Sebastian Blanco was profiled by The Athletic’s Felipe Cardenas recently, and one of the more striking quotes from his interview centered on what the Portland Timbers star perceives to be the outsized influence of statistics in MLS.
“There’s a history of young players moving on to Europe, so you better be in top form because in this league, statistics carry a lot of weight — more than they should,” said Blanco. “It’s really difficult to be recognized in MLS because of all the big names that are here and because of how statistics-driven everything is here … It’s tough to get noticed.”
That seeming discomfort with data is ironic, because the season-ending ACL tear Blanco suffered in Seattle over the weekend has driven home the massive magnitude – quantifiable and otherwise – of just how much he’s brought to his club over the past four years. The diminutive Argentine’s influence has been enormous.
ESPN calculates that he’s racked up 33 goals and 39 assists in 121 appearances across all competitions for the Rose City side, which works out to a Best XI-level productivity rate. He played a huge role in the Timbers’ 2018 run to the MLS Cup final and stepped up yet another notch during the MLS is Back Tournament this summer, where he notched three goals and five assists en route to MVP honors and a title for his team. Just as importantly, he’s been reliable in the clutch, making plays when they’re needed most, like that epic thunderbolt from range in Kansas City that effectively punched PTFC’s ticket to the 2018 final.
Blanco has also palpably magnified the quality of those around him in both tactical and relationship terms, prolonging the excellence of his friend Diego Valeri and coinciding with career-making steps forward for the likes of Jeremy Ebobisse and Eryk Williamson. Any team would be rocked by a serious injury to one of their Designated Players; in Portland’s case the damage may prove even more acute.
Whether working centrally or along the flanks, in possession or transition, Blanco has consistently been a high-level goal-dangerous provider, with enough creativity and dynamism to allow his team to keep numbers behind the ball. The Timbers have no obvious, natural replacement for that in the wings. That’s not to say they lack options: Giovanni Savarese is presently spoiled for choice up top, his engine room is sneaky-deep and has not hesitated to tweak his team’s shape and tactics as needed.
Yimmi Chara looks like the most obvious plug-and-play replacement on the left side if Savarese wants to keep things mostly the same. Chilean Felipe Mora has scored in each of Portland’s last three games and deserves further opportunities, though he’d probably prefer to lead the line than work the wide spots in a 4-2-3-1’s band of three. Perhaps Williamson will be unleashed a bit to sniff out more of the timely runs into the final-third that he’s shown an aptitude for.
Ebobisse is also a striker by nature but has already shown his ability to contribute from out wide, so Jaroslaw Niezgoda — whose ability to bring teammates into the game has been just as noteworthy as his finishing, perhaps more so — is likely to earn more time in the No. 9 slot. Andy Polo and Marvin Loria haven’t quite lived up to expectations relative to their talent, but will get surely chances to update that narrative this fall. The reality remains that Valeri’s minutes have to be regulated at this stage of his career, particularly when the schedule is heavy like it is right now; keep an eye on this balancing act.
Someone will have to pick up the load in Blanco’s absence, whether individually or by committee, because right now the Timbers look like a much less menacing contender than they did a week ago.