Sebastian Blanco scored two wonderful goals to send the Portland Timbers into the Western Conference semifinals where they will meet the Colorado Rapids on Thanksgiving Day. The Timbers defeated Minnesota 3-1 in Providence Park on Sunday in the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs. Larrys Mabiala equalized in the 43rd minute and Blanco scored in the 47th and 66th minutes.
It was certainly a playoff atmosphere inside Providence Park, as the Timbers Army unfurled yet another amazing tifo prior to kickoff.
The stage was set for a fiery contest between the in-form Timbers and a lively Loons squad. Adrian Healy said it best during the broadcast: “There is no hotter team in MLS over the last 14 games than the Portland Timbers.”
As I predicted in my match preview, the opening 10 minutes of the game had all the makings of a cagey, emotionally-charged playoff match, with both teams trying to assert their own authority on the game. But in the 11th minute, it would be Minnesota playing the role of party crashers as Loons’ dangerman Franco Fragapane finished off a sweeping move with an unmarked tap-in at the back-post. 1-0 Minnesota.
It was a microcosm of the Timbers' season. The defense was ripped apart in the buildup of play, leaving an opposing attacker free in the box to easily score. This time it was Jose Van Rankin who was caught ball-watching as Minnesota’s Argentinian winger opened the scoring.
The Timbers’ sluggish start to the game got worse in the 19th minute when Sebastian Blanco’s reckless and mistimed challenge earned him the first yellow card of the match. Blanco would follow up his yellow with a golden chance to level the contest a few minutes later but blasted his shot well over the bar from the left side of the box.
Minnesota nearly doubled their lead in the 25th minute and would have done but for some Steve Clark heroics. He palmed a swerving, long-distance Reynoso freekick away from his net.
After a period of sustained pressure from the Loons, Dairon Asprilla came close to scoring for Portland in the 33rd minute but his low, first-time strike was cleared by Bakaye Dibassy. The shot had Dayne St. Clair beaten in Minnesota’s net and the replay made it clear just how important Dibassy’s block was.
Starting in the 40th minute, the Timbers would unleash a deluge of attempts on Minnesota’s net. Larrys Mabiala had a bicycle kick cleared off the line, once again Dibassy coming to the rescue for the Loons, before Yimmi Chara had a blast from distance saved by St. Clair that resulted in a Timbers corner. From that corner in the 43rd minute, all of the Timbers’ pressure finally paid off as Mabiala leaped over Chase Gasper to power home a header that levelled the match.
After four minutes of added time, the Timbers and Minnesota headed into the locker room level at 1-1. Aside from the opener that they conceded, the Timbers did a really good job mitigating a controlled and compact Minnesota team, holding the Loons to just the two aforementioned shots on target.
Blanco, who ended the first half by limping off the field with an apparent back injury, would give the Timbers the best possible start to the second half that they could have asked for. Just two minutes into the second period, Claudio Bravo sent in a dangerous cross from deep that Minnesota couldn’t fully clear. The ball fell to Blanco from about 16 yards out and the Timbers’ talisman lashed a half-volley past St. Clair to put Portland up 2-1.
The first 15 minutes of the second half was one-way traffic as Portland relentlessly pressed Minnesota and forced turnover after turnover. That pressure nearly resulted in the third goal for Portland that would have been identical to United’s opener. Blanco and Paredes linked up before the latter sent a cross to an unmarked Y. Chara but even at full stretch, the younger Chara couldn’t quite get his foot to the ball.
Despite the missed chance, Portland wouldn’t have to wait much longer to extend their lead. In the 65th minute, Blanco said “you know what, I know my first goal was good but I think I can do even better” before he picked the ball up from about 25 yards out and absolutely leathered a strike past a helpless St. Clair.
The goalscorer Fragapane, presumably mad that he and his team were atrocious after scoring the opener, absolutely leveled Diego Chara with a forceful two-footed challenge in the 85th minute of the match. To the surprise of nobody who knows anything about the state of officiating in MLS, what should have been a red was only given as a yellow card.
That thunderbolt from Blanco would end up being the goal that put the game to bed for the Timbers, securing a massive 3-1 win in their opening 2021 playoff fixture. It was a thorough dismantling of the Loons as the Timbers ended the match by outshooting Minnesota by 17 shots to eight. Portland were cool, calm and collected in defense and in their high-pressing.
The win sets up a tantalizing away fixture with the Colorado Rapids at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Thanksgiving Day, with kickoff slated for 1:30 p.m. PST.