Even with under a minute remaining until the final whistle, the Portland Timbers U-15 Academy team continued to press.
Up a goal in the Generation adidas Cup final against CF Valencia’s U15 team, Max Eisenberg pursued his saved shot and forced a mistake out of the Valencia defender who recovered the ball just outside the penalty box. After taking a few touches away from goal, Eisenberg chipped a perfectly weighted pass to Augie Hoelscher, who redirected the ball past the keeper with his left foot as he fell.
As the ball trickled into the net, the nerves associated with holding a slim lead became pure ecstasy as players knew time was all but up. Seconds later, the final whistle blew as players reached the finish line of a tournament they won’t soon forget.
Before Apr. 16, no MLS academy team had ever won the GA Cup at the U15 age level – until the Timbers bested Valencia 2-0 last weekend. The countless hugs, “Campeones” chants and trophy lift that followed felt like a fitting end to a week-long trip to Texas.
While they arrived in the Lone Star State with low expectations, players departed filled with confidence and optimism for what’s to come. From hours of off-the-field team bonding to adrenaline-filled, last-gasp results, the Timbers U15 team decided to make history along the way.
“Once we got to lift the trophy, it just felt perfect," said midfielder Emiliano Zamudio, who was also named to the tournament U15 Best XI.
Perhaps what made the tournament feel so special was how everything fell perfectly into place. With seven wins, three draws and 12 losses back in Oregon, there had been nothing to suggest that this type of weekend was coming. In fact, players joked about having teammate Matthew Castanon give them buzzcuts if the team made it past the group stage.
After finishing second amongst a group that included academy teams from the Philadelphia Union, Atlanta United and Portugal's FC Porto, Portland played Premier League giants Manchester United, the New York Red Bulls, LAFC and La Liga's CF Valencia in its run to the championship. Regardless of opponent, coach Fernando Pessoa consistently reminded his players that every game would be the same: 11 vs. 11 for 60 minutes.
“We didn’t expect to do much because the way our season went, we weren’t the strongest team,” Zamudio said. “We always fight hard, but a lot of times we came out on the unlucky side. After we made it out of the group and beat Manchester United, we all started to look at who was in front of us and what we could do.”
With games taking place later in the afternoons, players had plenty of time to bond throughout their time in Frisco. There were FIFA video game tournaments with monetary stakes involved as well as hour-long soccer debates, such as “Messi vs. Ronaldo.” They played minigolf and bowled together when they weren’t recovering from the previous day's game or in meetings. Mainly confined to their hotel, Castanon did end up giving several players haircuts, too.
The team became closer at team meals and meetings. As a team rule, players aren’t allowed to have their phones during those times and because of that, those moments were full of interaction and discussion about life and the games to come.
All the bonding translated to the field, especially as the tournament went on. A 2-1 win against Porto midway through the group stage helped the Timbers further settle into the tournament, changing the team’s mindset as their belief continued to grow. Still, result after result, Pessoa and his staff continued to preach humility.
“Just because you’re playing very well in a group stage against good clubs doesn’t mean you are the best,” Pessoa said. “The group was able to manage the positive feelings. We continued to believe, but also continued to be who we were.”
Over the course of seven games, Portland competed in three penalty kick shootouts, emerging victorious from two of them. Against LAFC in the tournament semifinal, the Timbers were a minute from elimination before Callum Lugton sent the match to penalty kicks with a late headed goal.
After those adrenaline-filled wins, assistant coach Conor de Rosas told his team that the best teams win those types of games and quickly move onto the next opponent, especially in a tournament setting. Throughout those four games, the team heeded his words of advice – for the most part.
“At the same time,” Zamudio argued, “we did celebrate a lot because who knows if we’ll ever get to play those teams again in our lives.”
As the Timbers U15 team continued to advance, players noticed more and more support from within the organization. One surprise came during breakfast one morning when they saw a message of support from the first team on Instagram ahead of their semifinal match against LAFC.
“We talk a lot with the players since they’ve come into the club, that they need to understand where they are,” Pessoa said. “This is a performance environment and this is a professional club. You are a part of something that’s big and those moments [big tournaments] magnify the idea of where you are.”
To drive that point home, the coaching staff surprised the team with a minutes-long highlight video before it left the hotel for its first game of the group stage. Instead of “hype” music behind it, though, play-by-play broadcaster Jake Zivin commentated on each moment.
“I stopped, looked around and realized that I was a part of something really special going on,” Zamudio said. “I felt the magic in the room and felt really good about the tournament after that video.”
Before players knew it, they were preparing to face Valencia in the tournament final. Alongside the usual film sessions, rest and recovery, coaches held individual meetings with players, one of which later played a pivotal role in the outcome of the game.
Right before leaving for FC Dallas’ Toyota Stadium, de Rosas spent 40 minutes with Eisenberg, discussing his positioning in pressing moments. Hours later, it was Eisenberg’s positioning when the team pressed that allowed him to successfully tackle the ball off Valencia’s keeper and score the game’s opening goal – practically a carbon copy of the goal Diego Valeri scored 27 seconds into the Timbers’ 2015 MLS Cup victory against the Columbus Crew.
“We didn’t know [the goal] would happen that way, but they were trying to address that defensive piece, and, in the end, the first goal happened in that way,” Pessoa said.
Roughly 15 minutes and an insurance goal later, the final whistle sounded and the Timbers U17 team – which showed up early and made constant noise throughout the night – rushed the field, many waving their shirts in the air.
When everyone arrived back at the hotel later that night, several players from both the U15 and U17 team raced straight to the four-foot pool and jumped in fully clothed. Then, like any other youth team in the country after a big win, they celebrated with pizza.
“It was an incredible feeling, but it’s not the end for us,” Pessoa said. “It doesn’t stop here or guarantee success in the future. There’s more to do with that, but it really helps to raise the bar and raise our confidence moving forward.”