20210831 sebastian blanco at seattle

If there was any doubt about how much Sunday’s goal meant to Sebastián Blanco, the player’s Instagram feed quickly addressed it. Once the Timbers attacker had returned to Portland, he took to his timeline to share his emotions.

“Yesterday a circle was closed,” Blanco posted on Monday. Eleven months earlier, the 33-year-old tore his anterior cruciate ligament in a game at what is now called Lumen Field. On Sunday, Blanco scored the opening goal in his team’s 2-0 victory – the team’s first game in Seattle since his return to the field.

“I returned to the place where a year ago I spent one of the worst moments of my career,” he said. “[I]t was with a goal and victory and on my daughter's birthday.” Blanco and his wife have two daughters. On Sunday, their eldest turned four.

“Thank you God for this new opportunity,” he continued. “[I’m] very proud of this team showing character and personality in a difficult moment! [W]e need to keep improving and working hard.”

Instagram is the perfect medium for Blanco. Like most players, he’s better on his timeline than he is in post-match news conferences, or in the quick television hits players have to do while leaving a field. He was one of the players in Portland’s post-match video availability, which went fine in the same way all postgame interviews are generally fine, but on Instagram, he can both choose and hit his marks. The English he’s cultivated goes right below his native Spanish. He has time to choose his words.

After Sunday, there were so many marks to hit. There was his journey back from knee surgery, but there was his daughter’s birthday, too. There was the team’s result, so needed after getting only one win in their previous seven games, and there was also the bad news: a dark coincidence which, occurring early in Sunday’s game, cast a cloud over Blanco’s Seattle return.

“Very sad for the injury of [Eryk Williamson],” Blanco’s post noted. Williamson was stretched from the field in Sunday’s first half under circumstances reminiscent of Blanco’s injury in Seattle. It was later revealed that he had torn his left ACL.

“[Y]ou are going to come back better than before friend, to work hard,” Blanco posted. “[H]ere we are with you at all times.”

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Eleven months ago, Blanco was on the other end of those well wishes. Coming off a performance at the MLS is Back Tournament where he was named the competition’s best player, Blanco was primed to seize his moment. Early in Sept. 6, 2020’s game, though, a shift of weight near Lumen’s east sideline ended with Blanco coiled on the ground. Moments later, with his back against the field’s signboards, tears fell down his face. An athlete knows when something is really wrong, especially when they’ve been there before.

Blanco had. Roughly nine years earlier, Blanco suffered his first ACL injury months after moving from Argentina to Ukraine. It was the first major transfer of his career, leaving his hometown team of Lanús in Buenos Aires to join a Metalist Kharkiv team that inject him directly into Europa League competition. Two games into his Metalist career, he was out for over six months.

His latest recovery was much different. “I’m more mature.,” he told The Athletic earlier this year. “I see things differently.” Instead of being months into a new home, Blanco was well-established in Portland when his latest injury happened. He was able to approach the new injury with confidence, knowing he’d been through it, before. As he recovered, he was integrated with the team, seeing the squad on a regular basis and maintaining the place he’d established within the team’s culture. Since arriving before the team’s 2017 season, Blanco’s become one of Portland’s most important figures. His ACL injury was devastating for reasons that went beyond the field.

“In your heart,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese has said, “you feel very bad for someone who’s done so well, who’s put himself in a situation to win an MVP [award] for the season – a player that we needed so much because of the way he was playing and who he is, as a person.”

All of that is why the Timbers reacted like they did to Sunday’s goal. They’d seen Blanco’s rehab up close and known how difficult the process had been for him. Through the offseason, between Oregon and his offseason in Argentina, Blanco had worked for an early-2021 return, but setbacks pushed his return until June, and delayed it further once he initially got back on the field. Though he’d made 11 appearances before Seattle, Sunday was only his second start.

When Blanco’s moment arrived, his teammates sprinted from their bench to his celebration, across the width of the field. They knew how to react if his story came full circle

That he scored in that game – in a winning effort and on a field that ended one of his career’s best stretches — had to feel like closure, even if it may be too soon to know for sure. As Blanco’s return has reminded us, recovery isn’t always a straight line. Sometimes, it’s just a sprint to the next obstacle.

On Sunday, though, Blanco’s next obstacle was cleared. He’d come full circle. Instead of being anchored to his last injury, Blanco can move forward, now, with eyes on what will be, instead of on what was.

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