When Lucas Melano took the field in Frisco, Texas, last November, he entered with the task of helping close out the match that would send the Portland Timbers to the MLS Cup final. He not only helped his side run out the clock, he put FC Dallas away for good with a stoppage-time goal just two minutes after entering the match.
A week later, Melano was busy serving up a perfect cross to Rodney Wallace for the opening goal in an MLS Cup final triumph that will never be forgotten in Portland.
|After winning the club's first MLS Cup, the Timbers are swaggering into the season looking for an encore.READ MORE|
Melano's playoff heroics helped put a satisfying cap on an up-and-down first season in MLS for the Argentine speedster. Signed as a designated player last summer, Melano arrived with high expectations, and early on he showed flashes of the quality the Timbers hoped they would see.
Unfortunately for Melano, consistency was difficult to maintain, and though he regularly found himself in the Timbers' starting lineup, he wasn't delivering the goals and assists expected from a high-priced international signing. He managed just one goal and one assist through his first 11 matches, and wound up on the bench for a pair of matches before closing out the regular season with a pair of assists in the final two games of the season, both victories.
"It wasn't easy making the transition here and I did feel the pressure to play well and that weighed on me in the beginning," Melano told Goal USA. "Coming to a team that was already put together is a challenge, but it helped to have some Argentines on the team, to help with adjusting to life here.
"On the field I know I needed to play better."
Melano's signature moment came in that fateful playoff victory against FC Dallas. The Timbers held a precarious one-goal lead in the series when Melano entered as a stoppage-time substitute. Just seconds after entering the match, Melano ran onto a back-heel pass from Diego Valeri and darted through the FC Dallas defense and past goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez before sliding a perfectly placed shot from a very tight angle to secure the series victory and book Portland's place in the MLS Cup final, which Melano started in.
"When you win a championship, that experience is unforgettable, and those moments when I was able to help us will always be with me," Melano said. "Things didn't always go well last year, but to have my first season (in Portland) end the way it did gives me confidence going into this new year."
Melano's role on the 2016 Timbers is clear-cut. He is expected to be a regular starter on the left flank, where Caleb Porter will be hoping his speed can terrorize opponents on a regular basis.
"That’s why we knew we’d be in really good shape even though we lost Rodney (Wallace),” Porter told Goal USA. “We knew we basically had a starting player waiting in the wings. (Melano) looks more comfortable by the day, and looks more in sync with his teammates."
The former standout at Argentine side Lanus has his Argentine teammates on last year's Timbers team to thank with helping his transition to the U.S. Diego Valeri, Maxi Urruti and Norberto Papparatto helped Melano's adaptation to a new country, which is something he helped pay forward with other Argentines that came to MLS after he did, like New York Red Bull midfielder Gonzalo Veron, who Melano spent time with when the Red Bulls paid Portland a visit.
"It's natural to miss home when you first leave for a new league and new country and when you can sit down for dinner and a good chat with people from your country it helps," Melano said. "There is that connection that helps us all."
Porter credits players like Valeri for making Melano feel at home, but also credits Melano with being a good teammate who has worked hard to gel with the tam.
"It helps having teammates who can help you adapt, but you also have to be open to that and be a good person and teammate," Porter said. "Lucas is a lot like Diego (Valeri) in that he's a good person and social and good teammate. When you do the right things and carry yourself the right way you're going to be okay."
Porter never worried about Melano's early struggles, as evidenced by his willingness to play him in the Timbers' most important matches in the playoffs.
"We knew he’d take time to settle, but the reason we signed him was because he was a talented young player," the coach said. "We knew he’d help us immediately because he was another dynamic piece who could change the game, but we were also excited about his potential and you’ll see over time that he’s not just a guy who has pace.
"He has the ability to show up in good spots and finish a play. That’s what I’m seeing more and more as time goes on. He’s getting more comfortable and settled with his teammates and this year I see him showing his overall game."
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