On a cold night in Columbus, Ohio five years ago today, the Portland Timbers hoisted the MLS Cup for the first and only time.
Portland was by far the better team in the final despite a little bit of controversy. We will get to that. But first the Timbers and Sporting Kansas City put together one of the most tantalizing spectacles the league has ever seen.
The Double Post: Portland vs. Sporting Kansas City
The match kicked off at Providence Park between the three-seed Timbers and sixth-seed SKC. It was a single elimination match that granted the winning team a spot in the Western Conference Semifinals.
These two teams had met three times in the regular season and they were all closely contested affairs. They played to two 0-0 draws and SKC won 1-0 in the final regular season meeting between the two. There didn’t seem to be many goals between the two sides so what happened next came to the surprise of almost everyone.
The first half ended without a goal, following the expected script. It was a tight, cagey affair. The game was extremely transitional and got choppy due to the abundance of fouls.
SKC opened the second half with purpose. They dictated play and Dom Dwyer fired a shot on the wrong side of the post, squandering the best chance of the match so far. But in the 56th minute the Timbers’ ever-present Diego Valeri stood over the ball to take a corner kick. He swung it in and the ball was lofted to midfield. Alvas Powell poked the ball aimlessly back into the box and Nat Borchers leaped to head the ball.
The ball bounced by a Timbers player and a SKC player, finding its way to the left boot of the Timbers’ Argentine magician. Valeri juggled the ball as it bounced in unison with his canary yellow collar. He dragged the ball delicately past his defenders as he looked to get it to his right foot. The onrushing Rodney Wallace took it off Valeri and finessed an outside of the boot finish around Tim Melia. Timbers Army was engulfed in clouds of green and gold smoke as Providence Park bounced in jubilation.
SKC pushed for an equalizer as time ticked off the clock. There were chances on both sides of the ball and Melia was forced off after a collision with Wallace. In the 87th minute SKC won a corner. Matt Besler was momentarily sidelined as blood ran down his face. SKC were down a man on the corner but Graham Zusi was able to swing in a second ball. Kevin Ellis’s flicked-on header found the back of the net as the Timbers and Providence Park were stunned to silence.
The silence didn’t last long as the Timbers searched for a winner. Nothing came from their late efforts and the teams were battling at one a piece for the go-ahead goal in extra time. SKC didn’t have to wait long. Krisztián Németh wrapped an incredible shot into the top corner of the Timbers’ net only six minutes into extra time.
“We felt so close to the finish line in regulation before Ellis scored in the 87th minute,” said former Stumptown Footy site manager Eddy Prugh. “They hadn’t threatened us very much and then all of a sudden we were headed for more time. When Nemeth scored to go up 2-1, I was completely deflated because it came for nothing. He turned too easily in the box and hit a shot that big players hit in those situations from a crazy tight angle. As we got closer to the final whistle it looked like SKC had pulled off a classic smash and grab. Then there was a moment before Urruti scored where I thought Valeri was going to get sent off and I thought, ‘Well that’s a wrap on the 2015 season.’”
Dairon Asprilla came on and later was joined by Maximiliano Urruti as Caleb Porter threw caution to the wind in search of the game tying goal. It turned out to be a masterstroke.
“Then the build up on the wing before our goal—there were two chances that SKC had to clear the ball and failed and we got a throw in deep in the corner,” said Prugh. “The goal was perfect because it came from such a subtly clever piece of play for that time in the game. Asprilla had his back to goal but understood that he needed to get the ball in the box and his delivery caught everyone off guard and the first to react was Urruti who smashed the ball home. Going into a shootout with that momentum is always an advantage.”
Powell took a throw-in in the 118th minute. His toss landed at the feet of Asprilla, who posted up his defender like he played for the Portland Trail Blazers. He quickly turned and whacked the ball into the box. Urruti was inexplicably free, in between four defenders, and sidefooted the cross into the net.
