Audi MLS Cup Playoffs season has arrived, the time when great teams separate themselves from the merely good and the league’s very best players show why they’ve earned star status, plus the wages and fees that accompany it.
Few positions league-wide are the subject of heavier reliance, and even heavier spending, than creative attackers, especially the near-mythical figures of footballing yore past and present who don the No. 10 jersey.
Few nations produce those playmakers like Argentina, the cradle of the role – and no other country on earth exports as much talent to MLS rosters, including the two 10s who will be their teams’ most important performers in Sunday afternoon’s Western Conference Round One clash (5:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes) between No. 4 Portland Timbers and No. 5 Minnesota United FC at Providence Park: Sebastian Blanco and Emanuel Reynoso.
“They have a huge influence on the respective teams that they play for, and they do this thing that’s the hardest thing in football – that's why they go for the most money,” Loons head coach Adrian Heath told MLSsoccer.com of the duo on Thursday.
“They score and make goals.”
As his Timbers counterpart Gio Savarese put it in Friday’s pre-match press conference: “Both of them will make this game, for sure, a better game.”
"He's the guy that every team needs"
While the rise of pressing and counter-pressing systems has marginalized the No. 10 role in some parts of the world, they remain key protagonists in MLS, where elite maestros are particularly valuable both as scoring threats unto themselves and “force multipliers” for other attacking teammates. That influence swells further when the postseason begins, elevating the importance of every moment, and thus the impact of individual talents.
Both Blanco and Reynoso have already proven as much. Portland’s 10 was an X-factor in their runs to the 2018 MLS Cup final and last summer’s MLS is Back Tournament trophy, finding another gear in big moments like the stunner that upset Sporting KC in the 2018 conference championship:
PTFC were devastated when a torn ACL prematurely ended Blanco’s 2020. But the fiery 33-year-old labored down the long road back to full fitness and regained his form with a vengeance. With 7g/7a in just 1,182 minutes since his summer return, Blanco’s been involved in 25% of his team’s 2021 goals, second only to Felipe Mora’s 28.5% – and in barely half as much time played.
It’s not just the productivity and the creativity, either, but the fighting spirit that exudes from every pore of his 5-foot-7 frame.
“Seba, I think he's the guy that every team needs to have, to be able to just unlock some situations. We all saw that since he came back from his injury he's putting [up] numbers and playing very great,” Timbers center back Larrys Mabiala said. “He’s brought some energy, he’s brought some more quality to our team. And I think he played a very, very big part to the fact that we were able to finish at this fourth position and able to [host] this first game.”
Blanco has shared creative duties with his old friend Diego Valeri for much of his time in the Rose City, a factor in him being assigned multiple positional roles and responsibilities. Out wide, closer to goal or centrally “in the hole,” he’s been highly effective in just about all of them.
“Because of the fact that Portland have had another great No. 10 in Diego Valeri over the years, at times they've had to change the shape of their team to fit them all in,” said Heath. “It's difficult to play with two No. 10s, but they’ve done it at times, where they played [Blanco] in wide areas and sort of had him coming underneath, like a Christmas tree formation.”
"Reynoso is class"
Reynoso is a more textbook enganche, a free-kick maestro, the focal point of his team’s attacking combinations, drifting into half-spaces to pull the proverbial strings.
The subject of a long-running pursuit to pry him away from Boca Juniors which culminated in MNUFC’s club-record transfer fee, “El Rey” has lived up to expectations and then some. He played 88 key passes this season, second-best in MLS behind only Carles Gil of the Supporters' Shield-winning New England Revolution, was involved in a team-high 35.7% of his team’s 2021 goals and his goals-added numbers rank fourth-best in MLS among attacking players.
“Reynoso is class,” said Mabiala. “I think he brings that team to another level when he's on the field. He's very able to give those last passes, very dangerous passes to his strikers, is very able, by the dribble, to break lines, and he's also able to score goals.”
The focus naturally turns to their supporting casts, starting with the attacking colleagues who are expected to finish chances and/or exploit spaces created by Blanco and Reynoso. For Portland it’s strikers Mora and Jaroslaw Niezgoda, wingers Yimmi Chara and Dairon "Mr. November" Asprilla, and Valeri as a supersub option. Minnesota will look to Robin Lod, Franco Fragapane and Adrien Hunou, with Heath noting that the Loons are 6W-1L-2D with that trio flanking Reynoso on the pitch.
But defensive midfielders are also tasked with limiting their influence, like the familiar battle-tested Cascadia warriors Diego Chara and Ozzie Alonso. And with two coaches who’ve shown a nous for navigating knockout tournaments, a tactical tweak or two is quite possible.
“I think it’s a chess game,” said Savarese, “in where to put these players in the best positions to make sure that they are able to generate the more dangerous moments to the opposition.”
Heath believes the playmakers' output and their teammates along the front lines will determine the victor.
“I made a comment earlier on in the week that I wouldn't be at all surprised if the outcome of the game on Sunday is down to which one of the two No. 10s or the attacking four of both teams plays the best on the day. And I still believe that,” said the Englishman.
“These big players, what makes them big players is they normally can produce on the biggest stage and when it matters most. … I think the game at the weekend will probably be decided by whose big-time players come up the most, the best on the day.”