FARLEY | Timbers crowd, Sebastián Blanco help make each others' returns special

20210619 sebastian blanco giovanni savarese

PORTLAND, Ore. — Everything you need to know about Sebastián Blanco’s importance to Portland Timbers fans was on display at 9:14 p.m. Pacific time. And everything you need to know about those fans’ importance to the Portland Timbers was evident in that moment.

After nine months of recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Blanco, voted best player during last summer’s MLS Is Back tournament, returned to the field, coming off the bench in the 80th minute of his team’s 2-1 victory over Sporting Kansas City at Providence Park. His shift would have been non-descript — killing off a match as one of three forwards confronting the Sporting defense — were it not for the moment’s context. Nine months of work and patience from the Timbers, Portland’s training and performance staff, and of course the player himself culminated when the roar of 20,000 ushered him onto the field.

“I had a lot of emotions when I entered [the game],” Blanco said after the match, when asked how his return felt. “I heard the people, and [the feeling is] difficult to explain … But, it’s relief, first of all. I worked very hard to come back to the field, and now, I can look forward.”

In a night of comebacks, Blanco’s was one of the most important. Along with his, midfielder Diego Chara, goalkeeper Steve Clark and defender Larrys Mabiala returned to the team. Though their injury absences were nowhere near as long as Blanco’s, their loss had become part of the story defining the regular season’s first months. At one point, the Timbers had 11 players listed as “Out” on their injury list. Saturday began Portland’s return to health.

“We’re getting guys back,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said. “Little by little, we’ll start getting them more minutes, building them up, and hopefully soon we’ll have the depth that we know that we have in this team.”

In that way, the game also marked a step toward normalcy, with those steps happening both on and off the field. For the first time since March 2020, Portland had something approaching a normal-sized crowd. After those early-season matches, Covid-19 put a halt to our typical world. Over the 15 months that followed, Providence Park’s stands were largely empty, with the crowds that were allowed this spring capped at a fraction of their normal size.

On Saturday, the Timbers were allowed to fill 80 percent of the seats at Providence Park. The difference was drastic. Not only did support resume at full force from the North End, but the other traditions that connect fans and players returned, too. The roar as players surface for warmups. The “P-T, F-C” chant that follows. The “home of the Timbers” that caps the anthem. The sea of waving flags that flows before kickoff.

“What a difference,” Savarese said, having previously called the night “wonderful.” “[It was] incredible. This place was electric.”

In the 80th minute, Blanco’s substitution was that electricity’s focus, and soon into the crowd’s eruption, you realized their part in the moment. You realized because, scared from a year when their presence was lost, it was hard to avoid the counterfactual: What if capacity hadn’t been raised for Blanco’s return? What if the crowd was still capped at a smaller number, or not allowed at all? What if Blanco’s nine months of recovery, pain and work was rewarded with an announcer’s echoes off concrete and wood? What if both sides missed out?

“I don’t have words to [describe] the people,” Blanco said, when asked how the crowd made him feel.  “I’m only, I’m thankful. A lot. Too much love. The support to come back, be back to the field in our home, with our people at 80 percent capacity, winning the game — it’s too much for nine months.”

Perhaps now, less than an hour after tonight’s final whistle, romanticism is winning out. In the days that come, we might remember Blanco return and the crowd’s as their own separate moments. But as important as Blanco has become to the fanbase, and as much as they showed that importance, it’s impossible to believe that moment could have happened without them. Yes, he would have returned, and with that return, an important milestone would have been reached, but the moment would have been different that it might not have been a moment at all. Footage of him coming back to empty stands would be defined by what was lost.

Last year forced a different reality on us, and within the sports part of that world, we learned that, yes, we can carry on. But the way we moved forward was never enough, and while in moments like last year’s MLS Is Back tournament we made the best of what we had, something was always wrong.

That wrong began to be righted tonight. As players returned from their absences, the crowd returned from theirs. And in Blanco’s moment, we saw again why the fans are so important.

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