Gearing up for the stretch run of an enormously promising 2018 season, the Portland Timbers closed out the summer transfer window with a splash — sending Vytas to DC United, and bringing back of two of the men who were in the lineup when the club won MLS Cup 2015 in Columbus.
Lucas Melano's return was long-rumored. The Argentinian winger has been under contract with the Timbers even as he spent the last two seasons on loan in his home country, and, with a DP spot open, Portland is taking one more gamble on him.
Jorge Villafaña's return, however, came seemingly from nowhere. The best left back in club history, a US national-teamer and bulwark in that championship season, comes back to MLS after spending two-and-a-half years in Liga MX.
Villafaña's return is the biggest headline from a frantic 48 hours for the Timbers, and for good reason.
The Anaheim native was acquired as a secondary player in the Steve Zakuani trade from Chivas USA ahead of the 2014 season, and made a slow start to life in Portland. He didn't get on the field until late May, and then lost his place in the starting lineup in the summer, before reclaiming it heading into the fall.
From there, though, he took off like a comet. Villafaña would start 47 of the Timbers' next 48, getting better and better until, by the end of 2015, he was MLS's best left back — a tenacious, shutdown defender, excellent crosser, and occasional dead-ball specialist as reliable as anyone on that team.
No one played harder, and very few played better.
The high-point was his performance in MLS Cup, a display so dominant that his winger Ethan Finley — coming off a 12-goal, 13-assist career year — completed just six passes, lost four dribbles in the final third, and was substituted shortly after the hour mark.
Villafaña was sold to Santos Laguna for a fee around $1 million the week after that game, doubling his paycheck and joining one of Mexico's best teams.
His experience there was a mixed bag, but it did result in a championship and his finally breaking into the national team under Bruce Arena. He almost certainly would have been a starter this summer had the U.S. qualified for the World Cup in Russia.
The Timbers, meanwhile, never truly replaced him — and their bringing him back now makes all the sense in the world. He's an aggressive, attacking fullback, and he'll give the Timbers a wide threat from the left side of their 5-3-2 that more closely mirrors what Alvas Powell has provided on the right.
It's an awfully cruel break for Zarek Valentin, who has started every game for this team since mid-March and hardly put a foot wrong, but he was limited going forward by not playing on his natural side. With the Timbers so reliant on their fullbacks for offense, that was a concern. It's not anymore.
Valentin will now likely move to the bench, giving the Timbers cover at both fullback positions and Giovani Savarese a degree of flexibility if he wants to push any of the three players into midfield.
For $175,000 in allocation money, which is what the Timbers sent the LA Galaxy to move up to the top spot in the allocation order and seal his return, the Timbers are getting Villafaña on what is reportedly a three-and-a-half year deal. It's a steal.
Melano, meanwhile, is a much different story and a much different gamble.
His original final act in green and gold could not have been more different than Villafaña's: in the pivotal 2016 regular season finale in Vancouver, Melano missed an open goal from two yards in a performance so dreadful that it ended when he was lifted at halftime for... Jack Barmby.
Why bring him back now? There are a few reasons. First, the Timbers had a DP spot open after Fanendo Adi's move to Cincinnati, and with Melano's loan having expired at the end of the last Argentinian season, he was an obvious fit.
Secondly, though he certainly didn't light the world on fire, Melano showed flashes last season — appearing 26 across competitions for Estudiantes, scoring twice in the Copa Libertatdores and making enough an impression that the club was reportedly interested in bringing him back for another year.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the Timbers are giving their highly capable coach an interesting opportunity.
Melano is every bit the project that he was when he was first signed, and while he never improved under Caleb Porter, Savarese is a former striker and Spanish speaker with an obvious knack for connecting with his players. We'll see what he can make of him.
The good news is that Melano doesn't figure to walk into the starting lineup as he did when the Timbers bought him in the summer of 2015. He should instead be a viable attacking option off the bench for a team that is set up to play to his counter-attacking strengths.
That's the rationale for the signing. But expectations should be low. Melano was barely a soccer player when he left Portland — struggling well beyond what is forgivable with the game's most basic components from finishing to dribbling, refusing to contribute defensively, and frequently drifting out of games entirely.
Safe to say, all things even, the Timbers would be making better use of the DP spot if Adi was still in it. But the way the chips fell, it's Melano. Fate, in the shape of Villafaña's return, likewise meant the end of Vytas's time in Portland.
The Lithuanian had his moments here — he was effective going forward and certainly an upbeat, likable character — but he wasn't a good or consistent enough defender to dislodge Valentin after starting the season sidelined with a hamstring injury.
He will, however, play plenty in DC, for a competitive team that was in desperate need of a left back, and have the opportunity to salvage something from what has been an entirely frustrating year. It's a good move for all parties.
And so, with this final flurry, the Timbers' 2018 roster is set in stone. Villafaña's return, certainly, harkens back to former glories. We'll see if this group, now very much a mixture of old and new, can reproduce the magic of three years ago.