What, you think Portland sports can have nice things in 2021?
If anyone could do it, it was gonna be the Timbers, which gave the city an MLS Cup parade in 2015, made it back to the league championship game in 2018 and put another banner in Providence Park by winning 2020′s post-COVID “MLS Is Back” trophy.
On Saturday, Portland’s Major League Soccer team hosted MLS Cup for the first time in franchise history, facing New York City FC before a sold-out crowd of 25,218.
But alas, the visitors prevailed, in a game that was tied 1-1 after 90 regulation minutes—plus stoppage time—and remained so through two 15-minute overtimes. Then New York goaltender Sean Johnson got the better of such Timbers stars as Felipe Mora and Diego Valeri on penalty kicks, with NYCFC winning the five-round shootout 4-2.
“Sometimes the game can be cruel,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said after the game. “In the sense of only one [team] wins, and the other one, y’know, has to get these feelings. At home today we had the hope to have this trophy for our fans…and to remember this day for the rest of our lives. It will be remembered—not in the way we wanted.”
Like the Timbers Army chant goes, it rained. It poured. And for more than 90 minutes, the Timbers didn’t score. It was a more or less evenly matched and nerve-wracking game, even though the numbers and historical trends said the Timbers would enjoy a coronation.
Since MLS Cup—no “the,” that’s how they do it—stopped being held at neutral sites in 2012, the home team had won 7-2 (the 2015 Timbers being one of the exceptions). And the Timbers were 11-4-2 in Goose Hollow this season, including playoff wins against Minnesota United and Real Salt Lake (plus Colorado on the road).
But when New York City forward Valentin Castellanos—winner of the “Golden Boot” as the league’s top scorer—put a header past Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark in the game’s 41st minute, another stat loomed large: Portland was 1-11-3 when allowing the first goal, and 0-8-1 when trailing at halftime.
Savarese was disappointed that the Timbers couldn’t defend the set piece, as they’d practiced and prepared for just that situation. The goal also led to this uncharacteristically ugly moment for a Timbers game, which resulted in the ejection and arrest of two men:
It’s something you’d sooner expect from Philadelphia (I can say that, it’s my hometown), though a friend of mine joked that people were also bound to say, “Antifa did it.”
At the game’s 90th minute, it looked as though the Cityzens’ (yup, that’s what we call the New York City players) 1-0 lead was going to hold up.
By then, both Timbers star forward Sebastian Blanco, who’d missed the Real Salt Lake game with an injury, and Timbers Army Supporters Player of the Year Dairon Asprilla, known for his big (and flashy) goals above all else, had given way to Santiago Moreno and Jaroslaw Niezgoda. Franchise all-timer Valeri, a bench player for most of the season, had also entered as a substitute.
There were still four minutes of extra time—this gets tacked on by the referees based on stoppages, which is confusing for non-soccer fans, but would you rather watch commercials?—and the Timbers needed every second. With the final whistle surely set to blow at any moment, Niezgoda gathered up a close-in rebound (set up by Yimmi Chara’s header) that got blocked, and Mora cashed it in for a truly unbelievable—and unbelievably loud—reversal of fortune to make it 1-1.
“Portland reverberates to noise we’ve previously never heard,” ESPN announcer Jon Champion said, though I put it another way:
The literal last-second equalizer—the latest such goal in MLS Cup history—was also similar, at least in its timing, to the Maximiliano Urruti goal that led to the Timbers’ infamous “double-post” penalties win early in the 2015 MLS Cup run.
On the other hand, it was also kind of like one of Damian Lillard’s all-time playoff winners—a spectacular moment accompanied by an incredible outpouring of fan emotion, but without the bigger satisfaction of a championship.
All the energy was on the Timbers’ side during the first 15-minute extra period, but without another goal. Things leveled out again over the second, but still, going to penalty shots as the home team after losing for 93-plus minutes seemed like a better-than-best-case scenario, especially with the PKs happening at the north end goal, amid the Timbers Army roar. That’s also where the PKs took place in the 2015 double-post game. But this time, the Timbers didn’t have enough firepower, and NYCFC’s Johnson was too strong (the goalkeeper was named the game’s Most Valuable Player).
Win or lose, penalty kicks are a pretty dumb way to end a game. But it’s still better to win them.
“It makes it harder, because you feel closer,” Savarese said of losing what is fundamentally a tie, his smile both grim and philosophical. “But, this is the nature of the game…this is why you love it, because y’know, it has all these emotions. High, low, good, bad. And this is why we love this game.”
In Portland, we also love the game because it belongs to the fans, something that has been put to the test this season by the sexual misconduct scandal that’s engulfed the Portland Thorns, and Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson. Because of that ongoing investigation, this otherwise excellent on-field season (for the Thorns as well, until the playoffs) has been one of protest, cognitive dissonance and divided loyalties.
But there was one thing everybody could agree on—it was incredibly bittersweet that Mora’s goal extended what might have been the last game of Diego Valeri’s Timbers career by an extra 30 minutes plus, but without the Disney finish.
A player who was always money on penalty kicks couldn’t get it done, and the dejection in Valeri’s face and body language was profound, with the maestro lifting his jersey up to cover his face briefly.
Later, there would be a tearful exit from the field, with the Army still waving a giant “El Rey” flag long after all the players had departed. That’s it—or probably is—for not just one of the greatest Timbers of all time (along with the other Diego), but one of the greatest Portland athletes of all time (whether he’s the soccer version of Walton, Drexler or Lillard is a subject for another time).
“He made this league a better league,” said Savarese.
“He made the Portland Timbers be what it is. He’s a legend for Portland.”