There’s more than one road to MLS Cup, as this year’s finalists show.
You can pack your side with attacking stars, you can build depth across the roster, you can hammer out a distinct philosophy of play, you can mold your squad into a cunning gang of tactical shapeshifters. Consistently competitive teams do many of these things; the best do them all, and then some.
But the ones that fight for major trophies tend to share one key trait: A strong spine, built around special talents capable of making big plays in big moments.
Even if you’d never watched the Portland Timbers before Thursday night’s nail-biting Western Conference Championship second leg at Sporting Kansas City, you probably wouldn’t have a hard time gleaning which protagonists anchor – and inspire – the crew from the Rose City.
Valeri and Blanco and Chara. Valeri and Blanco and Chara. Valeri and Blanco and Chara. Valeri and Blanco and Chara. Valeri and Blanco and Chara. Valeri and Blanco and Chara. Valeri and Blanco and Chara. Valeri and Blanco and Chara. Valeri and Blanco and Chara. Valeri and Blanco a— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) November 30, 2018
Yes, Jeff Attinella was massive in goal, making six saves, most of them one-on-one or at close range, to stymie SKC in their most dominant phases of the game. David Guzman was the glue that kept the visitors’ midfield together in the darkest moments of this pulsating contest. Liam Ridgewell conjured up some incredibly resourceful emergency defending in his own penalty box, and Jeremy Ebobisse continued to spearhead the attack as the force-multiplying No. 9.
But it’s the three South American veterans who make PTFC special, who lead, who step up in the clutch situations, who start and end every conversation about this team’s capacity to achieve great things.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably quite familiar with Diego Valeri, the saintly maestro who since 2013 has taken the club and its city into his heart and carried their colors to great heights. The 2017 Landon Donovan MLS MVP is 32 now, but remains an inventive, inspirational presence who delivered again on Thursday with a resourceful brace.
Sebastian Blanco’s contributions in KC were easy to detect, and love, as they often are. He’s a bustling little dynamo, so adept at drifting into pockets of space and slashing open defenses even in matches where Portland are being dominated. And hitting a ball with this much venom, movement and accuracy in a win-or-else scenario probably deserves more than just one goal as reward:
“He's a special player, like Valeri, like Chara," said head coach Giovanni Savarese after Thursday’s win. “Blanco was fantastic today. Once he started being mobile, finding spaces, going all over the place, he created a lot of danger.
“It’s good for a coach to have those kind of players,” he said of his key trio, “because not only they have the quality, but they have the heart and the humbleness to give always give everything for the group.”
And then there’s Diego Chara. One of only two players left from Portland’s 2011 MLS expansion debut, the Colombian just keeps humming along as the irreplaceable engine at the heart of the XI, gobbling up ground, destroying the opposition’s attacks and sparking the Timbers’. He’s logged north of 2,300 minutes in all eight of his MLS seasons, and has somehow grown more pivotal to his team, not less, with the passage of time:
You've seen various iterations of this, but now more than ever - the column on the left is @TimbersFC WITH Diego Chara in reg season/playoffs since 2011. On the right is PTFC WITHOUT him. #talisman pic.twitter.com/5ltOuNJM0j— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) November 30, 2018
In their first season under Savarese, the Timbers never quite seemed like a fully completed piece of work. There was an unsettling winless start to the year as they began with five road matches due to construction at Providence Park. Then came the 15-game unbeaten run with the 4-3-2-1 “Christmas tree” shape as they found a comfortable counterattacking identity. A 2-4 slump in August cropped up as Savarese tested and tweaked in search of other tactics and formation options, and eventually he elected to drift back towards a more reactive model of play.
Certainly a process was at work, and progress was made as they journeyed together. But a championship? At times it seemed like more of a long-term proposition.
But the future is now for the Rose City, and they have Blanco, Chara and Valeri to thank.
MLS Cup. Atlanta vs. Portland. The end for Tata. The likely end for Almiron. Nagbe vs. Portland. Gio in another final.— Sam Stejskal (@samstejskal) November 30, 2018
Atlanta should win. But damn if Valeri, Blanco and Chara won’t give the Timbers a chance.