Portland’s hard-fought 2-1 win in Seattle last Sunday came at a huge cost. In just the second minute of action, Sebastián Blanco went down with a knee injury while providing high pressure. He stayed down for a few minutes, needing a stretcher to carry him off. As we later learned, this was far more devastating than anyone was hoping for.
Blow for us and blow for all of MLS. We lose the most dynamic player in the league so far this year. Seba had taken his game to the next level in 2020
— Merritt Paulson (@MerrittPaulson) September 9, 2020
Paulson’s tweet says it all. Blanco was certainly in contention for MLS MVP this season, especially after nabbing MLS is Back Tournament MVP honors already.
At 32 years old, this will be a significant setback for a player who has been Portland’s best player as of late. Arguments could be made for an aging Diego Valeri, uber-consistent Diego Chará, or goalkeeper Steve Clark as the Timbers’ best; but it’s been magic moments from Blanco that have saved Portland’s rear in recent seasons.
Think about this: Without Blanco’s goals in Seattle and Kansas City from the 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs, we might be talking about a team that’s been trending in the wrong direction since hiring Giovanni Savarese. But we’re not. So let’s be grateful.
Fortunately, the Timbers do have one of the deepest rosters in MLS. The front office has been building this squad with depth in mind for years now. In terms of how lineups will change, I think Savarese will put his 11 best players on the field, whatever that means to him.
Let’s take a look at who could replace Blanco in the starting XI and beyond.
When Blanco went down against Seattle, Marvin Loría was his replacement before coming off for Yimmi Chará in the second half. In my opinion, Loría is still a step behind MLS play, but he’s only getting better with more and more playing time.
Loría still has growing to do. He hasn’t produced much this season (0.16 expected goals plus assists per 90 isn’t horrible, but he has 0 real goals or assists) in just over 300 minutes. While he’s been solid as a filler, Loría is not a viable long-term replacement. I still wouldn’t be too irked to see his playing time rise while Blanco is out, though.
Also, Loría is a bonafide winger. Blanco liked to drift in and out of the center, picking up possession wherever he could and finding space on either wing to get the attack going.
Like Loría, Yimmi Chará is usually thought as more of a winger than a playmaking #10. However, this is something I could see changing now that Blanco’s out. In the past, Portland had two guys who could always fill the role as a 10 in Blanco and Valeri. Now, with Blanco out and Valeri aging, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Yimmi get a start as a central attacking mid during some midweek games.
Another option is for Gio to scrap JeboOnTheWing™ for the time being and insert both Loría and Yimmi into the starting XI. I think this is unlikely, because Gio has indicated many times that he believes Jebo can play either forward or winger, but I see him having a hard time keeping either Ebobisse or Jarosław Niezgoda off the field.
Personally, I believe Yimmi and Jarek should both definitely start in important matches. Despite Ebobisse’s hot streak in the MLSiBT, I do think Niezgoda is realistically a better option as the lone forward. For that matter, Felipe Mora might be, too.
There were reports linking Jebo overseas recently, and frankly, I don’t think it would be too detrimental for him to go. I love everything Jeremy has done on and off the pitch, and it would be extremely hard to let him go, but the Timbers have three starting-caliber forwards and a system of play with only one forward spot.
It’s also worth remembering that Mora is only here on loan. He might not return if Jebo ends up staying and producing.
One of the most pleasant surprises under Savarese has been the development of Eryk Williamson over the past two seasons. I remember asking Gio about Williamson after his first full 90 late last season; now he’s scored his first MLS goal and made the MLS Team of the Week.
With T2, Williamson actually played more of an attacking role than his current one as a stopper/holding midfielder. If duty calls (say Valeri is out), I could definitely see Gio bumping Eryk up to the playmaking role while bringing in Paredes, Flores, or Zambrano as the extra mid.
Conechny often gets labeled as the backup or third-string central attacking mid, but that’s more accurate in FIFA than real life. Under Gio, Conechny has been almost exclusively a B-team guy. I wouldn’t expect to see him in a starting XI unless Gio was resting players.
My Ideal Lineup
If I were Gio, this is how I would do things. Keep in mind that Gio is much smarter and more capable of assessing his team than I am.
I know this looks stupid, but hear me out:
Condense into a 4-4-1-1 when defending, with Jebo and Yimmi out wide on either side and Williamson next to Diego Chará in holding midfield
Duvall or Jorge pushes up to overload one side when in possession
Jebo and Jarek both stretching the back line at different points, taking turns dropping in to create space for one another
Valeri popping up to create triangles and slip through balls between the lines when this happens
Attacking crosses to either post are met with a forward and runs into the box by everyone else
Diego Chará plays like Diego Chará
Sounds good, right? Nope, didn’t think so. This is why I’m a writer and not a manager.
So, now what?
Often times, there is pressure from fans to see a consistent starting XI when the true goal is consistent results. It is the nature of Savarese’s lineups to be constantly shuffling players; moving guys in and out of the lineup. That’s a good thing. It means he’s willing to embrace competition within his squad.
With Seba out for the rest of the season, the pressure for creativity falls more on the shoulders of not just Diego Valeri, but the rest of the XI as well.