PORTLAND, Ore. – Despite the difficult road they faced, including numerous injuries, a winless six-game start, and struggles to score late in the season, the Portland Timbers survived to make it to the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs. That has been in no small part due to the excellent play and leadership of Sebastian Blanco.
Blanco has shined this season for Portland, netting six goals and 11 assists. It’s not his best year statistically (he had 10 goals last season and eight in 2017), but the passionate attacker has risen from just another steady presence to a true leader in Portland.
“I feel like a leader because my teammates gave me the opportunity to do that,” Blanco said. “I’m happy because the last few games we showed that everybody took care of what they had to do.”
Blanco has stepped up in what has been a winding road to the playoffs. The Timbers suffered their worst home record since 2012 and started the season 0W-5L-1D. Those struggles tested the Timbers, but Blanco feels they passed the test and showed their true abilities.
“I think after the first four or five games we started to play better and feel confident,” Blanco said. “I think this year at home was not our best performance, but I think after the sixth or seventh game of the season we showed what we can do.”
Blanco’s rise as a leader of the clubhouse also comes as Timbers captain and former MLS MVP Diego Valeri’s future remains uncertain. Valeri said last month that he didn’t “think it’s a great idea to talk about” his contract status and that he won’t discuss it until after the season is over. If the Timbers and Valeri part ways after the season, Blanco would most likely be the one to fill Valeri's talismanic shoes.
Valeri, after dealing with a leg injury earlier this month, will be available on Saturday for the Round One clash against Real Salt Lake (10 pm ET | ESPNews in US; TVAS, TSN4 in Canada). But with Brian Fernandez unavailable after entering MLS’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program last week, Blanco’s performance will be key to the Timbers advancing to what they’re hoping will be their second consecutive MLS Cup final appearance.
“We feel good,” Blanco said. “We feel very excited to play. It was difficult to make it to the playoffs, but we made it so now no matter who is the rival we know we’re ready to play with anyone.”
Blanco noted that while he’ll need to step up with Fernandez gone, the pressure isn’t insurmountable and everyone playing knows their role.
“I need to be a leader of course but everybody knows what we need to do,” Blanco said. “It’s important to be focused in the moment. We can’t be focused on the players that we lose...we need to be a team. Doesn’t matter the names.”