Scouting reports on the Portland Timbers almost always start with Diego Valeri, the sublime midfield playmaker who is the archetype for turning an under-the-radar South American into a star in MLS.
But as last year’s MLS Cup runners-up come to Chester to visit the first-place Union on Saturday (7:30 p.m., PHL17), a different Argentine tops the marquee. New forward Brian Fernandez has made quite an impression so far, scoring in his Timbers debut May 15 after arriving from Mexican club Necaxa for a transfer fee reportedly in the high seven figures.
Fernandez’s reputation preceded his arrival for reasons beyond the big money. A few weeks before the move, he was suspended by the Mexican league for spitting at a fan. Back in 2015, when with Argentina’s Racing Club, he tested positive for cocaine and was suspended for a year by South America’s continental governing body CONMEBOL.
What gets the most attention, of course, is scoring goals, and Fernandez has done that plenty. The 24-year-old has 43 goals in 108 professional games, including 18 in 32 for Necaxa. He’s still settling in with the Timbers — the aforementioned debut was a 25-minute run as a substitute — but he definitely has the Union’s attention.
“I watch a lot of the Mexican league,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “I’ve seen him; I’m familiar with him. He’s a handful — there’s no secret to that. The price tag that he comes over here with, the investment from Portland, is a real one. He’s a top player.”
At the same time, no one would dare overlook Valeri, or his midfield colleagues Sebastián Blanco and Diego Chará. Curtin is a fan of Chará, a tenacious defensive midfielder who also has a solid passing game.
“Chará has been, for me, hands down the most underrated player that our league’s had in the past [few] years,” Curtin said.
The midfield battle should be fun: Portland’s Valeri, Blanco and Chará vs. the Union’s Brenden Aaronson, Alejandro Bedoya, Jamiro Monteiro and Haris Medunjanin — plus a possible cameo from Marco Fabián if the Mexican’s injured ankle heals enough.
“It will be great to have him back in whatever capacity that is,” Curtin said of Fabián. “I hope he’ll play a role against Portland. It certainly is a nice piece to have coming off your bench to change a game at the end.”
The Union haven’t beaten Portland since 2015, and are determined to get the ball in the net after last Saturday’s scoreless tie with Seattle. On top of that, the Timbers are making a long cross-country trip (albeit on a week and a half of rest) for the last of 12 straight road games before their stadium reopens after major renovations. Providence Park has gained a towering new roofed stand that will further electrify one of American soccer’s most atmospheric venues.
All things considered, Saturday’s game has the potential to be pretty entertaining, and give the Union another chance to make a statement about their quality.