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One Big Tree: On the Verge of Glory

On writing the narrative, family and being ready to meet the moment.

MLS: Conference Finals-Real Salt Lake at Portland Timbers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Confession time: I was nervous for Saturday. Like, really nervous. Like, way more nervous than I have been for a match in a very long time.

The stakes were so high. Not only were the Portland Timbers playing for their chance to appear in a third MLS Cup, but also for the chance to play in front of their home fans, something that has yet to be experienced in the Rose City. It was such a tantalizing opportunity and I did not know how the team would handle it. I was still a bundle of nerves as I settled into the press box and things got underway.

And then Felipe Mora quickly blew the roof off the place and my nerves flew away with it:

The dominant performance on Saturday not only won the Timbers the Western Conference title but also a chance to lift the MLS Cup at home in Providence Park. It was impressive and it was also emblematic of how far this team has come and how they have managed to rewrite the narrative of this season time and time again.

The story of the Timbers’ season looked to be headed for a nightmarish conclusion this summer. On August 21, the Timbers had been humiliated (again) by Austin FC. That 3-1 loss gave the Timbers the worst goal differential in the conference. Sebastian Blanco outlined in a postgame interview (which I detailed in grueling detail back then) how Portland as a team needed to bring more organization, hard work, and a stronger sense of determination and fight if the team was to improve.

On Saturday, three and a half months later, what did we get? We got fight. We got determination. We got a comprehensive, composed and organized performance from just about everyone on the field. It was reflective of the type of team Portland have become and how they have taken authorship of their narrative in the final stretch run of this year.

The Timbers’ turnaround didn’t happen by accident. Giovanni Savarese has done an excellent job of preparing his team for the playoffs and has them locked in. He was able to get the team dialed in at the end of the regular season after coming out of the November international break flat and established the energy that has fueled Portland’s playoff run.

Importantly, over that stretch, he was able to confirm his strongest lineup and substitute pattern.

Cristhian Paredes emerged in those games as the starter next to Diego Chara and the Paraguayan center midfielder has been imperative in the playoffs ever since. Santiago Moreno got his second and third starts during the stretch and had his longest stretches of game time. Those matches likely gave him the confidence to be the impact sub he has been in the postseason - and the incredible difference-maker he was on Saturday.

After the match, Savarese credited the team’s togetherness and unity as a key factor that has helped them get to this point.

“We’ve been able to bring the right players to create a strong culture,” Savarese shared in his post-match availability. “It really feels that we are a family and as a family, we’ve gone through difficult moments, good moments, but it’s the character in how we handle those moments as a unit, as a group, as a family, is what we are so proud of.”

That word - family. It really pulls together a lot of what the Timbers’ run has felt like. The strength of the family they’ve built is a huge reason why they now stand one game away from their ultimate goal. It’s a big reason why the team has been able to rewrite the narrative of their season. And it’s a reason that a young Colombian attacker was able to integrate so smoothly into the team and score a goal like this:

After Santi’s sensational strike, the Western Conference Final settled into a familiar rhythm for the Timbers. Portland asserted their control over the game and the will of their opponent dwindled away. RSL managed just two shots after Portland’s second goal, while the Timbers managed five more and had multiple chances to add a third goal.

Rather than relax, the Timbers double-down and stayed focused. Those are the marks of a team that recognizes the importance of playing a complete ninety minutes and a team that recognized the occasion at hand. In short, the game was not too big for the Timbers, nor were the lights too bright, nor were the stakes too high. The Timbers were deserved Western Conference Champions and have earned the chance to potentially lift the MLS Cup at home on Saturday.

The stakes will of course be even higher. The Timbers still have to finish the job and make good on the opportunity they’ve given the fans and the city. As bad as my nerves were last week, I will admit that I am already feeling nervous about the final and we still have five days to go.

But last Saturday, we saw a Portland team that looked determined, committed and resolute. With each minute that passed, they grew more focused on reaching their goal. Every player in green on that pitch would not be denied and the most important part of this paragraph is this: they looked like they could do all of that again this Saturday.

The Timbers are one game away, standing on the verge of glory. And they look ready to meet the moment one more time.

Stats, Stems, and Leaves

  • The Portland Timbers have conceded just one goal in the playoffs thus far and have gone 259 straight minutes without allowing a goal.
  • Providence Park was loud last week - perhaps the loudest I’ve ever heard it. I fully expect it to be even louder this week.
  • Portland’s expected goal differential during the playoffs is +2.4 if you look at MLS Soccer or +2.2 if you look at FBref. Seems decent.

Moment in the Shade

Another lightning round of Good Timbers Stuff (™) from Saturday, because goodness was there a lot of Good Timbers Stuff (™) last week:

  • Marvin Loria made just his second start since August and barely put a foot wrong. He was active, lively, and committed at both ends of the field. He had three shot-creating actions on the day and had a hand in creating Mora’s opener. It was a huge shift from him in the biggest game he’s appeared in during his Timbers’ career.
  • The only thing better than Loria’s performance was Moreno’s. His trajectory appears to be nothing but just a straight line upward. He has gotten better basically every game he has played in and last Saturday felt like his breakout party. To step in like that in place of Sebastian Blanco was not only an exciting moment for this year but was also an exciting sign of what could be for years to come.
  • Speaking of Blanco (the absolute superhuman that he is) - he was available for selection on Saturday. But the best part was that the Timbers didn’t even need to touch him. The jury is still out as to whether he starts on Saturday (he may still be bullish on starting the final, bad hammys be damned), but coming into the game fresh with extra rest will be nothing but good for the team’s prospects.
  • God, it is fun watching the team celebrate like this:
  • God, it is so cool to see Diego Chara lift a trophy like this: