Sebastian Blanco fired a superb second-half brace and the Portland Timbers eased past Minnesota United 3-1 at Providence Park to book a meeting with the Colorado Rapids on Thanksgiving (4:30 pm ET | FOX, FOX Deportes).
Here are three takeaways from Sunday's Western Conference Round One game in the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs.
Some players are built for big moments, and when it comes to MLS, very few have stepped up as consistently as Sebastian Blanco. Full disclosure: I’ve been a fan of his for a very long time, primarily for his ability to score key goals at key moments in key games – a trait that was front and center at Providence Park.
It’s impossible to predict if and when a player will return to their previous level after suffering a serious injury, but in the case of Blanco, it looks like he’s already there – back to the level that made him a leading MVP candidate in the summer of 2020 before his ACL tear.
"I think the entire team had a very strong performance tonight but there were those moments that Seba was able to find, to put a quality to a higher level for us to be able to get this win," said head coach Gio Savarese afterward. "And then Seba even struggling parts in the game because of the foul that he got into the first half – he wasn't fully 100% but still he managed himself very, very well to execute and be able to give us that extra power that we needed in order to make the difference."
For years the Portland Timbers were Diego Valeri’s team, and then they were mostly Valeri’s with Blanco providing great support. But right now, they unequivocally belong to Blanco, especially in the postseason. Credit must be given to Savarese because it’s not easy to keep a club legend on the bench and hand over the keys to someone else, but it looks like he made the right call.
Blanco isn’t a conventional No. 10 – he’s unorthodox in how he uses both feet equally well, is just as comfortable on either wing as he is through the middle and with how he rides tackles with his low center of gravity. This game will be remembered for his two goals, especially the second one, but it was the way in which he stepped up and put the team on his back when he was most needed that was most impressive to me. On a day when Emanuel Reynoso failed to provide a spark for the visitors, Blanco stood tall.
The best players get the biggest praise when things go well, so it’s only natural that they also come in for criticism when things go poorly. Reynoso wasn’t at the races in Portland and his team suffered for it.
The Loons are at their best when he’s receiving the ball on the half-turn and carries the ball forward on the dribble or plays his teammates in. It’s true that he was well marshaled by the Timbers, but he also displayed a lack of urgency in trying to get free and locate the half-spaces he normally finds so well.
As the game wore on, his influence waned even more, as did Minnesota’s chances of getting back into the contest. Reynoso wasn’t the only culprit, too many of Adrian Heath’s men took the day off, especially in the second half. At the end that’s what cost them this single-elimination bout – you can afford to carry two or three players on any given day, Minnesota had to carry seven or eight and no team is good enough to overcome that sort of obstacle.
"This game was a little bit of a microcosm of the season," MNUFC midfielder Wil Trapp said postgame. "You have good moments, you have not-so-good moments and ultimately we didn't come out where we wanted to be. I think the course of the season showed that in our group. The reasons for it, at this moment, I don't have the exact answer."
I'm not going to make any predictions about the Colorado vs. Portland Western Conference Semifinal matchup, but I give the Timbers a very good chance of spoiling the party at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. The Rapids are a strong No. 1 seed and are a very good home team, but the long layoff in between games isn't easy to overcome, especially with the Timbers now carrying momentum from this win.
Portland are at their best when they sit back a little and play on the counter-attack. They are very good at absorbing pressure and then right before they fold, Diego Chara makes an interception and releases Blanco into space and away they go. Playing that style is going to be their best bet in Commerce City.
"Always when you play at home, you have more pressure. So now we feel relief, but we try to not relax," said Blanco. "We congratulate everybody but now we need to put the focus on Colorado. They have a very, very good team at home. Very strong. So focus now on the next game, try to rest and tomorrow get ready for the game."
In Robin Fraser, the Rapids have a coach that's going to want to play on the front foot so I believe we are in for a thrilling game. Any combination of Michael Barrios, Dom Badji, Jonathan Lewis, Diego Rubio, Kellyn Acosta and Mark-Anthony Kaye will be a handful for the Timbers and is more than capable of lighting up the score sheet as they proved on Decision Day against LAFC.
It’s worth remembering, however, that although they were worthy winners in that game, LAFC managed to have 20 shots and the lion’s share of possession. They simply can’t afford to give the Timbers that many looks on goal or that much of the ball in the final third.
What then, should we expect from this game? There will be good attacking football on display, moments of magic and at least two or three goals; it can go either way. It’ll also be a game of small margins and the winning team may simply make the fewest mistakes or have the best player on the pitch.
If the latter proves to be the case, then it’s advantage Portland.