Over the last several years, for all their successes on and off the field, there has been just one major knock against the Portland Timbers in MLS circles: They can't — or at the very least don't — develop their own players.
The evidence? The club has never produced a significant player from its academy or youth setup. Throughout its entire MLS existence, only one draft pick — the club's first, Darlington Nagbe — has had a long tenure with the first-team. Almost every noteworthy Timbers players from the last six years was developed by a different club before arriving in Portland.
Now though, the Timbers — led by owner Merritt Paulson — are doing everything in their power to change that.
When the Timbers open at Providence Park on Monday morning ahead of their seventh MLS season, they'll do so with four players signed over the winter from USL side T2 and their highest draft pick since Nagbe was taken back in 2011. At long last, the club's youth movement appears to be underway.
The Timbers have been laying the foundation for the injection of homegrown youth we're about to see since 2013, when the club started its academy program two years into its MLS existence by partnering with the Oregon Youth Soccer Association.
The establishment of the Timbers' USL affiliate Timbers 2 in 2015 bridged the gap between the club's academy system and its first team.
Last October, the Timbers announced the signing of their first Homegrown player to come through the academy system — 17-year-old Portland native Marco Farfan.
Timbers manager Caleb Porter called the signing a "seminal moment for the club." Farfan joined the Timbers Academy at its outset in 2013, and played for its U-16 and U-18 outfits before starting 18 matches for T2 last season.
The Timbers followed up the signing of Farfan in January by announcing the signings of winger Victor Arboleda,center back Rennico Clarke, and goalkeeper Kendall McInthosh from T2.
They made further noise later that week by trading up to the fourth pick in the MLS SuperDraft to select highly-touted Duke forward Jeremy Ebobisse — a player considered by many to be the most talented player in the draft.
And while Farfan and McIntosh aren't expected to feature with the first team in 2017, the other three players should have every opportunity to get on the field. Ebobisse is considered the heir apparent to Fanendo Adi, while Clarke could see himself competing for a starting spot next to Liam Ridgewell at center back.
It's a sharp turn for a club whose struggles with identifying and developing young players had become both a sore spot and an Achilles heel in an MLS in which youth development has become increasingly paramount to success.
Even with all the Timbers' recent investments — Paulson recently wrote on Twitter that he loses $3 million per year between the academy and T2 — the club still has plenty of catching up to do.
For comparison, FC Dallas — considered to boast the gold standard of MLS academies — signed its eighteenth Homegrown player earlier in the offseason. The club started five of those players in a single game in 2015 against Columbus, and, last year, won the U16 championship, the U18 championship, the US Open Cup, and the MLS Supporters' Shield.
The Timbers are serious about catching up. Alongside investments in fitness, training, and a U14 team, the club hired Larry Sunderland away from the Chicago Fire to lead the academy in 2015 and expanded its homegrown territory to includes parts of New Mexico and Idaho, where T2 played several games last season. Ned Grabavoy was added in the offseason as Director of Scouting and Recruitment.
It's an important role. Because the Timbers' homegrown territory isn't as rich with talent as, say, LA's is, the club has to identity, hang onto, and develop the players it can get from a young age. Grabavoy, who just retired as a player last year, was with the Timbers' braintrust at the SuperDraft two weeks ago.
Youth scouting is a place where the Timbers have frequently misfired over the years. The team's draft record since the Nagbe pick — with busts ranging from Nick Besler to Schillo Tushma to Andrew Jean-Baptiste to Ben Polk — has been ugly.
And while Alvas Powell and arguably Jake Gleeson stand as exceptions, the team hasn't done all that much better with young players acquired from overseas. Jose Valencia and Lucas Melano were high-profile busts, but the Timbers have similarly missed on the likes of Jeanderson and Dairon Asprilla.
Even young Timbers players who have shown promise have rarely stuck with the first team. George Fochive was sold for a modest fee last year, Taylor Peay has never been given a chance to start, and Kharlton Belmar — the 2015 USL Rookie of the Year with T2 — just moved to Sporting Kansas City's USL affiliate Swope Park Rangers.
None of the team's three previous Homegrown players — Brent Richards, Steven Evans, and Michael Seaton — are still with the club in any capacity.
Some of that turnover is just the nature of professional soccer. But it's an odd situation for the Timbers, especially considering Porter's roots in college soccer and his huge success with young talent in the past.
But now the club appears to be turning the corner. It's youth apparatus, fully in place, is beginning to produce players — and Porter has been clear in his offseason comments that he wants to give those young players who will start training camp today with the senior squad every chance to play.
Even Asprilla, who was sent on loan back to Colombia after a rough start to the 2016 campaign, is back with the club. The Timbers opening day lineup should be amongst its youngest in its seven MLS seasons, with eight players under 30 in the XI.
The Timbers are about to begin what should be an exciting season. The squad that gradually fell apart over the course of last season has been strengthened, and it's safe to say that this Portland outfit should be a good deal hungrier than the one we saw in 2016.
But as the team gathers for the first time this year, it's the handful of young players — Farfan, Arboleda, McIntosh, Clarke, and Ebobisse — who represent the longterm future of a club that, in many ways, is healthier than it's ever been before.