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ON SOCCER/BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Defender expresses thanks for return 'home,' while forward from Argentina adds to attacking options

Two members of the Portland Timbers' 2015 MLS Cup championship team are returning to the fold.

On the final day of the MLS summer transfer window, the Timbers acquired popular left back Jorge Villafana, who reportedly has agreed to a 3 1/2-year contract to return to MLS.

In a less surprising development, attacker Lucas Melano is returning to Portland.

To get Villafana, the Timbers sent $75,000 in general allocation money and $100,000 in 2019 targeted allocation money to the Los Angeles Galaxy, which held the top spot in the allocation order.

Villafana, who has made 19 appearances with the U.S. National Team (all in the last 20 months), was subject to the allocation process because the Timbers received more than $500,000 from Mexican club Santos Laguna in that 2015 transfer.

Wednesday evening on Twitter, Villafana reacted to returning to Portland:

"I've been sitting here trying to figure out how to express how excited I am to go back to Portland. But there is so much emotion I can only thank (Timbers president Merritt Paulson and GM Gavin Wilkinson) for making this possible. I'M COMING HOME."

Prior to adding Villafana, the Timbers traded left back Vytas to D.C. United for $50,000 in targeted allocation money. They also sent an international roster spot for the remainder of 2018 to Montreal for $50,000 in general allocation money.

Villafana's strong play during Portland's championship run helped him earn a contract from Santos, and the Timbers didn't have the financial roster flexibility to keep him. He made 76 appearances with the Mexican club.

While the return of Villafana will be welcomed by Timbers fans, it puts another player between Gresham native Marco Farfan and regular playing time with the Timbers.

It will be interesting to watch the competition between Villafana and Zarek Valentin, who has been very good at left back during the Timbers' recent surge.

Valentin is not a natural left-sided player, and Villafana figures to bring more of an attacking/crossing ability. But Valentin is a strong personality who can play any position along the back line, and his vocal leadership has been a key reason for the Timbers' defense keying Portland's 15-game unbeaten run in MLS play.

The return of Melano — who arrived in Portland on Thursday — is no surprise. The Argentine remains on the Timbers books (at more than $1 million total compensation according to MLS Players Association figures). His loan to Argentina club Estudiantes recently expired, and the trade of Fanendo Adi to FC Cincinnati opened the salary cap space to make taking one more look at the speedy Melano possible.

Melano started most of the playoff games in Portland's run to its 2015 MLS Cup title, but was an expensive experiment because the Timbers paid $5 million to initially acquire him (a number likely driven up by interest at the time from Mexican and Spanish clubs).

In 2018, Melano produced five goals and one assist in 26 appearances with Estudiantes. In 50 appearances with the Timbers (including playoffs) in 2015-16, Melano scored five goals and had nine assists.

Melano adds another attacking option along with Dairon Asprilla, Jeremy Ebobisse and Foster Langsdorf behind starter Samuel Armenteros.

Melano never found a comfort level during his first stay in Portland — perhaps because so much was expected of a player who at 22 was playing outside Argentina for the first time. It will be intriguing to see if lowered expectations, a familiarity with MLS and working under Giovanni Savarese translate into a more productive Melano.

Despite his salary, Melano will need to prove he can produce for a Portland team unbeaten in its last 15 MLS games. Savarese has shown through his lineup choices that performance, not paycheck or previous accomplishment, dictates playing time.

Vytas, 27, appeared in only three MLS matches this season after suffering an injury in preseason. He also played in three U.S. Open Cup matches (scoring one goal). Arriving in July 2016 — to fill a void left by Villafana's departure — the Lithuanian international played in 39 MLS matches for Portland (including playoffs), tallying one goal and five assists. He became a fan favorite, as much for his community involvement as for his play.

A few more observations:

• When Dairon Asprilla asked Diego Valeri for the opportunity to take the second penalty kick last week against Philadelphia, the MVP was happy to give Asprilla a chance to score his first MLS goal of the season. (He scored in the June 6 U.S. Open Cup win over San Jose).

"He's a striker. He needed to score and feel confident," Valeri explained.

Savarese, a striker in his playing days, was glad to see it.

"It's always good for a forward to score, especially when it's your first goal. It gets you confidence. It was very important for Asprilla," Savarese said. 

• Sebastian Blanco's value was never more evident than in the 3-0 win against Philadelphia — a game he missed for yellow card accumulation. Without the feisty Argentine, Portland struggled to find the quick counterattacks that have become the Timbers' primary weapon.

Valeri noted that Blanco usually is among the leaders in touches for the Timbers.

"He's very good one-on-one and can change the game doing that (and) win duels," Valeri says.

• Analyzing the MLS standings in the summer is foolish.

Just look at Seattle. Three weeks ago, consensus was the floundering Sounders were dead in the water. Three wins later — and after scoring twice in stoppage time to stun Minnesota on Saturday — Seattle is only five points outside of a playoff spot. Considering moves made before Wednesday's summer transfer deadline, there is far more doubt than certainty about the strength of contenders entering the final two months of the regular season.

Portland, with its 14 remaining games evenly split between Providence Park and the road, has plenty of work ahead — including a road trip to D.C. United (against Vytas?) and to Sporting Kansas City in the seven days following the Whitecaps' visit. It is the first of a trio of three-game weeks in a six-week window.

But by surging into second place in the Western Conference with at least two games in hand on every team in the conference, the Timbers (10-3-7, 37 points) do have a bit of a cushion for that inevitable stumble.

• Adi made his debut for Cincinnati on Saturday, entering in the 73rd minute of a 1-1 draw with Nashville in United Soccer League action.

He did not score, but has joined a club on an 11-game unbeaten run.

USL teams only play within their conference, so Adi will not be playing against Timbers 2 (unless Portland advances to that league's championship).

• Houston will play host Philadelphia on Sept. 26 in the championship match of the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament.

In Wednesday's semifinals, Philadelphia (which rested several key players in its visit to Portland) beat Chicago, 3-0, and Houston advanced on penalty kicks over Los Angeles FC after the teams battled to a 3-3 draw.

• Former Timbers defender Pa Modou Kah has been hired by Cincinnati as part of its scouting staff ahead of the club's move to MLS in 2019.

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