20210102 sebastian blanco
Matthew Stith-MLS/adidas Creators Network

Remembering 2020: When Blanco, Portland made MLS Is Back their own

While Portland Timbers fans were still celebrating their team’s triumph, a new day had come in Orlando, and Sebastián Blanco was already up in his room. And he wasn’t the only one. Diego Chará, Diego Valeri, and a number of Timbers veterans had gone upstairs, leaving the celebrations of their hotel pool to share their day’s final moments with family back home. While much of the team’s final hours at the MLS Is Back Tournament were spent in chaise lounges under the night lights near the Dolphin Hotel’s pool, others were on FaceTime calls with family, enjoying a small reminder of what they’d given up.

For 39 days, the Timbers had been away from Portland, isolated while observing the COVID-19 protocols Major League Soccer needed to restart its season. Their lives were confined to a floor of their hotel; a conference room-cum-meal room; a gym, treatment room, and training ground. Every four or five days, it also came down to the makeshift venues MLS had erected at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports — fields made into improvised soundstages, eventually surrounded by camera towers and blue-screened tarps. It was where, over the course of their month-plus, the Timbers would claim their club’s new honor.

“A lot of people might think this is easy, but it’s definitely not,” Blanco would tell media in the moments after the final. The 2-1 victory over Orlando City SC was surely on his mind, but with faces of family members flashed on screens while Portland celebrated on the field, the sacrifice was surely on Blanco’s mind, too. “I’m very proud of my team, I’m very proud of the fight that we gave to all the matches.”

It started with a group stage, where Portland emerged from a hastily labeled Group of Death as the top team. They’d need penalty kicks to advance past the next round, but from there, the quality from the Timbers’ opening round resurfaced. Past New York City, past Philadelphia, who’d emerged as one of the favorites, and past the hometown team that nearly completed their fairy tale. The Lions had never made the playoffs, at that point. They were about to claim a first MLS trophy.

Instead, the Timbers made good on the promise they’d made to each other over Zoom calls before departure, one they reaffirmed once they touched down and saw the realities of Orlando. If they were going to go to this competition, coaches and players would later say — if they were going to agree to leave their families for what, at one time, appeared to be two months (the team’s departure was later pushed back) — they were going to be committed to each other. They were going to respect each other’s sacrifice, what it meant to be away from girlfriends, wives and children, and try to win the tournament. They were going to come back with something that made the trip worthwhile.

“We came here with one goal,” striker Jeremy Ebobisse said, during that tournament, “and that’s to lift the trophy at the end of the tournament … All the work we put in and all the sacrifice that we’ve put in is all starting to pay off.”

Photo: Jared Martinez-MLS/adidas Creators Network

Surely, the Timbers weren’t the only team that made those promises, but seemingly, they were most-prepared to fulfill them. In the weeks before MLS Is Back started, when the league began allowing teams to open their training facilities for full training, Portland’s soccer operations laid the groundwork for helping those left behind. The team’s chef and nutritionist would prepare meals for families. Shopping lists would be taken care of, with supplies eventually delivered to homes. Help with tasks around the house was found, as were little windows of support that allowed parents an hour or two alone, to regroup. There were no illusions about how difficult MLS Is Back would be for families back home - groups now used to having both parents at home, at all hours. The Timbers knew addressing that would be crucial.

From the tournament’s start, Portland played without worry. A win over LA Galaxy was the first step, with victory over the Houston Dynamo then ensuring the Timbers would move on. With a draw to close the group stage against Los Angeles FC, the team secured first in their group. Amid a Round-of-16 stumble against FC Cincinnati, Portland was still able to move on, taking advantage of some penalty-kick prowess before, three games later against Orlando, claiming the team’s fourth MLS honor.

In doing so, Portland showed glimpses of what would be one of MLS’s deepest squads. Both Yimmi Chará and Jaroslaw Niezgoda, Designated Players acquired during the winter, had flashed first signs of the impact players they’d become. Eryk Williamson seized a starting spot in midfield, while Dario Zuparic and Pablo Bonilla began asserting their places in defense. Against Orlando, all of Chris Duval, Marvin Loría, Felipe Mora, Andy Polo and Bill Tuiloma would play a part.

There were also the standouts - players who, after months away from the game, reminded everyone of their value. Goalkeeper Steve Clark was among them, with the veteran’s 2020 defined by big save after big save that would go overlooked. Left back Jorge Villafaña was arguably the tournament’s best at his position, while the team’s captain, Diego Valeri, continued to be the fulcrum around which so much of Portland’s attack functioned.

There were others, too, that were acknowledged more broadly, given places in the tournament’s best XI. For Ebobisse, that meant a continued to fight through the team’s attacking depth, leading to a level that cemented his place as a starter. For Larrys Mabiala, it was his shepherding of a backline that, while imperfect in the run-up, found its solidity in its matches’ final moments. And for Diego Chará, it was the product of a new, growing recognition of what he’d always given Portland, both in Orlando and over the nine years before.

But just as Orlando came to be about Portland’s accomplishment as a team, so too did it feel like it was about Blanco as an individual. From Timbers’ first game, when it was still unclear how a team with significant changes would come together, Blanco asserted a control that left games defined by his will. At times, that will was embodied with dispossessions, attacks along the end line, and balls delivered through and over opponents. 

At other times it would come in the open field, when transition chances were sparked by his presence on the ball. This was the player that Timbers fans had seen over three years before, just in some way bolder, more domineering, and in that way, more capable of swaying results. There was rarely a moment when anyone could question who was the best player on the field in Orlando. Blanco, it felt, had reached another level.

The numbers only capture part of that: three goals, five assists; seven games. In the moments after the final, though, there weren’t any doubts. As word of his recognition started to spread through Portland’s traveling party — Blanco being voted to not only the all-tournament team but as the Player of the Tournament — teammates realized he had gone upstairs, and realized he had earned those moments to himself. 

Like everyone else in the group, he had sacrificed to be in Orlando; and like everyone else, Blanco went home with something that made it worthwhile.

MORE: Remembering Portland's MLS Is Back Triumph