Whatever happens on Saturday and throughout the rest of the playoffs, however far the Portland Timbers get in this their first appearance in the MLS post-season, the transformation that has taken place for the Boys in Green this year has been tremendous.
So let's take a look at some of the moments that defined this incredible campaign.
This moment has definitely gained some additional meaning in hindsight, but even then I remember thinking it was a sign of how different things would be in 2013. Well-known through 2011 and 2012 for dropping points at the end of matches, here were the Timbers earning a point instead, right at the stroke of 90 minutes. And that was after the Timbers had out-shot and out-possessed the Sounders at their home field. After two disappointing results to start the season--a draw in the home opener followed by a home loss to Montreal--that game and that goal made it feel like the pieces were about to fall into place. Which they did. A couple games later, the Timbers got their first win, followed closely by their second win and then their first road win and so on and so forth for a streak of 15 games without a loss.
I won't pretend I saw this coming at the time, but it was also the beginning of a season of redemption for Rodney Wallace. Fans cheered when his name popped up on the list of Timbers going into the waiver draft, then many wondered the team was renegotiating his salary instead of just letting him go. However, after saving the Timbers from a Rivalry Week defeat, Wallace went on to score several more goals and pick up a handful of assists, executing a turnaround from the previous season that was not unlike that of the team as a whole.
Valeri's arrival in Portland held so much promise for the new-look Timbers, but, as with every new arrival, there were the whispers that it would take him a season to adjust to the physical nature of MLS. As it turns out, it only took Valeri about thirteen minutes of play to get used to things up here. After a series of quick, short passes put Valeri into the New York box with a wall of defenders in front of him it looked like the move was over. However, in a moment of improvisational brilliance, Valeri popped the ball up into the air with his first touch, juggling it twice as he cut between Kosuke Kimura and Jamison Olave before tucking shot with the outside of his foot around Luis Robles and into the corner of the net. It was Valeri's, and the Timbers', first goal of the season.
Now, 34 games later, the Timbers have scored 54 goals over the course of the season, more than all but two other teams in MLS and 20 more than in their 2012 campaign. The match against New York did not go perfectly for the Timbers as they game up three goals on the night, but Valeri's early goal gave Timbers fans a glimpse of what the team could do and a reason to believe in the Timbers.
Darlington Nagbe has been getting bumped, kicked, pulled, and pushed every day of his MLS career, and over his first two years, that physicality was usually quite successful in limiting his effectiveness. At the start of the season, many fans were still wondering whether Nagbe was ever going to succeed amidst the rough play in MLS.
While he showed improvement during the first few months of the season, Nagbe's performance against Dallas provided the appropriate punctuation. With Dallas up by a goal in about the 60th minute, Andrew Jacobson, who had been holding onto Nagbe's shirt all night, finally crossed the line for Nagbe.
Over the next four minutes, Nagbe received exactly two passes from teammates. He turned them both into goals.
Those four minutes exemplified the transformation Nagbe made to his game this year, as he led the league in fouls suffered but still put up the best offensive numbers of his career. Even more importantly, they demonstrated Nagbe's willingness and ability to carry the team on his back, and that was a big part of the Timbers' success in 2013.
Moment of the season is easy for me: April 6 at Jeld-Wen Field, early second half, Diego Chara bombing down the right and sending a cross to Ryan Johnson. Tally Hall could not quite keep out Johnson's awkward shot but I remain of the opinion that the shot was so unconvincing because Johnson did not expect the cross to be perfect. Chara's ball into the six-yard box was not only his best pass of the season but the best cross by any Timbers player in 2013. Chara's surprising run and even more surprising cross gave the Timbers a 1-0 lead in a game that finished 2-0. The sequence that led to the goal was also one that looking back is emblematic of the entire season: Jack Jewsbury, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Mikael Silvestre, Chara and Darlington Nagbe completed a string of passes to cut through Houston's defense in a now-familiar sequence of simultaneous attacking patience and purpose.
It's easy to forget now but it took Portland five games to win its first game, which came at the expense of the Dynamo in the game described above. Yes, momentum was building after Rodney Wallace's last-minute equalizer in Seattle and Will Johnson's come-from-behind brace in Colorado, but Chara's exquisite play sent the Timbers to their first victory and set in motion a run of eight victories in thirteen games.
Portland had just lost for the first time in 19 games and had quite a few of their regular starters unavailable in middle of July. Up next was the defending Champions the LA Galaxy, and they too were hungry for a win. LA got on the scoresheet first in the 18th minute, and Portland tied it up 12 minutes later -- but the rest of the game was a stalemate until the final moments of the game. Portland earned a late corner, and the result was pretty sweet.
While Portland continued to struggle for the next over the next month getting this huge win over what turned out to be a playoff bound team was a big boost. On top of that was the late heroics of the team which last year would have done the exact opposite. The change in attitude and mentality in the locker room was displayed at this game and is the reason why Portland stands atop the Western Conference Table.
What do you think? Let us know your moment(s) of the year in the comments!
Personal addendum: it has been a while since I've regularly contributed to Stumptown Footy, and I've regretted not giving this community a proper acknowledgment of my departure. Life took me in some new directions this summer, nearly all positive -- I got married, I started a new and far more challenging line of work -- basically, I'm finally giving my parents something to be proud of.
The only negative was being forced to confront the fact that I am no longer able to contribute to Stumptown Footy at the level this community deserves. And that's just plain sad, because having the opportunity to interact with this community over the past two years (especially this year) has been a lot of fun.
So thanks to all of you for continuing to make contributing to Stumptown Footy such an enriching and rewarding experience. Between y'all and the great writers who are still doing their thing, this blog is clearly in good hands.