BEAVERTON, Ore. – “I think now,” Giovanni Savarese began, “you guys believe me when I always said he was going to be important for the club, and he has shown it.”
The Portland Timbers head coach wasn’t answering a question about Dairon Asprilla, but he could have been. The words are almost as applicable to the Colombian winger as they were to Liam Ridgewell, about whom the questioner was asking, or others player who have, at one point or another, lost time in Portland’s starting XI throughout the 2018 season. David Guzmán could have been the subject, and given the early summer’s questions about how Savarese was handling his striker’s role, Jeremy Ebobisse could have been in focus, too.
For Savarese, “every player is important in this club,” a sentiment he reiterated at the adidas Timbers Training Facility on Tuesday, five days after his actions had to back up his words. Then, when the Timbers needed a goal to keep their season alive with 18 minutes left in regulation time at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field in the second leg of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals, Savarese brought on a player who, in the face of confusion from onlookers, he’s continued to find new ways to use throughout the season.
“Coach told us to be ready, and of course we all wanted to be ready,” Asprilla explained, through a Spanish translator, on Tuesday. “But when I was told I was going to play in the match, I was especially happy, because I knew I might have an impact on the game. It was a big joy, for me, to be able to play in that match.”
Asprilla did more than just play. Coming off a season that saw the 26-year-old tally one goal and no assists in 688 minutes, Asprilla had a goal and an assist in 53 in Seattle. He had struggled throughout 2018, splitting time between forward and wing, Major League Soccer and the United Soccer League, with T2, yet in a do-or-die scenario against Portland’s biggest rivals, Asprilla showed why Savarese still considers him an important part.
“It’s been difficult,” Asprilla said, when asked about his 2018. “Sometimes, these are decisions that the technical staff makes, but I’ve got to keep working hard. I’ve been working hard, just like the rest of my teammates, and we’ve just got to be there when the rest of our team needs us.”
On Thursday, the Timbers needed Asprilla back at his natural position, right wing, where the effects of a three-games-in-eight-day stretch were weighing on starting winger, Andy Polo. Soon after, Asprilla set up Sebastián Blanco for the game-tying goal, scored three minutes into extra time, and eventually sent the Timbers into the Western Conference final by converting his penalty kick in the tiebreaking shootout.
“It was a special moment,” he said, when asked about his kick. “I actually asked for it, and the coaching staff told me I was going to take one. I think most players want to take one, but it was definitely special. I definitely wanted to do it.”
Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Portland Timbers
It was a desire that was written across his face, Savarese remembered, when asked why he selected Asprilla in his first five penalty kick-takers:
“He looked confident. He looked like he wanted to take it. He had no problem stepping to the PK spot and taking it. I felt it was perfect. That’s why we gave him the opportunity to be part of the five, and he did great.”
And in doing so, Asprilla might have given himself reason to think fondly of 2018. He has contributed in Timbers’ postseasons before, making vital contributions to the team’s 2015 MLS Cup-winning run, but amid the trials of proving himself to a new coaching staff, and of competing within a roster that’s deeper than ever, Asprilla may have needed a memory to salvage his season.
On Thursday, he got that and more.
“It’s more special than 2015, because right now, I need it even more,” Asprilla admits. “It has been a difficult year, so it means a lot more.”