I’ll admit, I was nervous about the Portland Timbers’ chances of winning against Real Salt Lake before kick off last weekend, knowing that the team would be without Sebastian Blanco and Dairon Asprilla. But after how well Marvin Loria and Santiago Moreno deputized for the suspended/injured Timbers stars, my main concern heading into MLS Cup is how on earth Giovanni Savarese picks the front four with both Blanco and Asprilla available to return to the starting XI.
Does he go with the guys who delivered for him time and time again throughout the season (Asprilla and Blanco) or the guys who stepped up when they were called upon to help the team get to the final (Loria and Moreno)?
During his press conference on Tuesday, Savarese addressed this dilemma directly:
When asked about Loria and Moreno's impact on Saturday and how it impacts lineups for the final, Gio says it's "Not easy- everyone wants to play. Lucky to have a good group and a good culture. Everyone understands their role, and is ready to contribute." #RCTID— Sam Svilar (@sammich923) December 7, 2021
On paper, it might seem like an easy call, Surely you go with your best players, right? Blanco’s return from injury partnered with Asprilla’s best season in Green & Gold buoyed the Timbers to a fourth-place finish after the team looked dead in the water in late August. But after the Western Conference Final, I'm not so sure. To put it simply, Loria and Moreno were absolutely outstanding against RSL, and to me, showed that they are just as capable of starting and delivering in a big match.
After the Western Conference Final, Felipe Mora echoed these sentiments when asked about the performances of Loria and Moreno during the victory against RSL:
On the play of Moreno and Loria tonight, "It was phenomenal. They definitely deserved it. They demonstrated they were ready for when they were called upon". #RCTID— Sam Svilar (@sammich923) December 5, 2021
If picking the team was up to me, and thank goodness it isn’t, the decision of who to start in the final boils down to two main factors: How healthy is Blanco following his hamstring injury against the Rapids, and can you rely on Asprilla to stay composed in heated moments during the final?
The second question, for me, is a pretty straightforward one. Despite the lapse in judgment that led to his red card against the Rapids, I think Dairon Asprilla should start MLS Cup on Saturday. He’s the Timbers’ second-highest scorer this year with 10 goals, and if 2021 has taught us anything, it’s that Asprilla knows how to bounce back after major setbacks. Would it be hard dropping Moreno to the bench after his goal-scoring performance against RSL in the Conference Final? Yes, it would. But you want your best players on the pitch for your biggest games and Asprilla has shown himself to be one of the best players on the team this season.
Blanco’s health, on the other hand, is a far more complicated matter. Savarese has remained coy on what Blanco’s status will be for MLS Cup throughout his media availabilities this week. Blanco, however, seems more than ready to play on Saturday:
Seba, on his status for Saturday: "I am ready. I feel okay, I feel good. We need to still have a conversation with Gio, but no matter what happens, I am ready for the game." #RCTID— Sam Svilar (@sammich923) December 9, 2021
Assuming Blanco is indeed fit to play in MLS Cup, I think that he has to start. He’s the Timbers’ best player and the one player on the team capable of pulling the proverbial rabbit out of the hat to flip a game on its head. Just ask Minnesota:
So with all that in mind, my front four for MLS Cup would be Mora, Asprilla, Blanco and Yimmi Chara. Having said that, Savarese and Timbers fans alike should sleep easy knowing they have players like Loria and Moreno ready to step up if need be. See you all on Saturday.