Giovanni Savarese keeps calling it “a dream come to reality.” That’s his go-to phrase when describing how it feels to see his Portland Timbers side host the 2021 MLS Cup Final for the first time in the team’s history. He opened with as much during his press conference on Thursday, sharing “as a coach, as a player, when you start the season, there’s no better thing than hosting MLS Cup.”
He was also very quick to follow up with the important line, “of course, winning [it] is more important than anything else.”
That above sentiment has been the prevailing feeling around the Timbers in the week-long run-up to Saturday’s big event. The Timbers players and coaches recognize how significant the occasion is for their team and for the city of Portland. But it's also business as usual for the Timbers as they stay focused on what matters the most - lifting the MLS Cup at home.
During Thursday’s press conference, Savarese, Diego Chara and Sebastian Blanco were all eager to share how special they anticipate Saturday being and how big of an impact the Timbers Army and full stadium will have on the match.
“I expect an amazing atmosphere,” Chara shared. “I think it’s going to be a fantastic day to play soccer and we are really excited to do it.”
Blanco added, “[To] play at home is a unique possibility with our people.” He also brought it back to the job at hand and emphasized that the team wanted to reward the fans who have fueled them to this point. “This stadium will be amazing like always and we will be able to be ready for this game and [to] take advantage for our people.”
The significance of the Timbers reaching this moment and hosting a final with their people is not lost on the players, especially in light of how the 2021 season almost spiraled away only four months ago. Portland had been badly beaten at home by Seattle. The alarm bells started going off and the Timbers’ season seemed to be lost. “In the middle of the season, when we lost against Seattle at home, many people [said] that we are done,” Blanco shared. And many in the media definitely did (I essentially wrote as much back in August).
But then the Timbers rallied. They were able to rattle off a spectacular late summer and early autumn run, which rocketed them up the table. How were they able to accomplish that? By relying and trusting on who they were and on the culture they had built.
Team captain Diego Chara identified that identity and trust as a strength of the Timbers in the final stretch run. He shared, “I feel we did a really good job staying together, staying strong, playing our style of play. And I think because of that, we are here in this position to play the final.”
Blanco agreed and pointed out how the challenges the team endured are part of the reason they are in the final, “We come to this game because we work very hard. We had too many issues during the year, but we pass every struggle for our right to be there.”
How has that week leading up to the final felt for the Timbers? To be frank - it’s business as usual. At training sessions, the Timbers have been following their usual routines, reaping the benefits of staying at home for the last two weeks. The Timbers have been able to treat every day like a normal day with just a touch of heightened significance.
Steve Clark understands both of these factors which he explained in media availability during the week. The Timbers goalkeeper recognized the significance of having the chance to win the cup at home and also said that the team is locked in and focused. “We want to bring this home for our fans,” Clark shared. He was also quick to add, “But, y’know, it’s business as usual.”
The week has been lively for Clark who has a lot of family and friends in town. But he still says he’s sticking to the same rules and that at home, “it’s just been me, my wife, and my dog.” Clark’s demeanor is reflective of the team’s collective mentality. The week is big and the game is big. But the team knows what they are there to do and are treating this like it's any other game.
Jaroslaw Niezgoda preached a similar message. When asked after training how he manages the expectations and pressure of Saturday, Niezgoda was clear on what he needs to do, “it’s normal, I think. Just sleep good, and eat good.”
Niezogda was calm and confident in Portland’s preparation for the final. “We have players who have experience, so it’s nothing new for us,” said Niezgoda. Portland’s ability to lean on their experience and their unity has been one of their greatest strengths this year and is one of the main reasons they are able to keep the moment in perspective and keep the game in focus.
Savarese shared the same mood as he closed the press conference on Thursday, effusive in his belief in the team. “I believe in the players and I believe that we’ll be very competitive, and we are going to fight hard, especially because this is our home,” Savarese said. “I feel very lucky to have this group of players because it feels like a family more than a team.”
If you’re going to be at the game, enjoy the moment. Soak it all in. Jump and clap and sing your face off. If you are unable to be there, enjoy it wherever you are with whomever you can. Shake the gates of hell with some friends or some like-minded strangers. It’s a special moment for a special city, featuring a special team. A team that recognizes that its story isn’t finished and there is still a job to do.
So when the drums start beating, the rain starts falling, and the jets roar overhead (yep- there’s gonna be a flyover), the Timbers will be in the thick of the moment and everything they’ve shown this week indicates that they won’t let it be bigger than them.