By Chris Smith.
Portland Timbers booked their place in the final of the MLS is Back tournament with a 2-1 win over Philadelphia Union on Wednesday night.
Few had fancied either side to reach this stage before play kicked off but both were here on merit, with the Timbers catching many off guard with their attacking play and the Union proving to be tough nuts to crack.
It was the Timbers who prevailed on this occasion with striker Jeremy Ebobisse evading the Union defence to head home a Diego Valeri corner in the 13th minute. From there, the Timbers sat in and soaked up practically every bit of pressure Jim Curtin’s side could throw at them, although they did ride their luck a little with Sergio Santos blazing a penalty over the bar after Jamiro Monteiro was fouled in the box by Sebastian Blanco.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) August 6, 2020
That error aside, Blanco was flawless for Portland and the Argentine popped up with a header at the far post to make it 2-0 and job done in the 70th minute.
Andrew Wooten did manage to pull a goal back for the Union late on, rebounding after Steve Clark parried a Monteiro free-kick into trouble, while Kacper Przybylko had a strike ruled out for offside, but the comeback was too little too late from Curtin’s men.
Giovanni Savarese’s side will now await the winner of Orlando City and Minnesota United in the final, but before then, what did we learn from his match?
1. Timbers Maintain Dominance Over The Union
Although the Union have made something of a habit of proving the doubters wrong over the past couple of years, even Curtin himself must have been a little fearful heading into this semi-final given his side’s historical record against the Timbers.
Ahead of this match, Portland had inflicted six defeats on Philadelphia in 10 Major League Soccer meetings between the two — including in their previous four matches — while the Union had managed just one win during that time. Now, that stands at five consecutive wins and seven from 11 meetings for the Timbers.
Obviously, that’s nothing to be too ashamed of given the success the Timbers have enjoyed during their time in MLS, but it certainly feels like Savarese has Curtin’s number when it comes to tactics and mentality in this fixture.
2. Santos Loses His Cool At The Vital Moment
Santos has been one of the stars of this tournament during the knockout rounds, scoring three goals in two games for the Union, including a memorable double during their 3-1 win over Sporting KC in the previous round.
The Chilean fully deserves the praise that has come his way but will likely want to forget his performance on Wednesday night as soon as possible.
Santos was only able to manage 25 touches of the ball during his hour on the pitch and one of those touches, of course, was the penalty which he fired over the bar. In fact, the ball was probably closer to clearing the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex altogether than finding the net.
You can’t blame Philadelphia’s exit solely on Santos and in all honesty, they wouldn’t have even made this stage without the 25-year-old’s efforts, but just when it counted most, the Union’s forward lost his cool. A costly miss, indeed.
3. Blanco Leads Timbers Masterclass
Diego Rossi illuminated the MLS is Back group stages with a glut of goals for LAFC, FC Cincinnati shocked everyone by making the knockout rounds with their insanely low block and Darlington Nagbe has proved once again that he is this league’s ultimate midfield orchestrator. There have been so many star performers at this tournament — both individually and collectively. However, none have shone more than Sebastian Blanco.
The Timbers’ No.10 has been one of the stars of Major League Soccer ever since he joined the league from San Lorenzo in 2017 but seems to have reached a whole new level during this tournament.
Heading into Wednesday’s match, Blanco had already been directly involved in seven of Portland’s 10 MLS is Back goals, scoring twice and assisting five, and had conducted the attack in typically mesmeric style for Savarese, hovering behind the centre-forward and taking up space both through the middle and on the flanks.
For the first 70 minutes of Wednesday’s semi-final, it was Blanco’s work without the ball which caught the eye. Sure, he did give away the penalty — which Santos thankfully launched over the bar — but he also led the defensive effort by example with a match-high seven tackles, as well as two interceptions and a clearance as the Timbers sat in and soaked up Philadelphia pressure.
Another Portland corner. Another Portland goal! It’s 2-0!
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) August 6, 2020
Of course, for all his hard work off the ball, it’s what he does when he’s in possession which Blanco is truly judged for, and once again, he came up with a match-defining moment with a header at the far post to make it 2-0. That contribution gained more pertinence when Wooten halved the deficit for the Union in the final few minutes.
Whether Portland face Orlando or Minnesota in the final, Blanco is sure to hold the key to success for Savarese’s men next week and, if he can stay in this sort of form, into the rest of 2020.