Portland's magic duo, Valeri and Blanco, again make the difference as Timbers soar into 2018 MLS Cup
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- When it doubt, leave it to the Lanus Boys.
While that may not have been the exact tactical plan of Portland Timbers manager Giovanni Savarese, it certainly worked out that way as Sebastian Blanco and Diego Valeri, products of Argentine side Lanus, propelled the Timbers to a 3-2 win over Sporting Kansas City in the second leg of the Western Conference finals, and into the team's second MLS Cup in four years.
"It's good for a coach to have those kinds of players," said a beaming Savarese about Blanco and Valeri. "They not only have the quality, but they have the heart and the humbleness to give always everything for the group."
On the night, Valeri bested his teammate in terms of goals scored. Valeri netted Portland's second on the night, as well as another in the ninth minute of stoppage time to make the game safe. But it was Blanco who had a hand in all three goals and conjured up the game's pivotal moment in the 52nd minute. His 33-yard thunderbolt snuck in just under the crossbar, tied the game 1-1 and put Portland up in the series on away goals.
Up to that moment, Kansas City looked to be in control. It was deservedly ahead 1-0 on Daniel Salloi's 20th-minute opener and came agonizingly close to netting a second. The home side had two goals disallowed (correctly, as it turned out) but it was clear the Timbers were hanging by a thread. Portland, for the most part, didn't do much to threaten the SKC goal, though a spell of possession late in the first half provided a hint of things to come.
When the second half commenced the Timbers looked a sharper outfit, with Blanco beginning to find spaces in central locations. He escaped the attention of SKC midfielder Roger Espinoza and saw there was no one else near him to close him down; his curling, swirling, long-range shot did more than just get Portland's nose in front for the first time in the series.
"[Blanco] scored an amazing goal, and after that it was a different game for us," Portland midfielder Diego Chara said. "That gave us confidence, energy. I think [from there] we kept the ball better."
Valeri added to Portland's advantage nine minutes later and, once again, his compatriot was at the heart of things. Blanco's deft chip over the SKC defense found Jeremy Ebobisse in the clear and after SKC goalkeeper Tim Melia saved the initial shot, Valeri was there to clean up and nod the ball home. Then with the score tied 2-2, and with Kansas City throwing everything forward in a bid to snatch victory away from the Timbers, Blanco released Chara into space, and Chara sent Valeri in alone to convert in the ninth minute of stoppage time and clinch the series.
"Blanco was fantastic today," Savarese said. "Once he started being mobile, finding spaces, going all over the place, he created a lot of danger, especially in the second half with a goal and the pass to Jeremy."
One man's brilliance is another man's poor defense, however. While SKC manager Peter Vermes lauded Blanco's strike, he lamented the amount of space in which the Portland midfielder was allowed to operate.
"When you don't get pressure out on players that are good, they wind up being great players," he said.
For sure, there were other heroes on the night for the Timbers. Goalkeeper Jeff Attinella delivered a trio of critical saves. Chara was his usual midfield-destroying self. The back line did just enough to get the Timbers over the finish line. But as it has been for much of these playoffs, it was Blanco and Valeri who were the driving forces. Valeri scored twice in the knockout-round triumph over Dallas. Blanco had two goals in the conference semifinal triumph over the Seattle Sounders, as well as a tally in the penalty shootout that decided the series.
That Valeri has been front and center isn't a surprise. He has been a stellar contributor from the moment he began playing for the Timbers in 2013, and is the reigning league MVP. Blanco has been more of a slow burn. He arrived last year and while he had eight goals and eight assists in 2017, there was a sense that there was another level to be reached. The departure of Darlington Nagbe certainly put more offensive responsibility on Blanco, but he has also looked more comfortable in Portland this season; this is reflected in his regular-season output of 10 goals and 11 assists, as well as his heroics in the playoffs.
The two Argentines go back a ways, of course. They rose through the ranks with Lanus and even won a title together with their hometown club back in 2007.
"Amazing, the life is crazy," said Blanco when reminded of lifting a trophy with Valeri. "But we're very happy because we [can do it] again.
Valeri already has an MLS Cup to his name. He insists there are differences, as well as similarities, to the team that prevailed in 2015.
"It's very different. We are more experienced about it," he said. "But still with the same hunger to win trophies for this club. It's a different group, every time it's different in soccer. That's why it's so special."
It's even better when you can celebrate with friends, too.