ATLANTA – Coming into Saturday’s 2018 MLS Cup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (5pm PT, FOX) the Portland Timbers and Atlanta United FC have only played each other only twice before in MLS play. But that doesn’t mean the two teams are strangers.
While their shared soccer history stretches back to the USL and NASL eras and there are connections between players who have played for both sides (Darlington Nagbe and Sal Zizzo) and shared homelands from abroad (Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese and 2018 Landon Donovan MLS MVP Josef Martinez both hail from Venezuela), there’s a unique connection between two Argentines on both sides.
Wingers Sebastián Blanco of Portland and AUFC’s Héctor “Tito” Villalba both overlapped earlier in their careers for two seasons in the Argentina Primera with Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro. The pair were part of a 2015 Supercopa Argentina triumph for a club that counts Pope Francis and actor Viggo Mortensen as supporters.
Now on opposite sides of another Cup final in Atlanta, the two friends and former teammates are keen to face each other.
“[Villalba] is a very good person, amazing,” Blanco explained after his team’s Thursday training in Georgia. “He’s a friend. I’m very happy because he had a very great season last year and this year, too.”
Blanco is alluding to Villalba’s time in MLS that's seen him contribute 20 goals and 20 assists in 62 games—including the 2017 MLS Goal of the Year. Though Blanco added with a laugh, “But of course, now I’m hoping that he’ll have a very bad game [for Saturday].”
Blanco has been busy, himself, over the last two years since arriving in Portland, nearly mirroring his friend in terms of production: 18 goals and 19 assists in 64 games. Add in Blanco’s three playoff goals and it’s clear that the former San Lorenzo pair have had huge impacts in the league.
While Villalba was born in Argentina, his national team affiliation is Paraguay, his father's birthplace. But the two players' experience in the Argentine Primera División and what that has brought to MLS is something that Timbers maestro Diego Valeri – once a teammate of Blanco's when both were with Argentine powerhouse Club Atlético Lanús – believes is only a good thing.
“I think now it makes me so happy to see Argentinians always playing in these kind of games, these finals, competing,” the 2017 MLS MVP said at Thursday’s MLS Cup press conference. “They are bringing that identity and that level of competition that the Argentinian leagues and Argentinian players have.
"It makes me feel so happy because this is creating a new identity and own identity.”
For Blanco and Villalba, who spent a great deal of time together in Argentina with each other’s families and at gatherings, Blanco said that this MLS Cup week, the pair has been quiet.
“We don’t talk [this week],” he said with a laugh. “We’ll wait till after the final.”