SEATTLE – If the spring and early summer of the Portland Timbers’ 2018 Major League Soccer season was defined by the club’s 15-game unbeaten run, the ensuing months will be remembered as a time of less certainty, one defined by a squad regressing to their mean and the uncertainty the team had to navigate at its forward positions.
No player bore the insecurities of that process more than Dairon Asprilla. As early as the second game of the season, fans had questions about why the nominal right winger was also being used in a striker’s role. In the wake of Fanendo Adi’s departure, Asprilla’s new positioning became a more common occurrence, and come the end of the season, with the Colombian finishing the campaign with only one MLS goal, those beyond Giovanni Savarese’s staff wondered what, if any, fruits Portland were borne from the Asprilla trials.
The payoff came on Thursday in the deciding leg of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals against Seattle Sounders FC. When Asprilla was chosen as Portland’s first substitute – with the team 18 minutes from the end of their season – fans may have rued a denouement had arrived, the team had slightly over a quarter-hour to score, yet there were pinning their hopes on player whose season had not produced an open play goal. Had 2018 become The Year of Dairon?
Yes and no. Timbers fans will always remember this year as one where so much time was devoted to debating the attacker’s value. But when Asprilla’s contributions mattered most, the time Savarese had invested in him was rewarded. Setting up a late go-ahead goal, scoring three minutes into extra time and converting the semifinal-clinching penalty kick, Asprilla turned a season’s worth of anxiety on its ear, becoming the hero of Portland’s latest and greatest triumph over Seattle.
“I think at the end, if you work hard and you believe, always,” Savarese explained, “soccer is going to reward you.
“He has been working very hard, and today, he was able to be very important for the team.”
Asprilla hasn’t had much cause to speak to the media, this season. Splitting time between the Timbers and their USL team, Timbers 2, the 26-year-old has had to live 2018 in two worlds, with each place pointed toward the same goal. Picking up isolated starts throughout the year – such as the defensive roles he had in Seattle, in the regular season, and New England – Asprilla has quietly given performances that drew coaches’ praise. That he has also failed to hold down a regular role has meant cameras and microphones have largely ignored him.
In a year of targeted contributions, Asprilla’s latest ended up being his most important. A lay-off assist to Sebastián Blanco in the 78th minute, helping produce a goal that looked destined to send Portland through. A leaping, far-post header in the 93rd, another score that put the Timbers on the verge of the conference final. Then, the final penalty kick of the night’s shootout, one converted with an authority that belied every uncertainty that’d surfaced over the season.
“First of all, I want to thank God for the victory,” Asprilla said postgame, his religion often a part of his rare public words. “It means a lot for us after all the hard work we had to put in. It’s very important to win a match in such way because it gives us even more confidence for what’s coming ahead.”
They’re similar words to what you’d hear from a player used to recording a goal and an assist. It was only the second time in Asprilla’s career he had done so, though – the other coming in the 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs. While nobody would have begrudged the winger an ‘I told you so’ moment, the former Atlético Nacional and Millionarios attacker refused to monopolize the moment.
“[My performance] makes me very, very happy,” he explained, before casting himself back with the rest of the squad. “I was waiting for an opportunity, just like many other teammates. It was a very special moment. I think if you try to do everything with love, things work out for you.”
The love certainly has manifest in Portland’s postseasons. Before the playoffs, Asprilla has five goals in 79 career appearances, with his minutes played totals casting that as roughly a season-and-a-half worth of MLS play. Come the postseason, though, Asprilla has now scored three times in 563 minutes, logging goals in each of the 2015, 2017 and 2018 playoffs.
“We are very, very happy for him,” captain Diego Valeri said. “He deserved this. He had some bad moments during the year, but he showed how much quality he has.”
From the outside, that quality wasn’t always apparent, leaving those watching the Timbers to wonder why Savarese maintained his faith. On Thursday, with Portland’s season on the line, they found out.