“That Ellis header … My first thought was ‘Oh god, of freaking course,’” said Stumptown Footy contributing writer Sam Svilar. “The Timbers, despite their revival under Caleb Porter, had made it a theme of crippling [themselves] in the big moment. Portland hadn’t played poorly that game, but that late goal felt like such a gut punch. So as much as I wanted to believe Portland would continue to be the better team in Extra Time, I had a pit in my stomach telling me we were doomed. When Nemeth scored in the first period, that pit became a deep dark hole, and I genuinely thought the game had gone until Urruti scored out of nowhere. I think it woke everyone up- including the team.”
The goal was like a defibrillator. The shock waves were felt all around the stadium and Providence Park sprung to life again. Urruti ran along the side of the advertising boards howling in delight and slapping the hands of every pitch-side fan in sight.
The final whistle blew soon after and it was time for penalties. The match itself was crazy but the penalty shootout was pure insanity. It took 11 rounds to decide the winner with Portland and SKC trading misses and makes. Twice SKC were twelve paces from goal with a chance to win and the ball hit the post three times.
Ellis stepped to the spot in the sixth round. A penalty conversion would condemn the Timbers. Ellis shot and the ball smacked Adam Larsen Kwarasey’s right post. The same opportunity presented itself to Saad Abdul-Salaam. He shot in the same direction and hit the same post. But this shot hit the inside of the post. It walked across the goal line, the Timbers fate teetering on a few centimeters of chalk. Then it hit the other post and rolled out — the infamous double post.
“So I was watching the shootout with some friends at a bar in Seattle (more on that later), and they were decidedly not soccer types,” said Svilar. “They were aware of it, sure, but I had to walk them through the ins and outs of the penalty kick structure. So I wound up being like a kind of narrator for that wild twenty minutes. My stomach was in my throat the entire time, and especially every time Portland was on the brink. On the first post I didn’t narrate, I just let out a loud exhalation. And on the double post… I let out a noise that I didn’t think was humanly possible. My friends all went ballistic (‘Wait, can that even happen in soccer???’).
“When Kwarasey scored, and then saved the last shot, everyone lost their minds, to the chagrin of the other occupants. I couldn’t say there was a point I thought Portland was destined to win that particular game- even after it was over I refreshed my twitter feed a dozen times to confirm it wasn’t a dream. But no joke, as soon as the game was over Aerosmith’s “Dream On” came on in the bar. So I listened to that song, that about what had just happened, and thought, ‘Well crap — why don’t we just go win this whole thing?’ And so it was.”
Finally, in the eleventh round Kwarasey stepped the the spot. He calmly stroked the shot into the bottom right corner and on his follow-through he jogged into net. Jon Kempin, Melia’s replacement, tried to emulate the Portland keeper but Kwarasey was wise to it. He pounced to his right, saving the shot and sending Portland through to the Western Conference Semifinals.
The Semifinals: Portland vs. Vancouver
Portland hosted the Vancouver Whitecaps for the first leg of the conference semifinals. They created most of the chances and looked the better team, but neither could find a goal. The tie would be settled in Vancouver.
Diego Chara returned from a knock to make his first playoff start of the campaign. In the 31st minute a throw-in was the undoing of another Timbers’ opponent. The throw came in and Valeri made an underlapping run and was immediately found. He turned, passed to Fanendo Adi, who roofed his thunderous shot into the net.
Chara then contributed the nail in the coffin in one of the most Diego Chara ways possible. He won the ball in midfield and took off toward goal. He played it to Adi on the run, Adi returned the favor, and Chara put on the brakes in the box. Chara cut back past his defender and snuck his shot in at the near post.
The Conference Finals: Portland vs. FC Dallas
In the Western Conference Finals Portland met FC Dallas, who were number one in the West and had just knocked off Seattle in a three-all match on penalties. This time the Timbers made their homefield advantage felt. Liam Ridgewell, Asprilla and Borchers all scored. The Timbers came out of Providence Park with a 3-1 lead even in the absence of Valeri and Wallace due to yellow card accumulation.
