The Portland Timbers have grown accustomed to playing shorthanded during the 2021 season, overcoming prolonged absences from multiple key contributors.
Ahead of their Western Conference Final tilt with Real Salt Lake at Providence Park on Saturday (6:30 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes), Portland will have to do it again, with one key attacker already out and another's status up in the air.
Dairon Asprilla is suspended after receiving a red card in the Conference Semifinals against Colorado, while star midfielder Sebastian Blanco has gone from questionable to probable with a hamstring injury he sustained during that Thanksgiving Day match, according to FOX Sports broadcaster John Strong.
Should Blanco be unable to go, that would relegate a combined 17 goals and 10 assists to the sidelines. Timbers head coach Gio Savarese told reporters on his Thursday video call that there's an outside chance Blanco could feature on Saturday.
"Seba is a very competitive player and person," Savarese said. "And he's doing whatever he can to get to the game and play at least some minutes. Some days ago we thought that was impossible, today we have a little bit of hope and maybe he can make it. This is very important."
But if Blanco can't make it in time, Savarese was keen to frame the situation as an opportunity for others to step up and deliver.
"Not having Asprilla and still having to battle to see if Seba can make it, it is not the ideal situation," he said. "We wish we had both of them available. But if there's been one thing in this group, it's we're going to push together and we can achieve everything we desire always by the power of the group. And that is the mentality. This will open the opportunity for some players to be able to show themselves and the work they have been doing week-to-week and put in a great performance for the collective, for the group, for the team, which is the most important thing.
"As much as we can complain and think because it's the reality, two important players aren't available, we'll see what happens with Seba, but we cannot stay there and think that way. We believe in ourselves, we believe in the group, we believe we are strong, and we believe whoever's going to play a part in it is going to get the job done."
The stakes couldn't be much higher for the Timbers.
A win on Saturday would mean Portland host MLS Cup for the first time in club history, with their previous two appearances (a victory in 2015 and a defeat in 2018) coming on the road. On the cusp of that opportunity, Savarese said his players' ability to fight through this season's adversity leaves them prepared for the moment, regardless of who suits up.
"There's no question that we're excited to play in front of our fans in our stadium in Portland," Savarese said. "Credit to the players, we're here because of the effort they have put in all season in which we've gone through a lot of different things. I believe when you go through a lot, you learn a lot. RSL is the same, they were basically almost out of the playoffs, they made it barely at the end and they have understood that importance.
"And that's where we are as well in the fact that we have had a difficult season in the initial part from the middle to the end. We found a better way, a strong way, we became a stronger team. So, being the fact that it was a season that was difficult I think that prepared us to arrive to this stage in a better way to confront this game."
While the national narrative has pegged RSL as the postseason's underdog upstart, Savarese said he doesn't view it that way.
"RSL is not only a team of the playoffs," he said of the No. 7 seed. "They've been a difficult team to play against through the entire season. Now even more so, they come in with confidence, they're flying high, they've been able to play well in these last two matches. So it's going to be a very difficult game.
"We expect a strong team with a lot of confidence coming here, so that's why we're preparing very well to play a good team. That's been the focus here. We understand the importance of the match and it starts by understanding that the team we're playing against is a strong team. We're not fooled into thinking this is a Cinderella story. This is not a Cinderella story. This is a good team that is coming here with good players to put a good match, and we are ready to step on the field and play a good game. And that's been the mentality from the players."