The formula for winning in the MLS Cup Playoffs is actually pretty straightforward - the best players on the roster have to be the best players on the field, the team needs to get key contributions from other players when they’re called upon, and players must capitalize on the opportunities they're given.
The Portland Timbers fulfilled that formula on Sunday afternoon and they eventually ran away from Minnesota United to the tune of a 3-1 win.
It all started with Sebastian Blanco, Portland’s best player, being the best player on the field. Everyone knows that the Timbers will only go as far in these playoffs as Blanco will carry them and for a moment it looked like that weight wasn’t something Blanco could bear both figuratively and literally.
Not only were there some uncharacteristic missed shots and passes from Seba early on in the match, but at the tail end of the first half Blanco went down with what seemed to be a back or abdominal injury. When the stretcher came out to carry Blanco off, I was prepared to see Portland’s playoff hopes figuratively carried off with him.
But then, despite the odds and the worrying sign of Santiago Moreno warming up at halftime, Blanco jogged back onto the field. Seba has built basically his entire Timbers career on defying the odds and expectations and in the second half, you best believe he was prepared to do it again.
And oh my goodness do it again he did:
Through pain, through numerous fouls suffered, and through some yips, Blanco persevered and showed us all why Portland’s ceiling is so high when he was on. He was an absolute force on Sunday. He notched two spectacular goals, completed the most progressive ball carries in the game, and was consistently dangerous everywhere. Blanco was the best player on the field on Sunday and it wasn’t really close.
Blanco wouldn’t have necessarily been in a position to tilt the balance if the rest of the team hadn’t stepped up when needed - the second element of the winning playoff formula. It seemed like this would be the broken link that doomed the Timbers early on as all of the back line's bad habits were on display as Minnesota carved through the Portland defense and scored the opener in the 11th minute.
But then, the back line and Steve Clark buckled down. Besides the goal, the back line limited Minnesota’s attacking play to essentially nothing in the first half and Clark stopped the Loons’ next best scoring chance when he palmed away a dangerous Emanuel Reynoso free kick at full extension.
Then Larrys Mabiala rose up (literally) to make a difference when called upon. Mabiala, after trying to do his best Dairon Asprilla impression, played his part by towering over four Minnesota defenders to power home the equalizer. Key contributions when called upon - check.
Portland took advantage of the opportunities they were given and Minnesota failed to make it difficult for the Timbers. In fact, Portland made it tough for the Loons. It started with the Timbers limiting Reynoso’s influence on the field. Giovanni Savarese talked postgame about how the team worked as a group to force Reynoso into the spots where they could limit his options, and that is exactly what took him out of the game.
Portland’s ability to limit Reynoso’s influence gave them the opportunity to be more assertive in their own attacks which they did well, particularly with their fullbacks. Both Josecarlos Van Rankin and Claudio Bravo tallied assists on the day and were constant threats to the Minnesota back line.
The Loons’ back line also conceded opportunities to the Timbers, specifically on Blanco’s goals. First, Minnesota committed the sin of “don’t head the ball to Blanco wide open in the 18-yard box,” and then committed the sin of “don’t back off Blanco when he has an absolute cannon of a leg.” The result of the latter ‘sin’ brought pain to Minnesota fans and joyous deja vu to Timbers fans.
Blanco going supernova, key guys stepping up, and Minnesota mistakes being punished combined to be the Timbers’ formula for a first-round win. You gotta love it when it all comes together.
The Timbers will hope that they can replicate that same formula again on Thursday when they celebrate Thanksgiving by heading down to Commerce City to play the Colorado Rapids in the Western Conference Semifinals. Colorado is the No. 1 seed and also defeated Portland in that same stadium a month ago, so it is sure to be a tough match.
But the Timbers showed on Sunday that they have the mettle and a formula for winning in the playoffs. When you have those on your side, it feels like anything is possible.
Stats, Stems, and Leaves
- Until Portland’s third goal, after which they shifted into a defensive posture, the Timbers held the Loons to just four shots.
- Minnesota’s six yellow cards are tied for the second-most in a playoff game (hat tip to the Stat Man)
- Sunday was Portland’s first home playoff game in front of fans since 2018 and you could tell the impact that had:
You wanna talk about home field advantage- this goal came at the end of a three minute period where the stadium was as loud as I have heard it all season. Portland needed that lift, and needed to capitalize on it.— Stumptown Footy (@StumptownFooty) November 21, 2021
And here we are: all square. #RCTID https://t.co/8TLOa4pFQX
Moment in the Shade
I didn’t realize it at the time but it sure looks like we might have seen Diego Valeri’s last game at Providence Park last night.
Valeri made a late-game cameo when he subbed on for Yimmi Chara in second-half stoppage time and very nearly added a fourth goal with some crafty movement in the box just before the end of the game.
After the final whistle blew, there seemed to be a little more emotional weight in Valeri’s postgame walk around the field.
After the walk, the rest of the team disappeared down the tunnel. Valeri and his daughter went up the stairs to pay respects to the Timbers Army. It could be interpreted as just a show of respect in what could be the final home game of 2021 but it felt like something different. It felt like a farewell.
Valeri’s role this year has been relegated to mostly that of an impact substitute. He can still influence games but he does seem to be reaching the tail end of his career so it wouldn’t be surprising if he is considering hanging up his boots, or perhaps planning a sentimental final move back to Club Atletico Lanus - his boyhood club in Argentina.
There will be time to reflect on Valeri’s immeasurable and incalculable impact on the Timbers, and of course time for him to announce whatever his next step is on his terms. But for now, it’s worth it to pause and appreciate everything Valeri brings to the club for however much longer that may be.
And, we should recognize that Valeri is still in the midst of one final quest for MLS hardware. There is even a chance that we might be able to appreciate El Maestro at home one last time before all is said and done. Here’s hoping this one ends in the most poetic way possible - with one of Portland’s all-time greats lifting MLS Cup again.