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The Sebastian Blanco Contract Saga

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Once thought to be done and dusted, the Argentine star and the Portland Timbers are now in a high-profile contract negotiation that could end in Blanco leaving the Rose City.

MLS: MLS Cup Press Conference Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Folks, welcome to the frustrating part of silly season. For the second time in two years, the Portland Timbers find themselves in a contentious contract negotiation with one of their stars. This time the club is struggling to come to an agreement with Sebastian Blanco.

Just a few short months ago, it seemed like an inevitability that Blanco and the Timbers would agree to an extension and all would be well and good. Now, we are seeing Instagram stories saying “every end is a new beginning” and reports that Blanco is considering offers from other MLS teams.

How in the world did we get here? Let’s back up and walk through what happened to get us to this point, and what could happen next.

How we got here

Sebastian Blanco’s contract with the Portland Timbers, signed during the fall of 2019, expired at the end of the 2021 season. He was eligible to become a free agent within MLS, barring a new deal with the Portland Timbers.

That new deal was initially thought to be a formality. Tom Bogert of MLS Soccer first reported back in November that Blanco and the Timbers had been in discussion over a new deal and it was a matter of when not if the new deal was agreed upon and signed. Both player and club seemed focused on reaching a deal and “barring something unforeseen” (hold that thought) a new deal would be reached.

As the Timbers entered the postseason, the contract talks went to the back burner, with the assumption being that Blanco would still be in Portland when all was said and done.

As the Timbers won the Western Conference trophy and were preparing to host MLS Cup, that line of thinking appeared to continue to hold. Bogert updated his report by relaying that contract talks between the Timbers and Blanco had been progressing well, although a new deal was yet to be signed.

Despite the wait, it still appeared that matters were headed to a happy end. The thinking amongst all parties was that once the dust settled after MLS Cup, the deal would be signed. As Sebastian Blanco headed to Argentina for a well-earned winter break, everyone expected the extension would be agreed upon and signed and we would all be able to ring in a happy New Year with a new Blanco contract.

And then, when the New Year was not even 48 hours old, Blanco posted this on his Instagram story:

Alarm bells immediately went off across the nervous Timbers fanbase. In an age where contract negotiations are becoming increasingly more public and visible, and players’ actions on social media are scrutinized to the nth degree. This raised some eyebrows and caused panic amongst Portland fans immediately.

Still, perhaps this could have been chalked up to a simple “new year, new me” style message. The “end” could, of course, refer to the end of 2021 and the “beginning” could be a fresh start to 2022, right...?

...Wrong. A couple of hours after the IG story was posted, reports started surfacing out of Argentina stating that not only had a new deal not been signed, but that Blanco was now set to leave the Portland Timbers. A tweet from Argentina-based reporter Juli Micheles outlined as much and also stated that Blanco was now evaluating offers from other teams in MLS.

It was not the kind of surprise that Timbers fans wanted to start their new year. After months of assuming the return of Blanco was inevitable, the needle had flown back all the way in the other direction and now Blanco seems to have one foot out of the door.

Later in the day, additional reporting from Micheles shed some more light on the situation and revealed some unsettling revelations.

Essentially, not long ago, it appears Blanco and the Timbers had agreed to a new three-year deal. But a few days ago, when the paperwork was finally received by the Blanco camp, it reportedly had different conditions than what was originally agreed upon.

If the above is reportedly true, then it would make sense for Blanco to balk at the last-minute switch and start looking elsewhere.

What could have prompted the change, so late in the game? According to ESPN’s Taylor Twellman, the Timbers discovered a medical issue related to Blanco’s knee late in the season. That complication presumably led to the alteration of the deal from PTFC.

It sounds like the Timbers are still hoping to get a deal done, albeit on different terms. And according to Micheles, Blanco is still willing to return to the team — although at the same terms that his camp and the Timbers initially agreed to.

Blanco is still currently a free agent, reportedly fielding offers from other MLS sides and quite likely frustrated with the moves the Timbers have made in these negotiations.

So in a phrase: it ain’t great.

What does it mean and what could happen next

First and foremost, this is very unwelcome news. Blanco was the heart of the Timbers in 2021 and essentially was the reason they turned their season around. His impact on the team cannot be overstated and so the prospect of losing him is very unsettling and concerning.

What’s more concerning is the manner in which the Timbers appear to have gone about this negotiation. The last-minute switch of terms appears to have come as a surprise to Blanco’s camp (if his camp is to be believed), and based on how close the two sides reportedly were to an agreement, it is indeed shocking. However the change or frustration came about, a reality is that one of the stars on the team appears to be quite frustrated at the club that he just helped make an MLS Cup final.

It’s understandable that the club would want to adjust the deal based on the newly discovered issue with Blanco’s knee, coupled with the player’s pre-existing injury history and his age, but we don’t know enough about the timeline of that discovery and the contract negotiations to pass any judgment on that yet - it is all speculation at this point. The amount at which all of this is just contract posturing from either side can be debated- but regardless, it appears that Blanco is pretty upset at the club, and that is a good cause for a degree of concern.

Does this mean that Blanco is for sure gone? At this point, who knows. As mentioned, this is silly season and nothing is definitively real until a deal is signed. There were similar sentiments abound in 2019 when the club entered a similar sort of negotiation with Diego Valeri. There were points in that saga when it felt like Valeri was out the door, but he wound up re-signing with the Timbers on a Targeted Allocation Money deal. That could very well be the resolution here.

But at this juncture, it looks like the Blanco camp is set on signing only the terms that were originally agreed to. Whether the Timbers will acquiesce to that is an open question at this point, especially since they already altered that deal. And for what it’s worth, according to Twellman, both the original and new offers appear to be a Targeted Allocation Money level contract, below the Designated Player threshold. So it’s fair to assume the main point of contention is on contract length, rather than direct compensation.

Whatever the reasons are, the Timbers are once again locked in negotiation with one of their Argentine stars. And perhaps more than the last one, the resolution is much more dubious and uncertain.