FRISCO, Texas — The Portland Timbers' offseason acquisitions are fitting in just fine.
With star playmaker Diego Valeri out because of a hip problem, beating undefeated FC Dallas in Saturday's contest was going to be difficult. And while the Timbers ultimately fell short of the victory, watching FCD equalize twice in a 2-2 draw, the visitors were in control of large stretches - a rare site at Toyota Stadium, where FCD is generally dominant.
“We’ve been pretty fierce with our attack this year and we showed that again today, especially with one of our top players Diego Valeri being out," Timbers coach Caleb Porter said after the game. "I thought our team as a whole played really well. It was a difficult game against a difficult opponent. It’s tough to get points here. Not many teams come here and get points, and for us to get a point was very good. With a little bit of better luck, maybe we get three.”
Much of the burden for replacing Valeri fell to another Argentine, Sebastian Blanco. The former San Lorenzo man signed in the offseason and has been playing on the right wing but moved into the middle to replace his countryman. And on a pitch soaked with rain that continued to fall after the start of the match was delayed 23 minutes because of a lightning strike in the area, Blanco pulled the strings for an attack that caused one of the league's best defenses plenty of trouble.
"We were missing Diego, but we had Sebastian who played really well in his position, and it was a good change," said David Guzman, who slotted into set-piece duty for the deadly Valeri. "It’s good that when a teammate isn’t there another can step in and fill in for him as well as possible and today it happened for us. It was a good result. We know that Diego has a lot of very good characteristics, but today he’s injured. It fell to Seba and he did really well. Our game didn’t change. There were a few tactical movements because of the type of team we were facing, and those were the only differences."
Blanco said he felt obligated not only to give the team a lift with his play but also give some of the things that make Valeri a team leader in addition to simply a star midfielder.
"It was tough, obviously, to replace a player like Diego, not only because of what he means football-wise but also what he means for the team off the field. For me, it was a great responsibility," Blanco said after the game. "Luckily, I was able to respond, I think, in a good way, scoring my first goal and helping the team as well to get a result.
"We do leave a little frustrated because I think we did enough to maybe deserve the victory, but I think we played against one of the best teams in the league today - or better said two of the best teams in the league faced each other today and it was a great game."
With Saturday's draw, the Timbers maintain their lead in the Western Conference, though they've played two fewer games than FCD, and Saturday's game had plenty of hints that these two teams might be fighting all season - directly or indirectly - for a conference title. That's especially true after the quality match from Blanco and Guzman, who showed that the Timbers are a team with depth, able to rely on more than simply Valeri or U.S. international Darlington Nagbe.
Guzman's set piece to Fanendo Adi opened the scoring early with a set piece designed to find the big forward in the box. It was a goal that also took advantage of the growing understanding in the group. "I talked with Adi, Adi told me to put it on the penalty spot because he’s very strong there and I hit it and the play went really well."
After FCD forward Maxi Urruti scored a golazo against his former team, the Timbers were once again back on the front foot shortly after thanks to Blanco's debut MLS goal.
"I felt a lot of pressure because almost the whole team has scored aside from me," said Blanco, glancing around the locker room at his teammates. "But things were coming together, I’ve been working hard as well. It’s not essential for the goal to come. For my game it’s also important to create chances and also do whatever helps the team get points. I hope going forward things will keep getting better."
You'd expect they will when Valeri returns, but as the Timbers put on display Saturday night, they have far more weapons than a single player.