BEAVERTON, Ore. — The Portland Timbers’ win in Colorado on Thanksgiving didn’t come without losses. Early in the second half, the team’s best attacker, Sebastián Blanco, was taken out of the game with an apparent hamstring injury. In added time, the team’s second-leading goal scorer, Dairon Asprilla, was issued a straight red card. Blanco may yet play on in Saturday’s Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference final against Real Salt Lake (3:30pm PT, TICKETS, FS1). Asprilla won’t.
“Seba is a very competitive player and person,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said on Thursday, leading into his update on Blanco’s health. “He’s making big leaps, pulling off miracles to try and be ready for this game. He may be able to play a few minutes. A few days ago, we thought it was impossible. Today, we’re saying there’s a little hope he’ll be available. That could be very important.”
Part of that importance is the stakes. On Saturday, Portland will host RSL with a spot in this year’s MLS Cup final on the line. The game is a rematch of the 2013 Western Conference final, a home-and-home series that ended the Timbers’ first playoff appearance. RSL went on to represent the West at MLS Cup.
Another part of Blanco’s importance is the quality of the player himself, though Asprilla should be mentioned here, too. Together, the duo combined for 17 goals and 10 assists in the regular season, even with Blanco limited to 12 starts. They accounted for 31 percent of the team’s goals.
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Combine Blanco’s and Asprilla’s status with the absence of Eryk Williamson – lost midseason to an anterior cruciate ligament tear – and the Timbers could be missing three prominent players at kickoff.
“During the entire season, we tried to be overcome those situations with injuries and everything,” Timbers captain Diego Chara said on Thursday. “Obviously, Sebastián and Dairon are key guys for our team. But I think we have other players that have been waiting for this opportunity.”
The most obvious of those others is Santiago Moreno. Acquired midseason from América de Cali in his home country, Colombia, the 21-year-old winger has largely been used as a reserve. He’s made three starts in 13 appearances since signing with the team in July. When Blanco was hurt on Thanksgiving, though, Moreno was his replacement.
Among Savarese’s other options are Diego Valeri, the club’s all-time leading scorer, and Marvin Loría, who finished third on the team in assists this season (six). If Portland elected to change formations to address their injury issues, starting Felipe Mora and Jaroslaw Niezgoda together at forward becomes an option, as does bringing George Fochive in to reinforce Chara and Cristhian Paredes in midfield.
“Now they have the opportunity to play in the conference final,” Chara said of the Timbers who’ll step in. “It’s a big opportunity for them. In my opinion, they are really, really ready to do it.”
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If Portland’s backups are as prepared as Chara things, the starting lineup won’t be Saturday’s biggest challenge. Instead, it will be the bench. Whereas the Timbers normally have the likes of Loría, Moreno, Niezgoda and Valeri in reserve, it’s likely two of those players will have to start. Perhaps Blanco will help reinforce the bench, but if he is unable to play, the team’s ability to change up their attack becomes more limited. Their ability to make wholesale changes will be gone, and over a game that has the potential to last 120 minutes, the Timbers could be more dependent on their starters than usual.
This is not the first time the Timbers have been in this situation this season. In fact, for a team that has tried to make attacking depth a competitive advantage, they’ve been shorthanded more often than you’d expect.
In May, as the team returned to MLS play following their Concacaf Champions League exit. Portland was depleted after a number of injuries in their home loss to the Sounders. Chara, Larrys Mabiala, and Steve Clark were among the players sidelined, as were Blanco and Niezgoda after their knee surgeries in 2020. Two months later, when Yimmi Chara and Mora were on national team duty at Copa America, a lack of attacking options forced Savarese and his staff to switch formations. The team had to begin using a 5-3-2 shape because of its lack of healthy attackers.
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Now, one step away from the team’s third MLS Cup final, the Timbers are again dealing with limited options. But like his team’s captain, Savarese still has faith in the group.
“Not having Asprilla and still battling to see if Seba can make it is not the ideal situation,” he said. “We wish we had both of them available. But if there’s been one thing in this group, we’re going to push together. We’re going to achieve everything we desire, always, by the power of the group …
“We believe in ourselves. We believe in the group. We believe that we’re strong. And we believe in the players, and whoever is going to play a part in [the game] is going to get the job done.”