BEAVERTON, Ore. – It took Sebastián Blanco 19 games to reach the three-goal mark last season. This year, it look him only four, and if his strong finish to 2017 is any indication, Blanco’s second year with the Portland Timbers could yield a pronounced step forward.
That maiden campaign was already a productive one for the Argentine attacker, whose eight-goal and eight-assist debut tickled the fringes of the coveted double-double club (double-digit totals in both assists and goals). It’s a level that’s usually reserved for MLS royalty – players like Sebastian Giovinco (twice), Robbie Keane (twice), and Portland’s own Diego Valeri (three times) – but it’s also a level Blanco mimicked over the last 13 games of last season. The five goals and four assists he collected during that time translate to 13 and 10 over a 34-game schedule.
The eye test also hints at Blanco’s new level. Over the course of the Timbers’ first six games, he’s been a match for his MVP counterpart, equaling Valeri’s goal output while sharing the playmaking responsibilities with his former teammate at Lanús. In the early days of Portland’s new head coach, Giovanni Savarese, Blanco has been the team’s driving force on the counter attack, and to date, he’s responsible for one of Portland’s best goals of the season.
It all hints the 30-year-old midfielder is pushing on from his MLS debut, but from his point of view, Blanco’s first year-plus in North America has all been part of the same process, one that got off to a positive start a year ago.
“The first year went well,” is his diagnosis, looking back on that eight-goal return. “Really, instead of having that adjustment feel stale, at times, I was able to put up some good numbers and also gain some confidence in year one.”
It’s a process with which Blanco is familiar. At 22, the Buenos Aires-native made his first major move, joining FC Metalist in the Ukrainian first division. Three successful seasons earned him a brief look in England, where he joined the Premiership with West Bromwich Albion in 2014, but come the mid-point of his first English campaign, he was back home in Argentina. After two more years there, though, Blanco was ready for his next foray abroad.
Those moves make Blanco an expert, of sorts, when it comes to debuts, having had to make one in three different countries before his arrival in Portland. Between his numbers and the Timbers’ first-place finish in MLS’ Western Conference, though, Blanco’s first year in Portland proved his most successful.
“Things went well for the first year after making a move,” he said, albeit with some modest caveats. “Some things were difficult, and personally, I see things I could have done a little better, but I think with a little more knowledge about the league and the team, things were going to get even better.
“You always want to have more points and get better results, but I was very happy with the last year. Now, with the new coach, new tactics, new style of play, working a little bit harder, I think the changes are going to lead to great things, in time.”
On the field, however, is not the only place Blanco has endured changes. The leap from Buenos Aires to Portland tracks just over 6,830 miles with changes in language and culture that can feel even more daunting than distance, especially for a family with a young daughter. Though the differences in lifestyle for a soccer player were significant, too, Blanco’s changes at the family level were more profound than the ones on the field.
“Whenever you make a move like this with children, with my daughter, it’s going to be something very big,” he says. “Things happen quickly, and you embrace that responsibility. But there’s also a lot of things you learn. They’re big changes, but they’re also opportunities, so you just approach all those changes as positives.”
It’s a worldly perspective that, while easy in theory, is often difficult in practice. Many athletes from other cultures come to Major League Soccer and have trouble settling in. Some fail to adapt to life in North America at all. Blanco is not only doing so but is continuing to try to push forward, speaking English more freely–and more publicly–as part of a new set of challenges.
“Any time you move to a new place, you have new hopes,” he explains, evoking the perspective of a player who has lived in four very different cultures. “This year is a new year, and last year is in the past, so now that goals are totally different–just as they were totally different at my previous clubs, or when I was in Europe.
“Yes, on a personal level, I want to keep moving forward with all the same things, but I want to do so in a bigger way. I want to make this year every better than the last one.”
That outlook helps explain why Blanco continues to become a bigger part of the Timbers’ cultural core. His combination of consistency, positivity and openness has made him a popular part of the squad, albeit a veteran one. Leaders like Diego Chara, Liam Ridgewelland Valeri were established in the dressing room before his arrival, but with his experience and perspective (and, results), Blanco’s influence continues to grow.
“Yes, this year there are a lot more Latinos to talk to in the team,” he said, when asked about the role language has played over his first year with the club. “I don’t always have to try to speak English, this year, which is a good thing. You don’t feel like you’re trying so hard every week to fit in.
“But at the same time, the language on the field is same for everyone … If we’re all on the same page, we don’t necessarily need to speak the same language; we all know the same language of play.”
This year’s change in approach under Savarese has allowed Blanco to dictate even more of that language, something that explains his hot goal-scoring start. Here again, though, Blanco doesn’t see that change as independent of what happened in year one. It’s all part of the voyage he embarked when he left San Lorenzo.
“Last year was good, too, even if there are more freedoms now,” he explains, “whether it’s freedom to get across the field or what I’m being asked to do in defense. I might have less to do in some areas, but I also might get more opportunities on goal.
“But I also don’t have any problem making these kinds of changes. Whether we’re making plans that have me central, or on the right, or on the left, I know how we want to play. It’s all about what’s best for the team, and that means playing in the best places and best ways that the team needs.”
The one place Blanco is definitive about his recent changes, though, is off the field, a distinction that hints where his main goals lie. Between the lines, the experience Blanco’s garnered in Argentina, Ukraine, England and Portland makes the on-field changes easy. He’s got the talent and the knowledge to deal with whatever comes. Off the field, the huge leap he took in leaving Argentina is paying off. His on-field prowess has produced a life he and his family want.
“I’m just really happy,” he says, when asked the most important part of his big move north. “My home, my family, we love it here. It’s very nice very peaceful, which, for a family, is the most important part. For us, Portland’s just been a great place for us to grow.”