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Surprising heroes step up the lead Timbers to the playoffs

The Portland Timbers have used a similar cast of characters throughout the 2019 season. Their wins often come from strong play from the likes of Diego Valeri, Brian Fernandez, Diego Chara, and/or Sebastian Blanco. The team’s job becomes much more difficult when even one of those four key players sits out a match.

Sunday afternoon, when the Timbers took on the San Jose Earthquakes with a playoff spot on the line without two of that core group. Both Valeri and Fernandez were sidelined with nagging injuries for a must win game at the tail end of the season against another team needing a win to get into the playoffs. On paper, this was a monumental task and finding a positive result was never going to be easy.

Portland’s depth players had other ideas, most notably Dairon Asprilla. His goal in the 59th minute turned out to be the deciding tally in a 3-1 win that sent the Timbers to the playoffs.

The Colombian winger is no stranger to big moments with the Timbers, even though it’s been a while since he partook in any. Their 2015 run to lifting the MLS Cup would never have happened had it not been for Asprilla’s timely goal scoring and excellent pace out wide, but after that season he has been nothing more than a bit player on several competitive Portland teams.

On Sunday, after four seasons that took him back to his native Colombia and through a back and forth cycle between MLS and the USL, he scored the biggest goal of the year to take the Timbers forward to the playoffs.

“When you are given the opportunity, in any month of the year, you need to take advantage of it,” Asprilla said through a translator after the match. “Perhaps, I earned my chance now and I must make the most out of it. I believe I can show what I am capable of at any given moment. I was given an opportunity today and I believe I showed I am capable of doing great things, so I will continue working.”

Sunday’s goal was his only regular season goal in an MLS career low 475 minutes of action. Asprilla even had more MLS playing time in 2016, when he spent most of the season on loan with Millonarios back in Colombia.

“The thing is he’s been working very well this week and last week,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said about Asprilla. “I saw something in him that he was hungry to be able to prove himself and come back and do the right things. Today, he worked a lot [out there]. Besides the goal, it was the amount of work that he put in, not only Asprilla, but the entire team.”

As Savarese alluded to, Asprilla wasn’t the only non-regular contributor to a much needed win. Defender Larrys Mabiala also scored his first and only regular season goal to open the scoring. The Frenchman has scored a total of six times in 70 regular season and playoff appearances for the Timbers. Despite scoring the opener, he was quick to praise Portland’s other less frequent attacking contributors.

“Today, it was me on the first [goal], but you had Dairon [Asprilla], who had a great game as well,” Mabiala told reporters after the match. “Jebo [Jeremy Ebobisse] had a great game too, he just didn’t find the back of the net. It’s a [team] sport. We have 11 guys here that can get a chance to score a goal, so the guys did a great job today.”

Despite Asprilla’s heroics and the strong play up front from Ebobisse, neither of them will be in the first-choice team come the first round of the playoffs, when the Timbers travel to Utah to face Real Salt Lake. The two weeks off between now and then will hopefully give Valeri and Fernandez enough time to recover and return to a team that could really use them both at full strength if they want to make an unlikely playoff run.

The Timbers aren’t exactly storming into the playoffs with their chainsaws roaring at full speed. Sunday’s win was their first in six tries as the stumbled down the stretch in some winnable games without key players. Their depth came through in the end, but they will need the big guns blazing if they want to play more than just one more game in 2019.

“It’s where we want to be, where I think we deserve to be,” Savarese said. “We need to prepare and hope that we can get everybody back and fit to be able to have all the selections possible to go into this match.”

“The reality is that we wanted to make the playoffs,” he continued. “We have a good track record with RSL, but no game is the same. So for us, it was making the playoffs and we have to play against anybody that was going to go in front of us. We have to make sure we prepare well and now we have to prepare for RSL.”

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