Illustration: Case Jernigan

Howler X Timbers | We're gonna do what they say can't be done: The Portland Timbers 2015 MLS Cup journey

Editor’s note: This season, Timbers.com and Howler Magazine collaborated on a special series that explored soccer in Portland and the city’s influence on the game in the United States and beyond. While the series was originally set for six stories, the Portland Timbers' inspired run to the 2015 MLS Cup required a special edition. In this unique coda to 2015, we take a look at the memorable events in Columbus, Ohio and how the club arrived at the championship summit.

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It was just before 4:25 p.m. when the scarves began to wave. 

The last national anthem of the season was under way, and the Portland Timbers supporters, hemmed in at the southern end of MAPFRE Stadium, were swinging their scarves in unison at the end of each line. Like log-slicing goal celebrations and renditions of “You Are My Sunshine” in the 86th minute of games, it’s one of their customs. From the press tribune at the opposite end of the stadium, watching the rippling scarves silhouetted against the downtown Columbus skyline created a hypnotic visual effect.

But then, something rather beautiful happened—glancing around the stands, it became apparent that the rippling scarves were not just confined to the supporters section. Resourceful Timbers fans, who’d become a visible presence in Columbus over the previous few days, were making themselves known from the seats they’d found elsewhere in the stadium. As the players stood in a line looking out at what should have been a blanket of Columbus Crew SC support, Timbers fans were using their scarves to create a heat map of their own presence. Crew SC was hosting the final, and the stadium was mostly swathed in black and gold, but the small patches of whirling scarves provided an extraordinary statement from the Timbers Army: we’re here, too.

Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

The scene might have foreshadowed a sportswriter’s metaphor to explain the flow of the game—the Timbers carefully advancing their position against the territorial dominance of the Crew’s possession game—but that narrative was shattered in the wild opening moments of the match. Portland’s fans had infiltrated the enemy stronghold by stealth; the players used blunt force.

The fans scarcely had time to tie their scarves around their necks when Columbus goalkeeper Steve Clark received a pass in his own box. Clark brought the ball across his goal and prepared to kick it away, but Diego Valeri had tracked him all the way. The Timbers attacker lunged forward and bundled the hapless clearance into the net. Portland one, Columbus zero.

The Timbers section dissolved into frantic green static. The press row—where many of the writers looked up sharply from wrestling with the stadium’s spotty wifi—murmured as we turned to our neighbors to confirm who’d made the pass back to Clark. Beneath us, the Nordecke cursed and fell silent.

Nat Borchers’s reaction: “I was worried we had scored too soon.”

But the Timbers’ run to the final had not been built on second-guessing themselves out of advantageous positions, and soon Portland would be two up through Rodney Wallace. This goal, too, contained an element of the improbable. Columbus midfielder Tony Tchani had touched the ball toward the sideline in anticipation of a throw-in. But the whistle never blew, and Darlington Nagbe arrowed towards goal with the ball on his foot. A flick out wide for Lucas Melano, a cross, and there was Wallace darting past the last defender to score with a diving header.

The Nordecke had been shocked into silence by the opening goal; now the section erupted in anger over the referee’s failure to whistle for a throw-in. Cans of beer rained down on the celebrating Portland players in their corner of the field, who ducked and covered before making a tactical retreat toward the halfway line, though not before Borchers had tried to calm the Nordecke by waving at them to stop. Later he would joke, “I was trying to catch one.”

Portland fans had used the word destiny throughout the playoffs run. Just weeks before the end of the regular season, their team had been in danger of slipping out of playoff contention altogether. Since then, the Timbers had combined some irresistible attacking play with the stubborn defense that has been their hallmark this year. The result was an incredible run through the postseason. And for the superstitious among us, some of the moments along the way did indeed suggest a feeling of inevitability about the Timbers etching their name on the Cup.

There was the extraordinary image of the Saad Abdul-Salaam penalty that would have eliminated them in the knockout round against Sporting KC; it hit both posts and bounced clear. There was the sight of their own goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey scoring the game-winning penalty at the end of the epic shootout that decided the same game. The moment Borchers saluted the Timbers Army after his own successful penalty—a staple of MLS video montages for the remainder of the playoffs—is now an iconic image in the history of the club.

