We’re just two days out from the Portland Timbers’ fourth Western Conference Finals appearance since entering MLS in 2011 and I’m a nervous wreck. Does it have to do with the fact that Real Salt Lake are coming to Providence Park fresh off of back-to-back postseason wins and with star player Albert Rusnak set to make his return from the COVID protocol? Yes. But what I’m more worried about is the elephant in the room for the Timbers: they will be without Dairon Asprilla (suspension) and Blanco will most likely miss out due to the injury he picked up in the Western Conference semifinals.
While Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese confirmed that the team’s appeal of Asprilla’s late red card against the Colorado Rapids was denied, his Thursday afternoon press conference offered some, albeit a small amount, of hope that Blanco might have a role to play against RSL on Saturday:
#RCTID Gio opened a small window for Seba Blanco to have minutes vs #RSL, “he’s making miracles. A few days back we thought him out and today there is a small hope that He can be involved” #MLSCupPlayoffs @RobAbramowitz @marianot19 @GlennCrooks @thegoalkeeper https://t.co/QWdxsNY7k5— John E. Rojas (@jrojasa75) December 2, 2021
The news is promising, yes, but even so, I wouldn’t expect Blanco to play major minutes even if he does manage to make it back in time for the game. So, having said that, how would I line the team up if both Asprilla and Blanco are out against RSL?
For me, the front four has to be Felipe Mora as the No. 9, with Santiago Moreno replacing Asprilla on the left wing, Diego Valeri replacing Blanco as the No. 10, and Yimmi Chara retaining his spot on the right side of the attack. Losing Asprilla for the match means losing a whole lot of pace that is pivotal to how the Timbers want to play on the counter.
I think that inserting Moreno into the lineup in his place best replicates that wide outlet for Portland, as opposed to Marvin Loria, who is pacey but not as suited to make those runs beyond the opponent’s backline.
As for the center-attacking-midfield spot normally occupied by Blanco, I think Valeri has to start. This is another position that Loria could potentially be played in but in my opinion, El Maestro gives the Timbers a better chance of advancing to the MLS Cup Final. Is he past his prime? Sure. But there’s still some magic in those boots and after all he’s done for the club, Valeri has earned one last shot at providing the Timbers with a little bit of post-season magic.
Yimmi is as locked in a starter as anybody else on the team and sitting in front of him is the massive responsibility of performing as a designated player on the biggest stage. In the absence of Asprilla and Blanco, his creativity and ability to retain possession will be essential to the Timbers’ success against a very solid RSL defense.
I’ve opted for Mora up top instead of Niezgoda because, like Yimmi, I think his ability to hold on to the ball and play in his teammates is imperative without Asprilla and Blanco. That’s not to say Niezgoda doesn’t fit how the Timbers are trying to play, but he’s more of a traditional “send the ball into the box” type of forward, whereas Mora is much more versatile in his link-up play. I much prefer Niezgoda as an impact sub to throw on in the last 30 minutes for Mora if the team is having difficulties breaking down RSL.
Again, these are just my opinions, but I truly believe that a Mora-Moreno-Valeri-Yimmi front four gives the Timbers the best chance of advancing and potentially hosting an MLS Cup Final at Providence Park. And if none of the aforementioned players are able to contribute goals in Asprilla and Blanco’s absence, just throw Larrys Mabiala up top and let him handle the rest.