It could not have started any worse for Mikael Silvestre in Portland. The Timbers’ newest high-profile player looked like a deer getting stomped by Red Bulls in the headlights of the club’s high-profile MLS season opener.
In his first 45 minutes, Silvestre looked old, slow, and French. He also looked destined to become the next casualty in a long line of accomplished international players to come to America for a paycheck and a career swansong, only to never devote the kind of focus, drive and effort required to be successful in MLS.
Rafael Marquez, anyone?
While the signing of Silvestre looked great on paper, there were some lingering questions as to why he was bouncing around the Pacific Northwest on trial with MLS clubs in the midst of the European season. Why was a player with Manchester United and Arsenal on his CV at Jeld-Wen Field, playing for the Timbers on a non-designated player contract? Had the well dried up in Europe? Was there no market for Silvestre?
After all, Silvestre’s 2012 season had been almost as tumultuous as that of the club he joined to start fresh in 2013. After being released from Arsenal at the end of a 2011 season during which he was seldom used, Silvestre went to Weder Bremen in the German Bundesliga, where Sporting Director Klaus Allfos lambasted Silvestre, saying, “[Silvestre] has been a disappointment at left back, his playing style is remarkably slow and he makes many mistakes.”
Had Portland signed a great name that accompanied a hollowed out shell of a player?
As he was proving with resounding professionalism, understanding and sturdiness, the answer was an emphatic no.
Aside from 45 minutes against New York in which he was tripped up by jet-lag and lack of familiarity with his teammates and field turf, Mikael Silvestre has been a revelation for the Portland Timbers.
Firstly, Silvestre’s presence and confidence on the backline had been immeasurable this year. Coming in with the immediate cache and influence that comes with winning the Premier League five times, Silvestre was the point-man in organizing a Timbers defense that was all over the place in 2012.
With Silvestre, Portland’s back-line has kept a cohesive shape, rarely getting bypassed with through-balls or long-balls. Marking and communication have also improved, and Silvestre, individually, was a rock – sturdy and steady – easily tough and wily enough to cope with MLS forwards.
Silvestre was also an important part of the Timbers’ attack. Calm and collected in possession, Silvestre had been starting Portland attacks by spraying long-balls around the park with pinpoint accuracy – he was especially effective in hitting Darlington Nagbe and Ryan Johnson, who could both keep the ball and hold play up efficiently to trigger breaks.
Silvestre’s poise at the back also allowed the Timbers to commit players forward. At many points this year, Silvestre was the only man sitting defensively, while the Timbers haven’t had to play with a true defensive midfielder to shield the backline. Diego Chara and Will Johnson have both been released to go forward more than in years past.
But it’s the off-the-field commitment and attitude that has been most impressive about Silvestre.
When some players come to Portland, they take their game to the next level because they are invigorated by the fans and atmosphere at Jeld-Wen. In some cities, MLS can feel like a minor league sport. In Portland, it’s major league. I’ll never forget Mike Chabala relishing in the support, karate chopping a victory log after the famous 3-0 victory over the LA Galaxy in 2011 to the delight of the Timbers Army.
For many players, playing in Portland is a treat in itself. But Silvestre worked his trade in front of 75,000 at Old Trafford for almost ten years, then moved to 60,000 at the Emirates, and finally 42,000 at the Weserstadion at Werder. Champions League, World Cup, European Championships, you name it, Silvestre’s done it.
Silvestre was never going to be motivated by playing in Portland. And yet, he seemed thrilled to be here. Never aloof or overconfident, he cheerily interacted with fans through Twitter, while integrating himself into the team and taking a leadership role. Silvestre seemed to be enjoying living in Portland and certainly seemed to be enjoying his football, where his effort was never in question.
Silvestre wasn’t a world-beater in his few games this year – he still made the kinds of jaw-dropping gaffes that have plagued him his whole career – but he certainly took the Timbers defense to another level. Without him, Portland has a very mediocre back-line, bereft or real comfort or experience.
It was always unlikely that a seasoned, 35-year-old French center-back would become a folk hero to the Timbers Army, but when Silvestre’s bloodied face was shown on the big screen jawing at Alan Gordon in the heat of the San Jose game, he was on his way.
If his record in Portland so far is any indication, Silvestre will work hard to get back onto the field for the start of the 2014 season. His Timbers career won’t be a long one, but it could still be an impactful one.
Silvestre’s torn ACL was a hammer-blow for the Timbers and a real punch in the gut for the team’s supporters. To think, after those first 45 minutes, that there would be any such reverberations from a season-ending Silvestre injury is a testament to the man himself.
Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports