The Portland Timbers have struggled without Sebastian Blanco this year. It was like driving a car with a shoddy engine. Sure, it looks the same on the outside, but it’s not the same on the inside. We know the car can go fast, but it’s missing that key piece, and it’s holding them back.
Well now, the car has its full-fledged engine back. Sebastian Blanco is regularly contributing and starting in a now ascendant Portland Timbers team. But just like when you have a car that gets revived, it’s going to take a bit to ramp up to full throttle. You’ve got to learn what it feels like to drive it again.
The signs of Portland transitioning back into an organized and dangerous soccer team are there. And while he’s not quite back to the height of his powers, Blanco has undoubtedly been one of the catalysts in the Timbers' run of good form, particularly on the offensive end.
Blanco has made two consecutive starts for the first time in 2021. This is a telling sign that he is close to being fully fit and the Timbers will continue to benefit from regular starts and his increasing on-field production. Seba seems to finally be rounding into what we can expect to be his full 2021 form after a choppy start to his comeback, and the results are bearing out for the Timbers on the field.
Blanco’s impact can first be seen in the box scores. He currently has two goals and two assists in just about 450 minutes on the field so far. That assist number in particular is important. It’s the second-highest assist tally on the team and reflects the highest assist per 90 minutes rate on the team (0.4 assists/90 according to FBref). It’s a small sample size but it’s reflective of Blanco’s noteworthy impact on the squad.
Seba’s impact isn’t just limited to the surface level numbers. The underlying numbers also confirm his impact and presence on the field as Portland’s playmaker. Against Seattle, in addition to scoring and quieting the crowd, Blanco completed roughly 80% of his passes and provided a team-high five progressive passes, according to FBref.
His influence was seen in an even greater display the following week in Houston. Blanco put in perhaps his most complete performance to date. He didn’t show up on the scoresheet, but he had a hand in creating both of the Timbers’ goals. He sent a cross in from a dangerous position for Felipe Mora to get a head to which created the chance for Yimmi Chara to finish:
He also played the initial ball through for Mora which eventually yielded a Portland penalty and subsequent second goal (at around the 1:10 mark of this video). On the night, Blanco had four shot-creating actions and one goal-creating action which contributed toward one of Portland’s most competent goal-scoring displays on the road this season.
From the macro view, here are Blanco’s underlying numbers and averages so far this season, according to FBref:
- 3.19 shot-creating actions per game, which is third-highest on the team (minimum 90 minutes played)
- 0.6 goal-creating actions per game, which is the second-highest on the team
- 0.36 expected goals per game (third-highest on the team) and 0.35 expected assists (highest on the team)
Of course, these are all numbers born out from just about five full games of playing time. We (and the Timbers) will need to see Blanco do this at a consistent rate for the rest of the season to have a real sense of his influence. But for now, the numbers and the eye test suggest that Blanco is having a significant positive influence on Portland’s attack.
And how is he doing that? Well, from pretty much everywhere on the field Blanco has been drifting into dangerous spaces, playmaking, and facilitating all over the pitch. Below is his distribution chalkboard of completed passes from the Houston game:
And here’s the map from the Seattle game:
Yes, those aren’t the most spectacular offensive displays. But bear in mind that in both matches the Timbers favored a more defensive setup and were defending leads for large swaths of them. That’s still a snapshot of an active, engaged and influential player.
It’s also worth noting that that active engagement is something Portland has been lacking for essentially the entire season. It’s an x-factor that Blanco brings on the field and it's reflected in his play. Blanco’s work rate and willingness to go find the ball and try to make things happen, as well as his overall grit and fire, have been key for the Timbers since his return. The Timbers have been missing these things throughout the season and via Blanco, they are getting them at a level they haven’t seen at any point this year.
So in a phrase, ‘ain’t nobody can do what Seba can do for the Timbers.’ In a year in which quality, results and grit have been lacking, Blanco has brought all three onto the pitch for the Timbers. He hasn’t fixed all of their ills, and there’s still a ways to go before he is back at his peak, but the car has its engine again. And it’s time to see how far it can truly go.