As you can see from the date of my last post, writing regularly this season was not my top priority, but the question was asked all season long, can the Timbers contend for trophies in 2015? That answer was provided in emphatic fashion Sunday evening in Ohio.
Why has it taken me so long to write about it? See below.
After four years of pouring out page after page via keyboard, it was time for a break. Keeping down a day job and making time for a passion for writing and soccer, maintaining relationships, and fathering and coaching two young boys required a serious overhaul of the time allotted to writing about the Portland Timbers.
After that first year of punditry from the proverbial stands (this blog filling up with usually sobered down post-match rants, er, posts), I was ‘called up’ to the press box and spent three campaigns staying abreast of every move the Timbers made.
Opining can only take you so far, and the responsibilities of building and managing a team of writers and photographers came along as friends Kelly McLain and Steve Clare offered me opportunities to more formally hone my craft as a proper journalist with Timbers Insider and Prost Amerika.
While editing and cat herding come naturally to me, there was only so much time in a day and I needed to find balance. Not only for my loved ones and gainful employers, but for my love of the Portland Timbers.
As a longtime season ticket holder who also enjoyed the access of press credentials, I was always torn between giving away or selling my seats to sit with the media instead. I know this is a personal quandary not many would pity me for, and it’s not lost on me that we are in Portland where scant empathy exists in a soccer stadium.
While the trade-off of sitting in the catbird’s seat at midfield with free regional cuisine was no hardship, leaving my mates and family in the North End leaves one longing for the energy you can only feel from the crowd’s perspective, standing up for ninety plus minutes while trying not to spill your beer (but not caring if it’s due to a home goal).
While there were many highs afforded me from wearing a media pass around my neck, straddling the line between supporter and having a backstage pass can be tricky. No wearing team gear or colors? Blasphemy.
This stadium is my church, who are you to tell me to leave my Timbers Army scarf at the door? Oh, you’re serving salmon as a sign of effigy to Seattle? OK, I suppose that sacrifice will suffice my loyalty as I tuck my colors in my bag to maintain my ‘professionalism’.
As the team at Prost Portland grew, I was able to find like-minded people who held a common love of the game, the Timbers, writing, and the imagery evoked on the pitch and in the stands. This shared experience was my new family up top, and allowed me to reconnect with my family down low.
While the view from above offers the great view one gets from their TV set, the distance from the field changes the experience. The camera angle for pre-match tifo is ideal, but the separation is distinctly disconnected, you are a witness, an observer, not a participant in one of the great rituals of the club and its followers.
It is that disconnected feeling that saw me back in the stands this season rather than a seat, and it rekindled my passion for the team, watching most home matches alongside my two young lads and recalling the nostalgic NASL matches of my youth.
While in the Fourth Estate one must strive for neutrality (not exactly a hallmark of modern news media, I know), but in sports being a beat reporter for your local team means you must become a harsh critic to counter any potential bias.
When you must interview players and coaches face to face, the criticism that comes so easy in the stands or through the internet becomes much more real when Caleb Porter offers a firm rebuke or simply stares you down.
You have to find a way to ask the questions that will make your friends happy (since we’ve sorted out all the roster decisions over pints already), while maintaining a rapport with the club officials and players to ensure we don’t offend (too much).
As this season wore on, it was anything but magical as the Timbers seemed to be performing a repeat of a dreadful 2014 season, when the postseason was missed by a point but felt much further away than that narrow margin.
The nadir seemed to be the 1-nil loss to Sporting Kansas City, Krizstian Nemeth’s sparkling run and finish that eventually claimed MLS Goal of the Year impressive not only in its execution but in how hapless he made Diego Chara, Nat Borchers, and Liam Ridgewell look as he ambled comfortably past them.
Those three looked the picture of impenetrability on Sunday in the team’s 2-1 triumph over Columbus Crew SC in Ohio, so in hindsight it’s fitting that goal takes home an award as it surely stuck in the minds of Portland defenders who chastened themselves against further embarrassment from would be goalscoring posterizers.
The SKC result in early October left the team languishing below the red line of playoff contention, and there was no room for error in the remaining three matches, two on the road. The response was a second win at Real Salt Lake, a place the team the Timbers had never won and now had done the double away in a season.
That was followed by a win at the LA Galaxy, a first victory away at that venue and one done in astonishing fashion as a five goal second half from the visitors made what appeared to be another easy win for the hosts into a rout of epic proportions.
That belief carried over to a home finale against the Colorado Rapids that again saw Portland dominate, Darlington Nagbe putting in a career performance that many saw as the catalyst to the team’s run to the MLS Cup.
Nagbe’s role in that postseason clinching win was instrumental, but it was not down to a tactical shift or playing him in his ‘natural’ position afforded by Diego Valeri’s absence. By Valeri inadvertently making way, Nagbe had no one to hide behind when it came to controlling the game. His seizure of the opportunity gave Nagbe and Timbers fans belief.