The second leg was a back-and-forth affair but the lead the Timbers established in Providence Park proved to be insurmountable. Portland opened the scoring in the 54th minute with another assist from Valeri and, again, his benefactor was Adi.
Dallas responded quickly with a nicely taken goal from Ryan Hollingshead. Blas Perez gave the Dallas faithful some hope with a goal in the 75th. Lucas Melano dashed all of that hope in the 95th minute. He received the ball from Valeri and dribbled the ball around Dallas’s box and into the back of the net, securing a date with the Columbus Crew on Dec. 6, 2015.
The MLS Cup: Portland vs. Columbus
It was the first time that the Portland Timbers got their hands on the Western Conference Title and their first trip to the MLS Cup Final and they were not going to waste the opportunity.
Diego Valeri slid in to challenge — oddly enough — Steve Clark. A rough second touch allowed Valeri to redirect the keeper’s long ball into the net after only 27 seconds, scoring the fastest ever goal in MLS Cup history. Less than ten minutes later Columbus stopped playing when they thought the ball went out of play.
“To those people I say … play to the whistle folks,” said Svilar. “Refereeing errors have and always will be a part of soccer (even in the age of VAR), and them’s the breaks sometimes. You can trace back some of the most talked about soccer moments to missed calls: Diego Maradona’s legendary Hand of God goal in the 1986 World Cup, the United States being denied a goal and potential quarterfinal in the 2002 World Cup by Torsten Frings’ hand, etc. It’s just part of the game. I think the really remarkable part of that goal is seeing Darlington Nagbe drive forward with more attacking verve in that one moment than he shows in an average season. That and Lucas freaking Melano getting the game-winning assist. Luca forever.”
Darlington Nagbe did indeed play to the whistle and the whistle didn’t come until the ref was pointing to midfield for the second time in seven minutes. Melano swung in a cross which was met by Wallace. The lead proved to be enough to get Portland across the finish line, although Kei Kamara got one back.
“It was a huge moment,” said Prugh. “We were still considered such a young club but it signaled that we were doing things right and would be a storied club going forward in MLS. I was in my off-season at the time and the Timbers giving me the chance to train with them before leaving for Sweden had given me so much confidence and I had a real love for the Timbers and for Portland. The city was so happy and deserved to celebrate a trophy. I’ll remember that day forever!”
“Portland winning MLS Cup in 2015 was sweet sweet validation,” said Svilar. “To cap such a magical run with a trophy felt so appropriate, and it cemented the Portland Timbers as a solidly good MLS club that from then forward contended for trophies. And, as I mentioned above, I live in Seattle, home of the enemy (shouts to my Timbers Army: Covert Ops fam!). I proudly wear my Timbers fandom everywhere I go, and appropriately endure the subsequent jeers and sneers from friends and strangers alike. So 2015 was personal for me.
“Being the first team in Cascadia to win the championship felt cathartic. For the next year, I got to lord it over all of my friends (we won’t talk about what happened next). Even now, I still get to rib them over 2015 and make them grumble. Regardless of what happens in the years to come, we always get to say we reached those heights first. And reaching those heights was truly unforgettable. As the Timbers Army reminded us the following year- ‘Dance, Kiss, Love. You always remember your first.’”
The Timbers hoisted MLS Cup five years ago today. A lot has changed since then. Unfortunately the Timbers are already knocked out of the MLS Cup Playoffs this year and Caleb Porter, Darlington Nagbe and Fanendo Adi have all ended up on the team they helped defeat in the final five years ago.
Although the Timbers didn’t make the run the had hoped for, they won the MLS is Back Tournament and showed a perseverance and persistence that was almost unmatched throughout the entire season.
In the infamous double post match, there was a green banner with gold lettering that was hung in front of Timbers Army. It read, “We’re Back. You’re Welcome.” And just like Svilar’s premonition in the 2015 penalty shootout, I have a feeling the Timbers will be back and challenging for the MLS Cup next season.