Three days after the longest penalty kick shootout in league history, the Timbers held serve at Providence Park with a crucial 0–0 draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps. And they did it with Kwarasey at home sick. Backup Jake Gleeson held down the fort in net in the first leg assisting the team defense in earning a clean sheet. In the second leg, the Timbers went into British Columbia and grabbed two crucial away goals, one from leading-scorer Fanendo Adi and one from the tireless Diego Chara—whose reinvention as the Timbers' sole defensive midfielder has been the key to the playoff run—to clinch it. Through 180 minutes of soccer, the Timbers held Vancouver to only five shots on goal.

There was the fantastic arc of Dairon Asprilla’s goal against FC Dallas, a team that seemed to be following its own sense of destiny after topping the Western Conference and so dramatically eliminating Seattle. And in the second leg at Toyota Stadium, with the Dallas attack rushing to overrun Portland at the last, there was Caleb Porter making a characteristic attacking substitution, in this case Lucas Melano, who then rounded the keeper and slipped the ball into the net to confirm Portland as champions of the West.

But as Porter would point out after MLS Cup, the flip side of a sense of destiny is hard work. 

“I had a poster on my wall when I was very young that said, ‘some succeed because they’re destined to, but most succeed because they’re determined to.’ So I don’t know if destiny is real or not, I do believe in some higher power.

“I’ve had a lot of lows. I’ve had some bitter disappointments that could’ve derailed me. You know there are times when you question how did that happen, but I think really what it is, it’s just football. It’s a very cruel sport, but if you do things right eventually it turns, it always turns. I believe that.”

(USA Today Sports Images)

The foundation for all these exciting moments was laid by the team in some deeply unglamorous and often unremarked effort. The semifinal series against Vancouver was a triumph of organization and game management, as well as a timely uptick in the Timbers’ ability to convert the chances they’d been creating all season. And in the final, as Columbus chased the game, they came up against a formidable Timbers defense that easily contained the Crew’s attempts to ratchet up the intensity in the second half.

“I’ve never had a solid defensive block before” Porter acknowledged afterward, though he also praised his side’s consistency and “steadiness” over the previous few seasons, noting that his team had never lost more than two games in a row in that time. Now they had their reward for their discipline.

Understandably, the discipline ended at the door of the Timbers’ locker room when the team finally ended its lengthy celebrations on the field. Amid the scrum of players, staff and press, visual snapshots emerged from the cheerful chaos: Rodney Wallace hoisting a Bluetooth speaker over his head to drown out Borchers’ and Liam Ridgewell’s comments to a crowd of journalists, before leading a gang of his teammates in an impromptu dance party to Justin Bieber’s “Sorry”.

But there was still a little space for reflection. Over to one side, Ridgewell, who’d anchored the defense with Borchers, was looking back on the first 10 minutes—not the wild opening to the first half, but the start of the second half. “We knew they’d be coming out strong at 2–1,” he said. “I think that phase was key—shutting them down. And we got it done. That was the game there.” Indeed the Crew registered just one shot on goal the entire game.

It had been a strange year for Ridgewell, winning the second trophy of his career in very different circumstances than when he’d won the Carling Cup with Birmingham in 2011.

“It was a hard decision to leave my family in England and come here,” he said. “Tough sometimes, crying on your own and all that. Lots of FaceTiming with the kids. But this will be a nice way to travel back to London.”

Absent family and friends were on other people’s minds too. On one side of the locker room, the team’s Argentina contingent were on a FaceTime call of their own, celebrating the victory with former colleague Gastón Fernández. It was a reminder that this Timbers’ team is just the latest incarnation — as was the sight of Jack Jewsbury, such an integral part of the team’s launch, coming on as a substitute for the dying seconds of the final. 

And the evolution won’t stop. Even as the champagne was being cleaned up, the MLS offseason gets shorter and shorter, and planning for the Timbers defense of their title would be under way before the trophy touched down in Portland.

After the game, Timbers’ fans had dispersed to celebrate. Before the game, they’d gathered in one of the lots to tailgate, kick a ball around, even sprawl on a sofa they’d carried with them in one case. Now they’d fragmented into smaller groups each still carrying a fantastic common memory.

I think back to that moment during the anthem, or to their tifo claiming “We’re gonna do what they say can’t be done” and think about that collection of fans acknowledging each other from around the stadium. Like their team, who contained not a single MLS Best XI player, they’d proved greater than the sum of their parts.


Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

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About the Author:
Graham Parker is a frequent writer for The Guardian, Howler Magazine and ESPNFC.com.

About the Illustrator:
Illustrator and animator Case Jernigan has created work for The Telegraph, KICKTV, COPA Football, Howler Magazine and Oxford University Press.

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