Larrys Mabiala gives the Portland Timbers a centered back
Since his arrival in the summer of 2017, Larrys Mabiala has been an important backbone piece in the Portland Timbers lineup.
The now 34-year-old center back helped Portland to the 2018 MLS Cup Final, starting alongside Liam Ridgewell. Since 2020, Mabiala and Dario Zuparic, when healthy, have been a solid first-choice pairing for coach Giovanni Savarese on Timbers teams that won the 2020 MLS is Back Tournament and reached another MLS Cup Final last season.
Mabiala didn't know what to expect when he first came to Major League Soccer. But having played more than 200 professional soccer matches in Europe, a few with French power Paris Saint-Germain and later for five seasons in Turkey, Mabiala was enticed by the stability a MLS contract offered.
"I just wanted a new challenge after five years in Turkey, where it wasn't easy every day," Mabiala said. "We had a lot of problems with payments and it was hard as a team captain to go every day, talking to the sporting director, the club president, about the salaries, and at the same time having to focus on the game — to be able to win games and stay in the (top) league."
Other than the battles to get paid, Mabiala said he very much enjoyed living in Turkey.
"As a Muslim, living in a Muslim country it was easier for me on a daily basis," Mabiala said. "And the level of the league was great, very good players. So the professional part was amazing, the personal part as well."
With one significant exception: Mabiala's wife, Edwina, lived in Paris with their daughter and son. So, moving to Portland was a chance to reunite with his family.
Still, the move presented challenges away from soccer. Edwina was pregnant with the couple's third child, and Mabiala said she initially struggled with living apart from her family in a new place.
"At the beginning, it was very, very, very hard for my wife. Me, I can live wherever. I'm not very complicated. I can live in a very small village," Mabiala said. "It was more difficult for for my wife because she was pregnant. Everything was new and different. The family wasn't there. It was difficult, but we made it through."
Mabiala said Portland has been great for his kids, that it's a good home for 12-year-old daughter Layana, 5-year-old son Jelany and 4-year-old son Jamal.
"The kids really feel at home here, because this is the longest they've been staying in one country. So, for them, it's like home," he said.
On the field, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Mabiala adapted fairly quickly to the demands of MLS — though five years later he's still not a fan of the travel, such as a recent cross-country trip to Miami.
"I didn't really know what to expect, but I was ready for whatever," he said. "I felt like my experience in Turkey really made the person I am right now, and I was just ready to face any adversity."
This season has served up some of that, starting with sports hernia surgery that kept him sidelined for the first six weeks of this season. And, in part because of injuries, the Timbers have struggled to a 3-6-6 record. Their 15 points from 15 games has them 12th in the Western Conference entering a June 18 match in Los Angeles against the Galaxy.
But Mabiala, who has played in only six of those matches, said it's easy to keep the recent struggles in perspective.
"The (challenges) living in Turkey are 100 times worse than what you have to face here," Mabiala noted. "This is nothing. Sometimes I see some of the guys getting very, very down on some low moments that we have. I'm trying to raise them up and and make them understand that the only way to get through that is by sticking together and having the same target, the same goal."
Real stress, he said, is facing an opponent in the final match of the season with relegation on the line for your team and a Champions League berth at stake for the opponent.
"You know that if you lose you're gonna have a problem with your payments, with going back home because people are going to blackmail you," he said. "What we are going through right now is nothing for me. We're going to face it, and we're going to be fine at the end of the season."
That kind of perspective is one way that Mabiala, along with Diego Chara and Sebastian Blanco, provide leadership Savarese appreciates.
"He grew up in a community and environment where soccer was very important," Savarese said. "He was part of that. He's definitely one of the guys who leads our group."
Some of Mabiala's favorite memories are playing in Sunday soccer tournaments as a young boy growing up in Montfermeil, a poorer suburb of Paris.
"Playing and winning those tournaments. You stay there all day. Parents are there. It smells like food all around the field. Those are amazing, amazing moments as a kid," Mabiala said.
Mabiala's journey from Montfermeil to professional soccer started with tournaments for his local club in Department 93, advanced to regional tournaments and, eventually, to a stint at Clairfontaine, the renowned French training center. During his time at France's national training center, Mabiala was the only youth player not signed with a professional club.
"I got injured, but going back home, I had all the academies in France who wanted to sign me," he said.
At 13, Mabiala joined the Paris Saint-Germain academy.
"This is when I told myself that (soccer) has to be the thing," Mabiala said. "Coming from a very, very difficult area in France, from immigrant parents, when I left my household at 13 years old, I was (thinking) 'This is not for nothing. It has to end up with me being a pro soccer player.'"
Mabiala's pro debut came at 18 with PSG. With Nice from 2009-12 he saw his first significant top-flight action, then came his five seasons in Turkey.
Mabiala describes himself as a homebody who spends time reading, watching soccer and hanging with his children.
"I'm lucky that I have my kids to drag me out. If it was only for myself, I would be home all the time," he said with a laugh.
Recently, he has rediscovered cooking — which he did plenty of while living in Turkey — as an interest. He's learned to cook one of his favorite dishes, chicken yassa.
"I used to cook a lot because I got my first apartment when I was 17. Then I met my wife, and I didn't put any more my feet into the into the kitchen," Mabiala said with a chuckle. "Right now, I'm getting back. And it's great."
Since joining the Timbers in mid-2017, Mabiala has played in 116 MLS regular-season matches (108 starts). Of his eight goals, five were scored in 2018. Additionally, he has started 11 playoff games.
And, he's displayed a flair for the dramatic. His only two goals in 2021 were part of last season's run to the MLS Cup final, including a dramatic late winner in the conference semifinal at Colorado. He also scored the tying goal in Portland's playoff opener, a header moments after his bicycle attempt had to be cleared off the goal line.
And, he scored in the championship of the 2020 MLS is Back Tournament as Portland beat Orlando for that title.
This season, fellow defender Bill Tuiloma leads the Timbers with five goals. Mabiala is happy. Both players came to Portland in 2017 and developed a friendship.
"Right now, he's on fire. And you know what? I know the type of feeling he has right now because in 2018 I was in the same mood, and it feels like every time you go up you're gonna score. And so I'm very, very happy for him," Mabiala said.
Mabiala also is happy with his own play, though at 34 he admits he's not the same player he was when he arrived.
He said working with Savarese and assistant coach Carlos Llamosa, a longtime MLS defender who played in 29 matches with the U.S. Men's National Team, has allowed him to evolve as a player.
"I feel like right now it's just more about experience," Mabiala said. "Coming here, I had more physical abilities. So I was relying more on my physical (ability), and right now I rely more on the mental aspect and the experience, the anticipation, and all that. So I grew in that sense since I've come here."
The goals he's scored — including the 90th-minute winner at Colorado last Thanksgiving Day — of course are lasting memories. But his Timbers moment that reminds him of why he loves his sport, one Mabiala knows won't fade, is the goal Felipe Mora scored with four seconds left to send December's MLS Cup Final to overtime.
"As a player, it's just something you cannot describe. It's amazing," he said. "You play for these type of moments. When you're able to live those moments as a football player — even as a human being — it's just amazing because it's just engraved in your memory."
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