ATLANTA, Ga. – Perspective is always impossible in the moments after an MLS Cup, whether your team wins or loses. Dealing with a season’s finality overwhelms any reasonable view, either casting the glories of the campaign at an undo height or seeing too much sorrow in the year’s suddenly more-bitter lows.
For the Portland Timbers, though, it is impossible not to see Saturday’s 2-0 defeat to Atlanta United FC in the 2018 MLS Cup final through the lens of the entire season, one which began with a five-match winless run and ended in the league’s final game of the season. Not only were the last 35 games of the campaign indicative of the vision Portland put in place in the offseason, but the year’s final 90 minutes reflected the team’s most important attributes.
Ultimately, Atlanta deserved to claim its first league title, but in the determination the Timbers displayed while competing with the year’s best team, Giovanni Savarese’s squad showed how why claimed the club’s second Western Conference title.
“It makes it more difficult …,” Savarese said, when asked if the quality of his team’s effort makes it easier to deal with the result, “They gave their hearts and they worked together throughout the entire season, especially in this playoff. And tonight, on a difficult field against a very good team, they gave everything that they had …
“I wanted them to finish with a reward after the work they did. But, this is soccer. This is the way it is. I am very, extremely proud of them.”
Those words came after Savarese had congratulated his opponents, gave a locker room speech imploring his players’ pride in their effort, and went through the painful ritual of addressing the media. Though both he and his captain, Diego Valeri, were professional amid their post-match demands, being forthright in your most frustrating moments is always an ordeal.
“It’s a horrible feeling,” Valeri said, reflecting, nearly an hour after the whistle, “because we played a good game, but we got nothing. And in the final, that’s hard to swallow.
“We wanted another Cup for our club, and we couldn’t do it.”
Come the beginning of the 2019 season, fans, players and staff will be able to have perspective on tonight. They’ll be able to see the result of Michael Parkhurst’s first half challenge on Jeremy Ebobisse – with the ball won landing at the edge of Portland’s penalty area, leaving the Timbers’ defense in a difficult position – as the type of break that happens in soccer games between teams of similar quality. They’ll see the whistle that went against Larrys Mabiala in the second half – preceding the goal, but coming after Portland had asserted a short-lived control – as less indicative of how the team played than the thin margins that separate combatants at these levels.
"I don't think we got much respect coming into this game,” right back Zarek Valentin said, “but I think we are leaving with our heads held high."
The Timbers weren’t perfect in their second MLS Cup final appearance, but they played well, and it would be reasonable to say that they did as well as any other team in Major League Soccer could be expected, under the circumstances. After all, Portland held United to the fewest shots by a home team in an MLS Cup final, and the fewest shots Atlanta’s ever posted at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
At some point, though – in light of a few bad breaks, amid other imperfections – the victor deserves credit. That Portland would have had to avoid some misfortune to derail the champions is as much a complement to Atlanta’s level as the Timbers’ performance.
“I think the game was bigger than them,” Savarese said of the officiating, when asked about the whistle that led to the second goal. “A moment that seems not very important, I think changed the game, because we had good momentum.
“With that said, congrats to Atlanta. They are a very good team. They played another very good game today. They put up a good fight. The entire season, they were very good. They were more pragmatic this postseason than they’ve been during the regular season.”
That duality between ambition and pragmatism speaks to the challenges Portland faced in Atlanta. And it speaks to the lessons United learned from last season, when they fell short of lofty expectations when they, in their maiden campaign, made their first postseason. United, at the end of 2018, was a much more complete team than the one that was eliminated in 2017.
In that light, it’s tempting to look ahead and ask what lessons can be applied to year two under Savarese. From a players’ point of view, though – speaking through the tears of a season’s near miss – it’s understandable why that perspective’s so difficult.
“Obviously, we are satisfied about being here, with this opportunity that we had,” Valeri conceded. “We fought a lot to be here. We had some moments where we had to be strong, and in that way, we can look at each other and be satisfied. But now, at this point, we have a bad taste in our mouth.”
With his hour’s reflection, though – and a sigh before his response, as if reluctant to move on from the night so soon – Savarese was able to strike a slightly different, if still disappointed note.
“I’m sure when we analyze, when we sit down and see the numbers, we’re going to be very happy,” he said. “We’re never happy completely, because we’re not satisfied just to be in the final – we want to win it all. But nevertheless, the guys have done really well. And I that there have been so many players that have contributed, it makes it even more special.”