Drama of 2013, 2015 collide to send Timbers back to Western Conference Championship

SEATTLE – It was 2013 and 2015 wrapped into one, possibly giving Portland Timbers fans new benchmarks for both anxiety and fulfillment. But for all the memories a penalty shootout three years ago branded in Timbers consciousness, and for all the satisfaction the prior playoff ousting of Seattle Sounders FC emboldened in the fanbase, Thursday night’s triumph at CenturyLink Field may have combined the gravity of both worlds.

Though the record books will list the night as a 3-2 loss in regulation, the Timbers advanced to the Western Conference Championship on the back of Sunday’s 2-1 win in Portland, the 4-4 aggregate scoreline that sent the series to penalty kicks, and a 4-2 shootout triumph which, for the second time in as many postseason meetings against their rivals, allowed the Green and Gold to prevail.

“We won the rivalry, and we went through,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said, when asked when he would remember most from the night. That bottom line, though, barely scratches the surface on one of the most memorable nights in MLS history.

“The energy in the locker room right after the game, before the game, was incredible,” continued Savarese. “I felt it was a collective effort to get the result that we needed.”

Perhaps only the 2015 Knockout Round meeting between Portland and Sporting Kansas City could match Thursday’s game for drama, but even then, that claim would be debatable. Back then, two at-the-death goals fomented an 11-round shootout that was eventually settled between the teams’ goalkeepers. But the ebbs and flows of that match seemed more abrupt, heightening the drama, but in Seattle, the drama felt constant.

Even before the opening goal, the Timbers seemed to be walking a tightrope, the net beneath them weakened with every Seattle foray into the Portland penalty box. Through the defense was protecting goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, they eventually accumulated 55 clearances while conceding 14 corners. They teams ended the night with an equal six shots on target, but around those chances, Portland’s backline was being pushed to its limit.

Eventually the dam broke, with the night’s first goal giving Seattle hopes of going through, though 10 minutes later, Sebastián Blanco’s 20-yard strike swayed the edge back to Portland. Seattle reclaimed the momentum with a 93rd-minute, second-half stoppage time goal, but three minutes into the first session of extra time, Dairon Asprilla, on a night that would prove one of personal redemption, put the Timbers back in front. It was only four minutes after that, when Nicolás Lodeiro converted from the spot, that the scoring finally stopped, with the match destined for its shootout.

There, the Timbers saw another act of redemption, with Attinella delivering a save on Osvaldo Alonso. On top a miss from Will Bruin – and after a handling error from Attinella had given Seattle the match’s opening goal – the failed conversations provided another platform for Asprilla, whose full-footed finish past Stefan Frei put the Timbers into their third conference final.

“It was definitely a special moment,” Asprilla confirmed, the 72nd-minute substitute having recorded his MLS career’s second one-goal, one-assist night. “I faced the same situation in 2015,” when he converted in the seventh round against Sporting KC, “but today, I lived it in a different way because I had to close the round.

“I am very happy. I thought a lot about my family and everything I have gone through. But thanks to God we came on top tonight.”

The night’s notes of redemption, struck amid a rollercoaster’s crests and, may have created more memories than the win over Sporting KC, even if it didn’t match that game’s pure drama. That the ride happened in Seattle, though – against the Sounders, in front of a packed stadium which, for 10 minutes in the second half, thought their team was through – adds 2013 rewards to 2015’s drama, if not more so.

Back then, the Timbers jumped on the Sounders early, taking a 2-1 lead out of Seattle and, early in the second leg, putting the series out of reach. This year, the Sounders had hope after taking an away goal out of Providence Park, hope that seemed fulfilled when Raúl Ruidíaz’s score put them on the brink of going through. Ruidíaz’s gave them extra time, and Lodeiro’s conversion from the spot gave them reason to think that, ultimately, the night would continue breaking in their favor.

That’s what made Bruin’s miss, in the second round of penalties, feel remarkable. For all the times Portland seemed the verge of prevailing only to see Seattle recover, the battle’s last moments broke the Timbers’ way. When Attinella saved Alonso’s attempt, Portland had two chances to eliminate their rivals. Liam Ridgewell’s attempt may have been saved, but with fortune now on his team’s side, Asprilla converted.

“It’s always special,” Valeri said, when asked to compare the night to 2013, and the last time Portland eliminated their rivals. “Of course, it’s always special, and we know our supporters will enjoy [this] in a different way.

“For us, [the result] is important, but most important is for us to make another conference final and to keep fighting for another [league title].”

That result see Portland return to a conference final for the third time in six years, with each trip’s journey writing a new chapter in Timbers lore. But where 2013 proved a benchmark, and 2015 defined drama, 2018 somehow, remarkably, combined the best of both. Back to within one step of an MLS Cup final, the Timbers found a way to give their fans a new high mark.