If I told you last year, when the Portland Timbers were blubbering their way around the bottom of MLS, that Portland had a chance to sign a Premier League winner who had Manchester United and Arsenal on his CV, what would you have said? Sign the guy? Of course. I'll pay his salary, just hurry up and sign the guy? Maybe you would have said that too.
Mikael Silvestre is with the Timbers on their training excursion in Arizona right now, and yesterday, he scored the game-winning goal in a friendly against Seattle, while commanding respect and courting easy effectiveness at center-back. Yet Caleb Porter and the Timbers aren't sure they want to sign Silvestre. The doubters are many: He's 35, and Portland already has a glut of center-backs. He's over the hill and he'd cost a lot of money. It's ridiculous. Only one first-team Manchester United player has played in MLS - David Beckham. Only one first-team Arsenal player has played in MLS - Thierry Henry. The Timbers better take step back and figure what they have in Silvestre before it's too late.
Mikael Silvestre was born in Chambray-lès-Tours in France in August, 1977. Silvestre started his playing career with Rennes, and played for the club in Ligue 1 in France in the 1996 season. Silvestre's stock quickly rose, and he was soon signed by Inter Milan. Silvestre was in Italy for one year before being snapped up by Manchester United. Silvestre made over 30 appearances for United every year from 1999 to 2006, and won five Premier League titles at the club, effectively playing at both left and center-back, combining poise, guile and skill to establish himself as a key player in England.
Silvestre's next stop was Arsenal – signing when Arsene Wenger called the defender during his physical at Manchester City with an offer to join the club. Silvestre was in London with the Gunners for the next two years, before moving to Werder Bremen in Germany last year. Silvestre has been capped 40 times by France, and has been offered a contract by an Indian team - most likely for a whole lot more money than the Timbers are going to be able to pay him. Silvestre is 35, but he can still play - pace and peak physical condition aren't necessary to be a successful defender, especially center-back, in MLS. The point is this: Silvestre isn't washed up yet. If the Timbers don't sign him soon, someone else will.
I understand the concerns people have in bringing an older foreign talent to MLS, and I absolutely agree that we shouldn't be blinded by the clubs on Silvestre's pedigree. But the Frenchman has been beyond impressive so far in the preseason with the Timbers. Silvestre has a certain quality, a certain air of confidence that only comes from playing and winning league titles with Manchester United, and the fact that he's here playing preseason games in Tucson in front of 50 people show that Silvestre is willing to work for his place in Portland. The Timbers desperately need Silvestre's ball-playing and positioning skill at the back, not to mention his leadership qualities. He has immediate cache because of where he's been in the game.
Of all the big-name flops who have come from Europe to MLS, defenders aren't usually culprits. Speaking of defenders, there is a thought inside the organization that the Timbers don't need Silvestre - they already have center-backs David Horst, Futty Danso, Andrew John-Baptiste, Hayner Mosquera, and Dylan Tucker-Gangas on the roster.
But here's the thing: That was the same core of center-backs who gave up goal after goal last year. It would be close to criminal for Porter to go into the new season with the same group of backs that let down John Spencer and Gavin Wilkinson, not to mention the fact that all the Timbers center-backs are young and could use a few words of wisdom from the elder Silvestre, and would benefit from watching the Frenchman work his craft in training and games. Silvestre’s guidance of Jean-Baptiste in recent games against Sporting Kansas City and the Sounders stand out, and with Jack Jewsbury’s place in the team uncertain at best, Silvestre could be captain material.
Signing Silvestre, who is just on trial right now with Portland, makes too much sense. If the Timbers had a biggest single problem last year, it was a lack of quality all over the field. Even with his age advancing, Silvestre still has his quality. If he was signed today, Silvestre would be the best center-back on the roster and a shoe-in for the starting 11. Forget the fact that he played for Man. United and Arsenal, not signing someone who you have in camp and would start immediately just doesn't make any sense. I know the Timbers are scarred by their failure with Kris Boyd, a player with similar - although nowhere near as sterling - European credentials, but each case has to be judged on its own merits. Silvestre is good and the Timbers need good players.
The Portland Timbers are going to have a chance to make the playoffs next year. I'm calling that right now. Caleb Porter is organized, efficient, and calculating, traits the Timbers didn't have in the dugout with Spencer and Wilkinson. Quality has been added all over the pitch, Diego Valeri is a stud, Will Johnson is a winner, and Ryan Johnson will help up top. Defense remains the biggest issue, and it's going to be bad if the Timbers wind up in a tight playoff race in December, stuck with David Horst and Futty Danso. As he has already proved this preseason, Silvestre is a very good player. Throw out everything else, and the Timbers are in the business of signing good players. So get Silvestre's signature on a contract. Portland will be won't regret it if they do.
Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports