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Stejskal: Sebastian Blanco cementing star status for Portland Timbers

It’s only natural that Sebastian Blanco is getting a little more love than usual these days.

The 30-year-old had his most productive performance of the season in Portland’s biggest win of the year on Saturday, assisting on the Timbers’ opener and scoring twice in the span of four minutes in the second-half to break a 1-1 deadlock and lead his team to a huge 4-1 victory at Real Salt Lake.

The win was massive for Portland, pushing them to fourth in the West and moving them within one point of clinching a playoff berth. For Blanco, who clinched Alcatel Player of the Week honors as a result, it felt like something of a statement. Nearly two years after he signed with the team, the Designated Player showed the rest of MLS exactly why the Timbers paid a reported $4.5 million transfer fee to acquire him from San Lorenzo in January 2017 and why they reportedly quickly declined a $3.5 million offer for him from Argentine club Racing this summer.

“He’s been a very important player for us,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese told MLSsoccer.com over the phone on Wednesday. “First of all, he has gotten used to this league. I think he’s comfortable this year in playing different roles, so the quality is always there. He’s a very competitive player and I believe that also what he’s doing outside the field to prepare himself has allowed him to be more productive inside the field. I think he’s one of the top players in all of MLS.”

Blanco has certainly been solid since he joined Portland, but rarely has he been this good. The attacker is in perhaps the best form of his Timbers career, with his performance at RSL capping a five-game run in which he’s recorded three goals and four assists.

He now has nine goals and 10 assists in 29 league appearances this season, putting him on the brink of joining the elite “double-double club” of players with double-digit goals and assists. His 19 combined goals and assists rank 14th in the league, as do his 54 completed dribbles. According to Opta, he’s 10th in MLS with 13 big chances created and tied for third in the league with Montreal’s Ignacio Piatti with 56 chances created from open play. He put up similar statistics last season, but Blanco has looked more comfortable and more effective in the run of play with the Timbers this year.

“No doubt, no doubt, no doubt. He has elevated his game,” said Savarese.

Blanco has put together his strong campaign despite being shifted around the Timbers attack as head coach Giovanni Savarese has tinkered with different formations. On Saturday, we may have seen him in his best spot. Blanco thrived on the wing as Savarese returned to a 4-2-3-1 for the first time in months. It was the widest he’s played since Portland’s 4-1 loss at D.C. on Aug. 15, and he paid major dividends for the Timbers. He curled in a low cross from the right edge of the area that striker Jeremy Ebobisse tapped home in the first-half before twice cutting into the box from the left flank to score in the second en route to picking up Alcatel MLS Player of the Week honors.

“I like him being on the left because we don’t have a left-footed-only winger, so I think we can use him there,” said Timbers captain Diego Valeri, who has known Blanco since the two were preteens playing together in the Lanus academy. “He’s good going inside too, but in that spot, I think even if we change formation, we try to put him always or most of the time on the left. He’s very good in that final third of the field, he’s very good in the 1-v-1s, so that’s the best spot and I think he did really well [on Saturday.]”

There’s no question that the formation brings more punch to the Timbers attack than the 4-3-2-1 setup that Savarese has used for much of this year. The 4-2-3-1 pushes Blanco wider into a more comfortable role, moves Andy Polo into a more natural attacking position, throws an extra body into the attack and takes some defensive attention off Valeri.

That it would add to the attack was never really in doubt, however. The concern was whether the Timbers could maintain their defensive stability in the setup. On Saturday, they managed that without too much trouble. If they can do so again should Savarese stick with 4-2-3-1 in their remaining games against RSL on Oct. 21 and at Vancouver on Decision Day, Blanco and the Timbers won’t just qualify for the postseason, they’ll have a good chance to win a playoff matchup for the first time since MLS Cup 2015.

“I really believe he has contributed a lot more this season and been a more impactful player,” said Savarese. “I think sometimes the different roles he has had have allowed him to also express himself in a better way. In the 4-3-2-1 he’s done really well and now that we played [in a 4-2-3-1] in Salt Lake, played him in that [wide] position, also he’s showed that he has a lot of quality.”

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