Before the 2018 season began, the Portland Timbers figured to wind up with a logjam at forward, with two internationals battling for the lead role in the Timbers attack: incumbent striker Fanendo Adi and new arrival Samuel Armenteros. A forgotten man at the time was a second-year pro still trying to find his way in MLS, a player few would have pegged to wind up settling into a key role in the playoffs eight months later.
Jeremy Ebobisse is thriving as Portland's lead striker, starting in four of the Timbers past five matches and only sitting in a season-ending loss to Vancouver where Giovanni Savarese rested several starters. The 21-year-old has provided a goal or assist in three of his past four matches, including scoring in Portland's playoff semifinal first-leg win against Seattle on Sunday.
What has made Ebobisse's recent rise so impressive is what he came through to be in that position, having endured the challenges of being a young forward on a team with quality veterans at his position.
Ebobisse had become a bit of a forgotten player early in 2018, third on the Timbers depth chart at striker, if not lower at times. He managed just eight MLS minutes through Portland's first 26 league matches and, save for a goal-scoring performance in June in the U.S. Open Cup, the former U.S. Under-20 forward had barely registered a blip.
"There were a lot of things last year that made me grow up, but I realized if I didn't grow up as quickly as I did off the field I'd be jeopardizing my own career," Ebobisse told Goal. "Even now I don't feel like I'm in a position where I'm super secure at all. The next game could be my last game if I don't have a good game. I think that drive is something that's been instilled in me in the last 12 to 18 months.
"Obviously as a youth player you're usually one of the best players on your team if you're going to make it to the pro level, and there's not as much of a threat of losing your spot," Ebobisse said. "Coming in and sitting on the bench is a new experience for a lot of us. Some of us don't react well. I definitely had some rough days where maybe my attitude wasn't as good off the field, because when I get to training I put all that aside, but everything that's happened has made me become a better pro."
The fourth overall pick in the 2017 MLS Draft, Ebobisse struggled for minutes as a rookie, managing just two starts and 317 total minutes. He played for the United States in the Under-20 World Cup in the summer of 2017, but saw his role largely limited to that of a substitute behind current U.S. national team striker Josh Sargent. This year, Ebobisse continued to find himself struggling for first-team minutes.
"Mentally it was a lot last year and even at the beginning of this year," Ebobisse said. "Anyone who's not playing, whether you're on a first-team deal playing with the second team, or just on the bench, it's a lot to deal with. We've got a good group of young guys here that are always pushing each other to be ready. It's a cliche. You never want to hear it when you're not playing because you feel like it's never going to come. But we'd be doing ourselves a disservice if we're not pushing ourselves every day to get ready, because if that chance does come and we blow it it could be our final chance. You never know when it's going to come again."
Ebobisse's first real chance with the Timbers has come in the past two months, after Armenteros hit a run of poor form, leaving the Timbers looking for alternatives. Ebobisse had begun to show well with Timbers 2, which in itself was significant progress because he had moments where he struggled even in USL play.
"I acknowledge that sometimes subconsciously maybe I didn't put in my best games with T2 and that's one thing that I had to look at myself in the mirror and say that's not good enough," Ebobisse said. "If I was going to get chances with the first team I knew I had to find a run of form with T2 and that's what I started to do toward mid-to-late September.
"The most important part of T2 was that I was able to keep match fitness and sharpness," Ebobisse said. "For young MLS players, we don't always see the opportunity to go down to USL. We're frustrated because we feel we should be playing with the first team, but it's important to find a way to get whatever you can out of it. You have to find a way to enjoy it. I definitely had some rough moments with T2, even this year, that made people wonder if I'm up to the level to train with the first team."
One person keeping close tabs on Ebobisse was Timbers boss Savarese.
"Even when I was out of the picture, he still took interest in my development, in how I was playing with T2 and how I was training," Ebobisse said. "Even if we're doing a small-sided game he'll be watching, always on top of things. Even when you think he's not looking at something going down in training, or missed something that you did in training, he's there and he'll bring it up at some point. His awareness of the players and different personalities and what goes on in training is teaching us a lot."
Savarese liked enough of what he saw in Ebobisse to give him a start in September against the Colorado Rapids and the youngster responded by scoring a goal in a 2-0 win. He earned one more start before returning to the bench for a pair of matches in which Armenteros continue to struggle. Savarese turned to Ebobisse one more time, hoping the young striker's energy would help make things easier for Portland's playmakers. What Savarese found was a hungry young forward who helped provide the work rate that had been missing on the front line.
