The answer to this is probably more straightforward than it felt; at least, more straightforward than it felt when the news was reported initially last night. After all, when you hear your soccer team’s best attacking player won’t play again this season, it’s natural to ask “what now?” It’s natural to wonder if there are any solutions.
That’s the world many Portland Timbers fans were on Tuesday night, when the club confirmed the worst regarding Sebastián Blanco. Injured early in Sunday night’s game that Seattle Sounders FC, Blanco’s been diagnosed with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. His injury was as bad as it looked.
This is among a soccer player’s worst-case scenarios. It’s one of the injuries they fear most – one that’s both beyond their control and so extremely demanding in the time it takes from their careers. Portland did not confirm an exact timeline for his return but did say Blanco was done for the season. A prognosis won’t be available until after his September 14 surgery, but in all likelihood, we won’t see Blanco on the field again until well into the 2021 season.
And what, exactly, will the Timbers be missing? In terms of playing time, they will be missing somebody who has appeared in every match this year, starting 12 (of 13) of them. He had seven assists in that time, a pace that would track for an 18-assist season under normal circumstances. Plus, the four goals he’d scored in 2020 were in line with his most productive Timbers seasons.
All of that helps frame the question: what now? While Portland has no way to truly replace a player like Blanco right now, head coach Giovanni Savarese and his staff can choose from a number of approaches, with one player’s return from injury implying an obvious solution.
Loría is already a regular of sorts, having started seven of the team’s 13 games in 2020. He’s appeared in three others, and while the 23-year-old has yet to score a goal this season, Portland has already been operating with him in a starting role. He was in the XI for the final three games of the MLS is Back Tournament and has appeared in every game since the regular season restarted.
As a starter on Portland’s Western Conference title team in 2018, Polo was basically a winger. This year, he’s spent more time in central midfield, and he recently saw some late-match minutes at right back against the LA Galaxy. With Blanco out, Polo may see time shift back to his natural role, where his work in possession and defense has always been valued.
When Portland rotated its starters last week against the Galaxy, Conechny got the start in attacking midfield, implying he was third on that position’s depth chart. Diego Valeri was first, but on the nights when the team’s captain was rested during MLS is Back, Blanco started in his place. Now, Conechny may become Valeri’s understudy in attacking midfield.
No, Paredes hasn’t been secretly training on the wing this season; at least, not to my knowledge. Instead, his place on this list implies another scenario. What if, with Blanco out, the Timbers started entertaining other options with their shape? What if a 4-3-1-2 formation – the diamond midfield – meant Blanco’s time on the wing would be replaced by an added central midfielder?
If that happens, Paredes could start alongside Eryk Williamson above a defensive midfielder, Diego Chara, though other players – Polo, Andrés Flores, Renzo Zambrano or Bill Tuiloma (shifting Chara forward) – could also be in line for that role. Regardless, Paredes spent most of the 2019 season as a Portland starter. Giving him more minutes shouldn’t be a problem.
And finally, the obvious answer. Yimmi Chara’s time in Portland has been defined more by injuries than playing time, but when the Designated Player came off the bench last Wednesday against the Galaxy, he helped change the game. The Timbers came up short that night, losing 3-2, but the team was constantly creating chances once he came on the field.
Blanco was on the field then, and in that group’s success, there was a reminder: the Timbers’s roster was built to have that level of firepower. Portland was meant to have all of those options available.
Now, that can’t happen in 2020, but if Chara performs as the team expected when he was signed this winter, the dropoff from Blanco may not be so stark. Though the two are very different players, the theory of a healthy, performing Chara is one that sees the Timbers capable of replacing some of Blanco’s production.