Blanco-led Timbers score playoff win over Minnesota United
There was some question at halftime Sunday if Sebastian Blanco would be healthy enough to continue.
There was no question by the end of the Portland Timbers' 3-1 playoff win over Minnesota United at Providence Park that Blanco is the reason the Timbers are a threat to go the distance in this postseason.
Blanco shook off a sore back and scored two wonderful goals in the second half Nov. 21 — and the Timbers shook off an early deficit for the victory that sends them into a Thursday afternoon match at Colorado.
The Timbers and Rapids both figure to enter that Thanksgiving Day match (1:30 p.m. on FOX) with plenty of confidence. Portland has won four in a row — dating to a 2-0 loss at Colorado on Oct. 23 — and has scored three goals in three consecutive matches. Colorado finished atop the Western Conference and will be motivated to prove that surprising finish was no fluke.
For a Timbers team that struggled when falling behind this season — a state of play that allows opponents to defend with numbers and eliminate Portland's dangerous counterattacks — falling behind early could have been trouble. But, on this occasion, the Timbers were able to steady themselves, not panic and take unneeded risks, and find their footing.
"The guys were a little bit disappointed, but we knew that we're going to fight through. We knew that we needed to play our match," Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said about how his side reacted to falling behind. "One thing that we spoke (about) is that we have to manage anything that the game is going to give us and stay positive. And that's what the guys did through the entire match."
Blanco gave Portland the lead in the opening moments of the second half and gave the home side a two-goal cushion with a 30-yard shot in the 66th minute.
Those goals came after Blanco spent several minutes on the turf clutching his side late in the first half, and after the match explained that it was difficult to breathe as a result of contact to his ribs. But, the spirited Argentine wasn't going to let a knock keep him from a playoff match.
He said medication at halftime helped manage the painful ribs during the second half, and that the result overrode any pain he was feeling after the match.
The go-ahead goal came after Dairon Asprilla worked hard for possession in the attacking third, Claudio Bravo whipped a ball into the box. Minnesota's Chase Gaspar's awkward headed clearing attempt fell into space for Blanco to drive a one-hop shot beyond the reach of goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair.
Blanco's second goal — the fifth playoff goal of his Timbers career — was a 30-yard laser that St. Clair had no chance of stopping. It came with Minnesota pushing numbers into the attack. Right back Josecarlos Van Rankin won a tackle at midfield and dribbled unchallenged into the attack before touching a square pass to Blanco, also with lots of space. Blanco took two quick touches and unleashed a swerving shot that caught the inside of the post on its way into the net.
That goal allowed the Timbers to finish the match in solid control, though Minnesota twice narrowly missed scoring on great opportunities in stoppage time.
If Blanco was the star, he had a strong supporting cast. That included the two first-year fullbacks who have at times struggled this season.
Left back Bravo, whose over-run recovery contributed to Minnesota's goal, delivered the ball that Larrys Mabiala headed in to tie the score 1-1 late in the 43rd minute. The Timbers defender looped the ball inside the post, leaping between a pair of defenders to head home his first goal of the season.
Portland attackers, especially Asprilla and Yimmi Chara, were able to create problems for Minnesota's wide defenders. And Yimmi Chara and Asprilla were effective in helping midfielder's Diego Chara and Cristhian Paredes keep Minnesota from finding line-breaking passes through the midfield, part of the way Portland largely kept Minnesota playmaker Reynoso from impacting the Loons' attack.
Reynoso was credited with creating five chances, but his impact on the match was minimized.
Savarese said forcing Reynoso away from the spaces where he thrives was a team-wide effort and key to Sunday's win.
"He's a guy that moves around a lot on the field. So, everybody had to make sure that we play the part to keep him in the areas that we wanted to and to making sure that he didn't find the spaces to be more dangerous."
Portland fell behind early as Minnesota converted on a counterattack in the 11th minute. Franco Fragapane scored the goal, unmarked on a back-post run to tap home a squared pass from right back Emanuel Reynoso at the end of a quick forward action that caught the Timbers out of position.
The Timbers responded well, keeping the ball in the attacking third and creating a series of half chances.
The tying goal came just before half when defender Mabiala made Portland's fifth corner kick count.
That timely goal, and Blanco's strike early in the second half, shifted any pressure to produce to the visitors. The result was more room for Portland to move on counterattacks, and a chance for the Timbers to enjoy riding the energy from a Providence Park crowd of 22,533 to the club's first MLS Cup Playoffs win since their 2018 run to the Cup final.
• Minnesota coach Adrian Heath on Blanco's impact: "When it's 2-1, you're still in the game and I felt if we could see that through and get us to the last 10 to 15 minutes where we could start to really take some chances, but the third goal was a great goal. He was probably the best player on the field tonight, it's probably why they won the game."
• Minnesota was without starting goalkeeper Tyler Miller, who tested positive for COVID-19. The Loons also were without winger Ethan Finlay, who suffered a concussion in training.
• Before he scored with a header, Mabiala had a bicycle kick attempt off a corner kick that was goal-bound until it was blocked by the shoulder of Minnesota defender Bakaye Dibassy.
• Of Steve Clark's five saves, his most challenging kept the Minnesota lead 1-0 midway through the first half, when he pushed a swerving Reynoso free kick clear of goal.
• Mabiala was shown a late yellow card after standing up for Diego Chara, who suffered a dangerous two-footed challenge from Franco Fragapane in the 85th minute, a foul that seems likely to bring a red-card sanction upon review.
• Portland is 9-6-6 all time in MLS Cup playoff matches, 4-2-4 at Providence Park.
• Minnesota had shouts for a handball call and a PK when Asprilla raised his arms to block a close-range shot in the 82nd minute by Dibassey. But the call was not made on the field or awarded after video review.
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