside of its control, and a player eager to get his chance to be an everyday starter at center forward to continue the upward trajectory of his career.
It's not so simple. The first murmurs of discontent over the move came from fans taking in the news on Twitter, but they were followed after the game by Timbers' manager Giovani Savarese, who told a reporter of the impending trade, "Sometimes, there’s decisions that are not always made on agreement."
"I will let the club make an announcement," Savarese said at the end of his statement. "And that's it."
The manager captured the mood. Deflated, mournful, and, seemingly, rather upset. Ebobisse was, for numerous reasons and by some distance, the Timbers' most popular young player, a would-be franchise cornerstone suddenly jettisoned.
Ebobisse never got a chance to start consistently at forward, his best position, despite the fact that the Timbers' best stretches of form under Savarese—their run to MLS Cup in 2018, their triumph at the MLS is Back tournament last year—all came with him playing up top, connecting the Timbers' attack and threatening in the air.
Instead, Savarese consistently shunted him out to the wing while high-priced imports started up top. Despite that, Ebobisse tallied 26 goals in just 54 starts for the Timbers in the first four-and-a-half years of his professional career.
It was a tremendous return, especially considering how often he was asked to play out of position, even on his weak side, unable to utilize his best attributes. The Timbers believed he was destined for Europe, and he may still be, but since that move had not yet materialized, and with the salary cap constricted, they traded him within MLS instead.
But the truth is that the Timbers were spending lavishly to sideline Ebobisse long before he was set to depart, long before COVID-19 scrambled the salary cap and international transfer market. They signed two older, better-paid forwards following the 2019 season, going so far as to use a hugely valuable Designated Player spot on Jarosław Niezgoda, instead of handing Ebobisse the reins up top.
When you look at the club's player acquisition strategy over the last three years, and when you look at how Savarese managed the team, it's difficult to come to any conclusion other than that the Timbers did not have faith in Ebobisse's ability to be an everyday starting forward for a championship-caliber club.
And ultimately, this move does nothing to dispel that notion. The Timbers didn't sell Ebobisse to Europe, they traded him to a conference rival—their best forward, in what may be their final year to compete for a title with the trio of Diego Chará, Diego Valeri, and Sebastian Blanco leading the way.
You couldn't blame Ebobisse for wanting to move on. You can blame the Timbers front office for trying to fix a problem that didn't exist up top, much as they jettisoned club staples in Jorge Villafaña and Marco Farfan at the fullback position and replaced them with underperforming players new to the league last offseason.
The result there is that the Timbers' defense has regressed and Villafaña and Farfan are starting for two of the West's best teams. Losing those two players, one a über-reliable member of both of the clubs' MLS Cup appearances, the other its only local product to ever make a significant impact in the first team, hurt. Losing Ebobisse hurts even more.
From the moment he arrived in the Northwest, Ebobisse was remarkable: a burgeoning U.S. international who quickly developed into one of the league's most thoughtful, engaged activists. He co-founded the Black Players for Change caucus, worked to pass a criminal justice reform measure in his home state of Maryland, and promoted COVID-19 vaccination in Portland.
His game, cerebral and tough, unfussy and consistent, even when he wasn't scoring bunches of goals, followed suit. Now he's gone. Mora is a born goalscorer but offers the team little else, Niezgoda can't get healthy enough to get on the field.
The Timbers are in a bad way. On the field, they're on course for their worst season in nine years. They have the second worst goal differential in the Western Conference, have only picked four points on the road all year, and have been blown out multiple times this summer.
Injuries and international absences have played their part, certainly. But every team in the league has dealt with the rigors of a condensed season, and with the campaign nearly halfway over, the Timbers have not coped well.
Of course, the team still has ample time to engineer a change in fortunes. Off the field, the situation is quite possibly worse. Savarese's decision to speak out against the Ebobisse trade was unprecedented; there is perhaps no coach in the league so guarded in his public comments, so unwilling to speak in anything but platitudes about sensitive topics.
He was conspicuously absent from the battle over the Iron Front two summers ago, when his (much more successful) counterpart in Seattle, Brian Schmetzer, voiced his support for fans "who made a statement" when they sat silent for the first 33 minutes of a derby game at Providence Park in protest of the league's policy.
It remains to be seen whether Savarese's job is in any jeopardy this season, but his divergence from the company line on this trade—and the fact that he was not quoted in the press release officially announcing it—is noteworthy at the very least.
It was in the midst of the Iron Front battle, meanwhile, when some of the club's most ardent supporters talked about boycotting home matches, that empty seats first became a regular feature of matches at Providence Park.
This year, the Timbers, once the hardest to come by ticket in the city, have failed to sell out a single game. They have yet to come close. Fears about pandemic safety are certainly a factor—Seattle's attendance has dipped notably as well—and the Timbers, who no longer require fans to be vaccinated, have done little to assuage those concerns.
But it would be naive for the club to pin their attendance woes solely on the public health situation. The relationship between the supporters and the club feels fractured in a significant way and has since the standoff two summers ago.
The owner last year complained that he was losing money "hand over fist" while thousands of Oregonians lost their entire livelihoods in the midst of the pandemic. He unfavorably compared the progressive mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone—who came within five points of unseating Ted Wheeler—to a toaster.
The team's President of Business, Mike Golub, is the board chair of the Portland Business Alliance, a center of reactionary power in the city.
For plenty in the Timbers Army and elsewhere, given the state of the city, of the region, and of the world, this is all difficult to stomach. For others it's the congested schedule, the television deal, the high prices for tickets and concessions, and a general feeling that the club is more and more resembling the Trail Blazers than the best version of the Timbers.
This all should be correctable. But trading one of the club's best, most likable players due to cap mismanagement is not going to help matters, especially if the manager is upset by the move. The Timbers are trending the wrong way, in every department, and there is no obvious plan to turn things around.