Preparing for the season's final day of training with a windchill of 0 is probably not the most appealing scenario to most clubs or players. But when that final day of training precedes the MLS Cup final, any conditions are acceptable. Such is the case today in the dual Kansas Cities as Sporting KC is set to host Real Salt Lake in tomorrow afternoon's season-concluding match.
At yesterday's press conferences at the Sporting KC headquarters in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, it was remarkably easy to understand the two clubs at this point in an MLS season. Head coach seated next to two star players: Jimmy Nielsen and Graham Zusi for the hosts with Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman representing Salt Lake. I couldn't help but think about a scenario with the Portland Timbers playing the role of visitors and wonder who would be on the stage alongside Caleb Porter. Clearly Will Johnson would be one, but who would join him? Darlington Nagbe? Great kid but perhaps too soft spoken for that role. Diego Valeri? Star player and award winner but English is not his first language. Jack Jewsbury? Maybe, given his background in Missouri and Kansas City, specifically.
The point is, standing in the room as the two clubs gave mostly vague answers about how they managed their time off since the semifinals and how the cold would affect the game, it was clear for the first time just how close the Timbers came to playing on the league's biggest stage. Logically, reaching the semifinal of the two biggest competitions in American soccer means a club had a good year. But then, even hosting playoff games is nothing like the atmosphere, distraction and anticipation of playing in the cup final. In that sense, the Timbers were at the same time quite close and very far away from this weekend.
Part of the realization of being in Kansas City is considering the overall quality and long-term planning of the top clubs in the league. Portland had a tremendous regular season, a nice run in the Open Cup and a foray into the MLS playoffs. But how many clubs who don't advance past the semifinals of either tournament are particularly remembered? The gains made this year at Jeld-Wen Field, and importantly away from it, in this context are a first step toward establishing the Timbers as a quality club that is both well run and performs well on the field. And yet, simply announcing that there is a plan is not enough to ascend to the level of the two clubs who will be playing tomorrow at Sporting Park.
It would have been great to follow around Caleb Porter and the Timbers players as they prepared for the league's showcase game. A place in the cup final would not have been undeserved on the whole, especially if briefly ignoring the repeated failure to win against RSL, but perhaps it is better that Portland has to wait a bit longer for a more permanent triumph. No one in the Rose City will soon forget Porter's first year in town and the turnaround he orchestrated. But if it is not followed by more success, sound planning and a bit of luck, there is absolutely no guarantee of reaching the cup final and receiving the national and international recognition that accompanies it.
The Timbers will want to blaze their own trail, if you'll pardon the pun, so following a model of either Real Salt Lake or Sporting Kansas City will not exactly be the idea. But Kansas City hosting the US Open Cup final, the MLS All-Star Game and the MLS Cup final within eighteen months would certainly be a run the Timbers would be happy to replicate. The order cannot be the same but with the All-Star Game already slated for Jeld-Wen Field in 2014, perhaps something similar could happen in Portland.
Until then, it's time to bundle up and watch the game and think about what might have been. 2013 was a brilliant season in Portland. Hopefully it's just the first of several.