Major League Soccer

Portland Timbers pay heavy price for spot in Western Conference final

Chris Smith
The Timbers will be without Sebastian Blanco and Dairon Asprilla in the next round.
The Timbers will be without Sebastian Blanco and Dairon Asprilla in the next round. / Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes, victory is hard-fought and comes at a price. Just ask the Portland Timbers.

Supporters will still rightly be celebrating spoiling the Colorado Rapids' party in Major League Soccer's first-ever Thanksgiving match. The Timbers are back in the Western Conference final after two consecutive Round One exits.

The nature of the winning goal only adds to the euphoria - Larrys Mabiala scoring for the second Playoff game in a row after going goalless in the regular season, in the 90th minute, from a very messy set-piece.

But once the dust settles - and in the Playoffs, it settles very quickly - the Timbers will know they have a real task on their hands to go any further. Portland paid a heavy price for their progression.

First, there was Sebastian Blanco limping off the pitch with what appeared to be a hamstring injury.

The Argentine was instrumental (as always) in Portland's 3-1 win over Minnesota United in Round One, scoring twice in the second half to put the game beyond the Loons. Give him an inch and he'll take everything from you.

Thursday's match was a different story. His escape down the left flank and relatively weak shot at Will Yarbrough in the 50th minute was just Blanco's 21st touch of the ball. A speculative shot from 30 yards with an xG value of 0.03 in the first half aside, it was his first meaningful contribution to the match.

It proved to be his last, with Blanco holding his leg and being withdrawn, unable to hold back the tears as he made it to the Timbers bench.

Portland had a momentary wobble, but they didn't fall. Mabiala's calamitous goal came and all the Timbers had to do was last five minutes of stoppage time without losing their cool. Dairon Asprilla had other ideas.

The Colombian forward got himself involved in a ridiculous exchange with Braian Galvan over on the touchline. Asprilla tried to block Galvan from getting the ball and received a push from the Argentine. His response was to swipe an arm and attempt a weak but noticeable headlock on Galvan, punished with a red card.

Yes, it was incredibly soft. If that's the standard for red card nowadays, we have a problem. But as Stuart Holden noted on the Fox Sports broadcast: "Why react like this?" Don't even give the referee a decision to make. Asprilla has enjoyed a good season in front of goal in 2021, scoring 10 times in the regular season, but it's in the Playoffs where he usually comes alive.

Playing in Colorado takes enough of a toll on your squad given the altitude - Denver sits 5,280 above sea level - without losing two huge attacking pieces to injury and suspension.

Of course, the Timbers will be happy to get past the Rapids - they certainly weren't favorites to do so against the top seed in the West. But they're really in a no-win situation as they await their next opponent.

On the one hand, they could travel to Sporting Kansas City, who looked extremely dangerous as they held off and overcame the challenge of the Vancouver Whitecaps in Round One. The Timbers have taken four points from SKC this season, but were 15 worse off on the road than at home during the regular season. And without Blanco and Asprilla, you have to admit SKC have the difference-makers.

On the other hand, they could host Real Salt Lake. This looks an easier proposition, but just ask the Seattle Sounders how many nightmares they've had since crashing out on penalties at home to RSL, despite the visitors not even attempting a single shot through 120 minutes. Can Portland break down that stubborn backline without Blanco's craft and Asprilla's skill and goal threat?

A lot could rest on the 35-year-old shoulders of Diego Valeri and a rolling cast of depth players.

“We feel strong. We feel that we have everyone on the same page. We feel that everyone wants to contribute, and everybody's going to put a hard fight to make sure that we can continue to be competitive,” said head coach Giovanni Savarese.

On the loss of Blanco, he added: “Seba is Seba – he’s a DP, he’s a very important player. We've seen what he's capable of doing, and we want to have people on the field who make us a better team. But the reality is that this group has shown through the entire season that we’re never giving up. We're going to work hard, that we are always in the belief that anybody is gonna step up to make sure that that we can achieve things as a group.

“We have players that can make the difference, but the group is the most important.”