The Portland Timbers did not start the 2020 MLS season the way they wanted. They played host to Minnesota United in their first match and allowed three goals. The Timbers’ Diego Valeri added a consolation goal from the penalty spot, but it was not the start Portland had hoped for.
In their second match, they welcomed newbies Nashville SC to Providence Park. Again, Diego Valeri got on the score sheet, and this time, one goal was enough to secure the three points. But the entire league was shut down by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Timbers would have to wait another 127 days before stepping on the pitch again to take on the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The match did not take place at Providence Park or the Galaxy’s Dignity Health Sports Park: It was played at Walt Disney World’s ESPN Wide World of Sports in the MLS is Back Tournament.
The Timbers did not get off to the best of starts as they gave away a penalty within 10 minutes. Mexican international Javier Hernandez stepped up to the spot, but was denied by goalkeeper Steve Clark. After the penalty save, Argentine Sebastian Blanco took over on the pitch and on the Internet.
Sebastian Marcelo Blanco was born on March 15, 1988, in one of the southern suburbs of Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires. He grew up playing on local team, Lanus’s youth academy. He broke into their first team in 2006 and, in 2007, helped lead the team to the Apetura Championship, the first in the club’s history.
Blanco’s youth academy should be revered by Timbers fans because not only did it produce Blanco, but also Timbers legend Diego Valeri. In fact, Valeri’s and Blanco’s childhood homes were only three miles apart from each other.
Valeri was two years older than Blanco so, although they were in the same youth academy, they did not play together until they met on the first team. Little did they know that they would partner up again in the Pacific Northwest.
Valeri received the ball on top of the 18-yard box and was not closed down by the Galaxy defender. He patiently surveyed the pitch and slid in a pass to the cutting Blanco, who carried the ball to the touchline. Blanco shimmied along the line and quickly fired an assist to Jeremy Ebobisse in the 59th minute to give Portland a one-goal advantage.
Although Valeri was older than Blanco, the younger Argentine decided to take his footballing talents abroad first. He spent time in Ukraine at FC Metalist Kharkiv and in England with West Bromich Albion before returning to Argentina on loan to San Lorenzo. The Argentine club eventually activated its option to buy.
Blanco thrived at San Lorenzo. He is a number ten typical of Argentina: deadly in attack. He has the ability to cut open defenses with one pass, can dribble around defenders, and, of course, can put the ball in the back of the net. This combination of skills is highly sought after by big clubs, and at San Lorenzo, he attracted a lot of attention.
At the time, the Argentine media reported that the Portland Timbers were interested in acquiring Blanco’s services — but they were to face stiff competition from Mexican powerhouse Club America, who were also interested in bringing the talented midfielder to Mexico City.
“It was the most complicated deal I have ever been a part of,” said Timbers General Manager Gavin Wilkinson, who has been with the club in some capacity since 2001. “During that stage, we were looking at other options and we didn’t love the other option, but we loved Blanco.”
Wilkinson and the Timbers eventually got their man, and Blanco penned a contract as one of Portland’s Designated Players.
Blanco was quick to repay the love of Wilkinson and all Timbers fans the best way he knew how: by scoring and assisting goals. And it doesn’t hurt that he has become a bit of a Seattle Sounders slayer.
In Blanco’s first year in Portland, he had a team-high 33 appearances and added eight goals and eight assists. The next year, he was etched into the hearts of Timbers fan forever by scoring his first career playoff goal against Seattle in a 2-1 win, and then added another in the return leg when Portland advanced on penalty kicks. The two goals against Seattle made him the first Timbers player to score multiple playoff goals against the rival Sounders.
The midfielder got a taste for the important rivalry goal, and Seattle became one of his favorite victims. He scored the game-winner against the Sounders on May 13, 2018, and added two assists in 2019 in a league win and in a U.S. Open Cup win.
From 2017 through 2018, Blanco notched 29 goals and 32 assists in 108 appearances for the Timbers. He was also named 2018 Timbers’ Players’ Player of the Year and Supporters’ Player of the Year in 2018. In 2019, Blanco was rewarded by the Timbers organization with the extension of his Designated Player contract. He responded with seven goals and 13 assists in 35 appearances.
The goalscorer Ebobisse teed up another shot in an effort to make it 2-0, but it was blocked. The ball bounced toward the right endline as Blanco sped to catch up to it. He flicked his header around one defender and burst into the box. He dribbled through another defender (with the help of a fortunate bounce). He took one touch to line himself up and curled his shot in between the LA Galaxy defender and goalkeeper, putting the Timbers 2-0 to the good.
Blanco was by far the most influential player on the pitch. The Timbers had 53.9 percent possession, and the Argentine was extremely involved. He had the most touches in the game with 89, the next closest being Galaxy defender Rolf Feltscher. Blanco had a pass accuracy of 83.3 percent with three chances created and two shots on target.
The Argentine not only broke down the Galaxy in the 2-1 win, but he also broke the Internet. In the 73rd minute, the Timbers gave away a dangerous free-kick on the top of their 18-yard box. Clark orchestrated his wall normally, but the meme-makers found the man of the moment, Blanco, behind the wall peering through the legs of his teammates with a concerned look on his face to prevent the Galaxy from shooting under the wall.
Blanco’s performance had it all. He scored, he assisted, he dictated play and he was sure to put a smile on MLS fans’ faces with the free-kick setup. The Timbers sit atop Group F with three points. With a win against Houston, they would secure a spot in the knockout round and are in a good position to potentially win the group. One thing is certain: Blanco has risen to the occasion for the Timbers, and if he and his childhood neighbor can continue to replicate this form throughout the tournament, Portland will not only escape the group of death but could be a dark horse pick for a deep run in the MLS is Back Tournament.