PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Because Dairon Asprilla's father was never able to see his son play for the Timbers, the Portland forward brings a memento of him to every game.
Under his jersey, Asprilla wears a T-shirt bearing Arcadio Asprilla's picture and a heart. When Asprilla scores, he lifts his jersey, revealing the photo.
It's his way of keeping his late father — whom he calls his superhero — close.
Arcadio Asprilla had claustrophobia and couldn't visit Portland from his native Colombia because of the confined spaces on airplanes. The elder Asprilla even had trouble traveling by car.
“Having the shirt on motivates me on the field and makes me feel like he’s with me,” Asprilla said. “Because when he was still here, even in Colombia, he was always with me at my games so that’s just my way of dedicating my career to him, but also just to feel like he’s with me.”
Last year when his father passed away at 60, Asprilla was devastated. It didn't help that he was sidelined by injury, and that the pandemic kept him largely isolated from family and friends.
But the crushing moment also gave Asprilla a new resolve: He would make his father proud. He would get his career — which had floundered in recent years — back on track.
“He was my role model and my friend aside from just being my dad,” Asprilla said. “I looked up to him all the time. And he was the biggest part of me being able to be successful in my career. So he was just always there."
Asprilla has scored 10 goals this season, more than all his previous years with the Timbers combined.
He's up for Major League Soccer's Goal of the Year for an acrobatic bicycle kick goal from outside the box that secured Portland's 2-0 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes on Oct. 27.
There's a log that sits in the north end of Providence Park. After every Timbers goal, a slab is cut off the log and presented to the player who scored.
In a twist, after scoring that goal, Asprilla climbed atop the log and gestured with both arms outstretched to the Timbers Army supporters' section, which went wild.
“Goal of the Year – that’s it,” Portland coach Giovanni Savarese said afterward. “I mean, unbelievable goal."
The brash celebration contrasted with Asprilla's soft-spoken off-field demeanor. The 29-year-old is learning English, but in interviews he still prefers to speak in Spanish with an interpreter.
Asprilla, now in his seventh season with the Timbers, has had an up-and-down tenure in Portland, shuttled between the senior team and the lower-division Timbers 2 in 2018 and 2019. Then spending most of 2020 injured.
But he seems to always come up big for the Timbers late in the season, earning the moniker “Mr. October." In 2019, he scored against the San Jose Earthquakes on Decision Day, helping to secure Portland a spot in the postseason.
In 2018, he was the hero of Portland's two-legged Western Conference semifinal victory over the rival Seattle Sounders. Asprilla scored in extra time then buried the deciding penalty kick.
Asprilla said he's gained confidence by earning more playing time.
“I always had my head high and gave my all, but I think in the years past, I lacked opportunities and trust. Now I have that. I have the trust of our head coach and I have full trust with my teammates,” he said. “So that has helped me a lot on the field.”
Asprilla has matured and it shows, Savarese said.
“He’s given us what we need. He’s been very constant, not only in the work that he has put in at being important and giving us many different things, but especially, he’s been prolific in scoring goals,” Savarese said.
Asprilla will once again be pressed to perform in the postseason Sunday, when the fourth-seeded Timbers host fifth-seeded Minnesota in the opening round of the playoffs.
His father will no doubt be with him in spirit.
“It was really hard, but it strengthened me in ways that I didn’t know," he said about his struggles last year. ”And I promised my dad and God that I would enjoy every day and try to just be happy and give my all — and show who Dairon Asprilla is."
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Anne M. Peterson, The Associated Press