Right up to that game many in the stands were still unsure if Portland would blow the opportunity, and the thought of the Maestro sitting out the most important match of the year with captain Will Johnson already sidelined by injury left many uneasy, terrified the season would end in the cruelest of fashions.
To that point, many, myself included, were questioning Nagbe’s regular spot in the starting lineup, so limited was his production of goals or assists per 90 minute shift (less his brilliant solo goal against LA). When Nagbe’s confidence soared that match as the team’s leader, so did the TA’s and the rest of the team.
Peaking at the right time is an old cliche, but believing at the right time was more crucial for this Timbers squad. From so many frustrating moments earlier in the season the team was now clicking and playing passionate, aggressive football that was reaping goals and wins, a heady mix for a town so longing for a champion.
The first playoff hurdle against recent nemesis SKC saw Nemeth again there doing damage as his extra time goal looked set to break Portland hearts, but then Maxi Urruti did what earned him his own song and scored a last gasp equalizer. ‘Two posts’ in the most dramatic of penalty shootouts gave Adam Kwarasey the stage to put his spot kick home and deny his counterpart goalkeeper to seal victory, and the feeling of destiny stirred stronger than ever.
When Kwarasey missed the home match against the Vancouver Whitecaps some doubt crept back in, but Jake Gleeson’s superb clean sheet aided by a more resolute defense meant Portland held the tiebreaker advantage in the ensuing away leg.
Portland then took full advantage in our house in the middle of BC with Fanendo Adi putting away a lovely Valeri pass, then Chara sealed the deal in injury time as Adi fed the Colombian for another unlikely goal.
FC Dallas stood in Portland’s path to MLS Cup, but after winning the first leg at home 3-1 the Timbers looked set to advance easily through goals from Borchers, Ridgewell, and a cracker from Dairon Asprilla, particularly after Adi scored first in the away leg in Texas a week later.
Two second half goals in quick succession from the hosts put hearts in mouths in the Rose City, but again another player full of belief gave Portland a spark as Lucas Melano neatly rounded defender and keeper to put the game to bed at the death.
Watching a replay of that strike makes one wonder if Melano defied the laws of gravity and the game to score, although no one seemed to question if he was offside given he was ahead of the ball and out of bounds when he somehow tucked the ball into the net from a deft touch off the outside of his right boot.
However improbable the odds seemed in early October, Portland were now headed to Ohio.
Although Columbus conjured plenty of magic of their own to earn the right to host (no, I’m not bitter that head to head wasn’t the tiebreaker), that run of good fortune ended less than 30 seconds into the contest when Valeri pounced on a lackadaisical clearance from their dribble happy goalkeeper Steve Clark.
The resulting opening goal was the sort of slidetackling effort players dream of at every level, and it fittingly earned Valeri MLS Cup MVP honors.
Portland’s magical spell was at its peak in the first half, the referee and linesman somehow missing a ball clearly out of touch on the sidelines, yet the old adage of play to the whistle never rang truer as Nagbe picked the ball off the feet of Tony Tchani and proceeded to sprint past a Columbus defense entranced by disbelief.
Nagbe’s ball to Melano on the wing saw a pinpoint one touch cross to the diving header of Rodney Wallace find the back of the net, and this game looked all but over seven minutes in.
So. Much. Time.
The fear of every Timbers supporter is when in a winning position, the clock seems to take ten times as long to tick down.
When Kwarasey fumbled his catch after bumbling over Kei Kamara, the Crew’s leading goalscorer was quickest to react and squirted the ball over the line in the 18th minute to give Columbus the belief they needed that the tie was not nearly over.
And Timbers supporters were now in for the longest next 72 plus minutes of their lives.
Remarkably that would prove to be the hosts’ solitary shot on goal for the entire match, but the game was still up for debate until the final whistle, thanks to numerous stellar saves (and a few lucky ones) from Clark, as well as the soccer gods leveling the score as Michael Parkhurst’s handball to clear a sure goal off the line went unseen by the officials.
All the drama was there to make the Portland Timbers first league title in 40 years of existence all the more special, and the boisterous traveling support and legions of fans back home and around the world were only beginning to revel in it as the weight of this accomplishment started to sink in.
While many of us back home pined for the chance to be at the match with our friends and colleagues fortunate enough to attend, from thousands of miles away we were simply trying to get a hold of emotions that can only be felt after years of unrequited longing are satisfied with the ultimate in cup glory.
A raucous welcome home at Portland International Airport the day after the final provided the perfect segue to the long journey that ultimately brought home the MLS Cup.
Porter, owner Merritt Paulson, and Gavin Wilkinson all dreamed and planned for this eventuality, but none of them could have predicted it happening under such crazily auspicious circumstances.
I myself dreamt the Friday night before the final that two goals would be scored in the opening minutes of the match, but even in my dreams we were guardedly tied 1-1 after notching an equalizer.
This victory was not the stuff of dreams, it was the stuff of legends.
As the team, town, and TA prepare for the triumphant celebrations en masse on Tuesday, there is no doubt we will all be walking in a Timbers Wonderland for a long time to come.