"I've always said that forwards need to work hard and to make sure they help defensively and then that they can also give us the way to find opportunities going forward," Savarese told reporters after an October win against Real Salt Lake. "(Ebobisse) worked very, very hard through the entire match to be available, to match up, to hold the ball, to link up, to attack the spaces, to create chances and also go all the way back to midfield to make sure that they didn't find the midfielders. And that was very important from his part and from (Diego) Valeri's part as well. Unfortunately he tried to find some things in there and he couldn't, but his performance was very good today."
"They make the game very easy," Ebobisse said. "It's just about finding ways to make sure I'm in a position to help them. If they're content with my positioning on the field chances are I'm going to reap the rewards. These guys will find you with the ball, it's just about being smart enough to be in their minds and go where they expect me to be."
Ebobisse's hold-up play has improved considerably for a player who was known more for facing up defenders as a youth national team prospect. He gave credit to the example set by his former teammate, the 6-foot-4-inch Adi, for helping him mold his game as a target player.
"Coming into last year, being behind a guy like Adi and seeing how vital his hold-up play was to our attack, I realized that that was something that would be expected out of me," Ebobisse said. "I'm not a big, imposing figure like him, so I knew that I was going to have to put a lot more work in and the coaching staff last year helped me a lot with that, just bumping me with dummies and making sure I was strong holding onto the ball.
"Slowly, but surely it's become a little bit more natural. It's not anywhere near where I want it to be, but I'm becoming more and more comfortable and I'm giving myself more things to get better in game situations."
Ebobisse has matured considerably, both on and off the field. Away from the pitch, Ebobisse has established himself as one of the more socially conscious players in MLS, with a penchant for speaking his mind on social media. In a league where few players step out and address social issues on a consistent basis, Ebobisse hasn't been afraid to address topics he feels strongly about.
"There's more to soccer players than the product on the field. Once I take off the shirt I am who I am, unapologetically," Ebobisse said. "I put a lot of thought into what is put out on my social media, but I do think there are messages that do need to be spoken about. There's stuff that means a lot to me and at different points in my life have had a different effect on my development. I wasn't always like that, but when I went to college there were a couple of incidents that made me hyper-aware of some things I had been shielded from. It just made me think that if I had been shielded from it, then how many other people (are there) like me who don't know what's going on.
"No matter how far I go in my career, I always want to stay true to myself and speak my mind," Ebobisse said. "I don't think players are required to do anything like that, but I would appreciate if more players spoke about that kind of stuff. Representation is important and we need leaders in these social issues. And if young kids see a professional who they admire talking about these issues then chance is he's going to think about it a little bit more than if it were his teacher, for whatever reason."
Yearly reminder that Election Day should be a holiday and no one should have to decide between working for desperately needed money/opportunity & exercising their right to vote. That said to those of you who can, your votes matter, whether it’s a state/county seat or judge #vote— Jeremy Ebobisse (@kingjebo) November 6, 2018
Ebobisse also doesn't buy the notion that pro athletes should stick to talking about only sports.
"People put their mind and opinion in everything. Everything is so intertwined, it always has been in this country, so I think 'stick to sports' is really irrelevant," Ebobisse said. "The 'stick to sports' crowd is pretty particular. The kind of people they want sticking to sports is very selective."
As focused as he is on social issues off the field, Ebobisse is equally focused on the field as he looks to keep improving and building toward the goals he has set out for himself. He wants to strengthen his hold on a starting role with the Timbers and is hoping to play himself into the U.S. Under-23 national team player pool, with an eye toward the 2020 Olympics. He admits that the U.S. national team is a goal, especially wtih the youth movement currently taking place, and the lack of forwards in the player pool, but he is also self aware enough to know he is just a few months removed from playing regularly in USL.
Now, Ebobisse is in the MLS playoffs, starting for the Timbers in a derby showdown with the Seattle Sounders, with the decisive second leg looming on Thursday. After scoring in the first-leg win, Ebobisse is determined to keep the momentum going, and to continue earning opportunities.
"It's mostly about staying grounded mentally, knowing that I need to take everything step by step," Ebobisse said "Knowing there'd be ups and downs, but that I was obviously out there for a reason. I just need to keep believing in myself and find ways to complement the other guys around me. I think that's also been super important. Finding a way to link up with Valeri as much as I can, get on the end of Blanco's crosses, and then defensively do all the things they ask me and then the rest will take care of itself."