The Portland Timbers fell short in the penalty kick shootout in MLS Cup Final after Felipe Mora’s late equalizer in stoppage time sent the match to extra time.
The setting and atmosphere were fitting for an MLS Cup Final in the Rose City. The rain was pouring and the wind was swirling, drenching everyone and everything. But that didn’t deter the Timbers Army, who had already packed the North End and were in full voice a good two hours before kickoff.
Unbothered by the cold, Timbers fans packed the stadium, and as the minutes ticked by toward kickoff, the energy inside grew.
The pageantry of the league’s marquee event steadily unrolled and built up the occasion. Despite a few wind-induced mishaps, and the unfortunate toppling and subsequent scrapping of a giant inflatable MLS Cup trophy, the volume and engagement from the fans built all the way to kickoff.
After a rendition of the national anthem by local musical group Portugal. The Man, the Timbers Army unfurled their tifo for the day, letting the world know that Portland is Soccer City, USA, and calling upon the team to Reclaim the Crown:
Once the pregame festivities were cleared from the field and the smoke from the fireworks had blown away, the match finally kicked off.
New York City came out on the front foot, pressing the Timbers aggressively. It prevented the Timbers from building any kind of attack in the early stages as any space they had in front of them was closed down quickly.
It also lead to some bad giveaways from the Timbers, which subsequently gave NYC dangerous chances. One of those came in the eighth minute when Dairon Asprilla was quickly closed down after a pass from Claudio Bravo. NYC won the ball in the attacking third and after a quick interchange down the right wing the ball was fizzed across the box to Taty Castellanos. The Timbers did just enough to put the Golden Boot winner off and cleared the danger.
It was indicative of the type of game Portland endured in the early stages of the first half. NYC enjoyed significantly more possession and the Timbers were unable to build any kind of rhythm of their own due to NYC’s press.
But as the first half went on, Portland was able to build their way back into the game. Some better passing and spacing helped them progress through NYC’s press, and they enjoyed a few surges into NYC’s box. Every attacking move seemed supercharged by the roar of the crowd and with each step closer the Timbers got to the opposing goal, the crowd noise seemed to get louder.
That didn’t mean that New York City would wilt. They had one of their best chances of the game in the 31st minute when Portland’s defense couldn’t fully deal with a ball inside their box. Maxi Moralez lofted in a ball to the far post that was just too long for Castellanos. Portland had dodged a bullet and seemed to be growing into the game.
But in the 41st minute, the visitors would finally strike. Off a free kick in a dangerous spot, Moralez whipped in a ball toward the far post. Castellanos shook free of his man and had a free header in the box. He powered it towards the ground in front of Steve Clark, who got down quick to parry it. He got a glove on it but couldn’t keep it out as it rolled past him and into the net.
The Golden Boot winner had struck again and Portland trailed in the first half of the cup final at home. The moment was also marred by a fan making the incredulous decision to throw something toward the celebrating New York City players.
The first half drew to a close and NYC’s dominance was rewarded. They enjoyed the edge in possession, shots, and shots on goal. And going into the break, they also enjoyed the edge in the scoreline.
Halftime, obviously, represented a pivotal moment in Portland’s season. They had built their run of success this year on shaking off early struggles and rallying together. The first half of the final had been the former and if they wanted to have the chance to end the year as champions they would have to do the latter yet again.
The second half opened with New York City coming out strong again. They earned a dangerous free kick and a corner kick early in the first half but the Timbers were able to deal with the danger. Portland had a chance in the 52nd minute with a free kick and subsequent corner kick of their own. Both were cleared and despite appeals for a handball by an NYC defender, nothing came of the chances for the Timbers.
The longer the match went on without Portland finding any significant attacking rhythm, the farther the crowd seemed to drift out of the game. They needed to do something to create an attacking spark and needed it quickly.
Giovanni Savarese seemed to understand this and tried to provide that spark in the 61st minute. In a double-sub, he introduced Santiago Moreno and Cristhian Paredes for Sebastian Blanco and George Fochive, respectively. It was a big move to bring off their star attacker in Blanco, but based on how Blanco was unable to find the game, it was the right one.
The game wound on, and Portland started to slowly find a few more attacking chances. But it didn’t look to be enough. A few good-looking attacking moves were stymied by the offside flag and NYC’s backline was up to block the shot or final pass of others.
Never finding a way to deal with NYC’s press, the Timbers were unable to build any kind of rhythm, and the chances they did find played right into NYC’s hands.
Portland kept pressing and kept trying to create something. They had a few set-piece chances that came close but Portland wasn’t able to get the ball across the line.
It appeared that Portland was doomed to fall 0-1 at home in the final.
And then - a moment that can only be best be described as absolutely magical.
In the final minute of stoppage time, Portland had one last set-piece. Steve Clark raced up into the box. The ball was cleared but recycled by Clark. The ball was eventually sent in for Yimmi Chara, who headed it long. Larry Mabiala met the ball and chested it down into the path of Jaroslaw Niezgoda. Niezgoda rifled off a shot, but it was deflected out wide to the feet of Felipe Mora. Mora fired the ball towards the far post. It flew past Sean Johnson and hit the corner netting. And Providence Park positively exploded.
At the absolute death, with no time left, Mora rescued the Timbers. With the game equalized, the Timbers Army in jubilation, the full-time whistle blew. MLS Cup 2021 was going to take more than 90+ minutes to be decided.
The extra time periods were absolutely frenetic, with the Timbers finding new life, the crowd finding new energy, and NYC being caught on their heels.
Attacking the North end in the first period of extra time, the Timbers Army seemed to be sucking the Timbers in. Showing more energy and assertiveness than they had all game, the Timbers threw wave after wave at the NYC defense and generated several scoring chances. A set-piece nearly ended in Paredes putting the ball in at the far post and Diego Valeri had an opportunity at the top of the box in the 100th minute that he put over the bar into the Timbers Army.
Despite Portland’s pressure, neither they nor NYC could find the net in the first fifteen minutes of extra time. The stakes ramped up yet again as the teams switched sides for the final fifteen minutes.
With about nine minutes left to play, the Timbers had a chance to finally grab the lead. Clark made a great parry at one end and the ball was cleared for Niezgoda on the run. He found Valeri, who laid off the ball for Paredes. Paredes rifled a curling shot that Sean Johnson blocked wide. The move ended after Niezgoda was caught offside on the rebound.
The final few minutes ticked away and still, neither side was able to find the net. After two hours, the referee blew his whistle. The final would be decided by penalty kicks.
New York City was up first and buried theirs. Mora stepped up first for the Timbers, and despite his late regular time heroics, he put his too close to Johnson, who saved.
On the next kick, however, Clark returned the favor, diving to his left and stonewalling NYC. But unfortunately, Diego Valeri could not take advantage and saw his attempt saved as well.
NYC converted their next kick. Needing to score to stay in it, Moreno stepped up and expertly buried his for Portland at the far post. New York City made their next attempt as well and Paredes was able to fire in as well.
The Timbers needed a save to stay in it but they, unfortunately, would not find it. New York City converted their final penalty kick and won. The Timbers fell in penalty kicks in the MLS Cup Final.
It was an absolutely heartbreaking end to a season in which Portland were so close to the ultimate goal. It was a gut-wrenching way to end an emotional and positively electric final.
There will be time to discuss what comes next and what the team needs to do next season to try to make it back to this stage. But that will come after the sting of defeat wears off which may take some time.
And it will also come after this team recognizes that absolutely amazing run it had to make it to this point. It was a magical year for the Timbers and a magical final, despite the result.