FRISCO, Texas – It’s been three years since he was last here; three years since Lucas Melano crafted a memory Portland Timbers fans have shown they will forever cherish. They showed as much as the attacker, back from his Argentine loans, returned to Providence Park this summer, rejoining his MLS team to an appreciative ovation when he entered as a substitute in the 82nd minute on Aug. 29 against Toronto FC.
That memory cast him in Texas, at the same complex he was training at on Tuesday ahead of Wednesday’s Audi MLS Cup Playoffs Knockout Round matchup against FC Dallas (6:30pm PT, ROOT SPORTS | Match presented by Spirit Mountain Casino). His last postseason appearance here, Melano helped quell what could have been a decisive Dallas surge, rebuking the charge FCD made while 4-3 down (on aggregate) and helping the Timbers advance to a 2015 MLS Cup final they’d eventually claim in a win over Columbus Crew SC.
Though the goal came three years ago, and Portland may have advanced without it, Melano remembers every detail, matching the recall Providence Park’s faithful implied while welcoming him back to the field.
“I remember everything,” he says, in Spanish, having just finished a training session in Frisco. “I remember everything about that game. I remember everything about the play; about how easily it developed, and about how we kept it so simple.”
Simple feels like the right word, when you watch video of the moment. Dallas was down 4-3 but pushing, the away-goals rule meaning they would need more than an equalizer to advance beyond their one-goal deficit. Still, when the Timbers reclaimed possession late and held up play down their right, the game seemed to slow down, allowing Melano to execute a conference final-sealing maneuver with an Argentine counterpart.
“When I jumped back into the play, and (Diego) Valeri, he played it back to me, I remember looking up and seeing (Maxi) Urruti was on the edge of the area,” he said, going moment by moment through the 2015 goal.
“I thought that I could pass it to Urruti, or I could go toward the line. But if I went toward the line, it would all be on me – and if I did that, it would the more difficult route. But it would also be the path with the greatest reward, and that reward would basically kill off the match.”
Did Melano really have time to think of so much? It seems unlikely, as if a figment of retrospective bias. But those who watched that second leg live remember the tension Dallas’ amassing pressure built over the matches’ final chapters: how Melano’s goal felt a release; and how that pressure built upon another player’s pivotal moment, which had come moments before.
“We were under it toward the end of that game,” Nat Borchers remembers, speaking from the sidelines for the Timbers’ Tuesday training session, where he was preparing ahead of his analyst’s role for ROOT SPORTS. The now retired central defender was on the field that day in Frisco, and when, with the Timbers up 4-3 late, a ball dropped in the Portland penalty area for FCD’s Blas Pérez, he responded.
“Obviously, we were winning on aggregate, but FC Dallas was just coming,” he remembered. “They had scored a goal what felt like a few moments before, and it seemed like it was just so easy for them. Then a ball gets hit into the box, and it just kind of drops to Blas Pérez.”
Pérez had scored in the 73rd minute, with Ryan Hollingshead adding one eight minutes earlier. Borchers’ moment came in the 93nd minute.
“The next thing you know, I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got to make a play on this thing.’ I didn’t think I could get there, but I had to just stretch my legs as long as I could. I remember thinking, those are the kind of things you dream of; about making a play as a defender, because you don’t get to go forward, as much.”
Borders had a full resume as a player before he arrived in Portland. An MLS Cup at Real Salt Lake. A three-time United States international. Borchers had a career to hang his sternum-length beard on before his 2015 arrival in the Rose City. Still, that moment gave him a highlight that would serve as his Timbers’ calling card.
“As a defender, you don’t get those opportunities very often, and they can come at minute one or it can come at minute 90,” he says, trying to bring perspective to what, in its individual effort, was a personal moment. “When you’re under it, you want to make a play … because obviously, they score that goal, you’re on the brink. You’re thinking, ‘Oh, wow.’”
For Borchers, though, as much as his lunge saved that 2015 match, Melano’s goal sealed it, and gave the team reason to finally, in the face of Dallas’ push, exhale.
“I remember him going down there and making that run, then Valeri passes him the ball,” Borchers recalled, “and then ball kind of trickles over the line, and I didn’t think it went in. I was like, ‘this is a strange goal. How did that happen?’ Then we all celebrated.
“It was relief more than anything. To get to that end after all we’d done?”
That feeling may explain why Melano’s goal lives in lore. It wasn’t that the goal mattered most. Portland may have advanced without it. It was that Melano who sealed things; allowed the team to exit their fears and begin to embrace.
They were, with that goal, going to Portland’s first MLS Cup final, and in the process, they were crafting a memory for which players like Melano will forever reap a reward. And that reward, for however long they might spend away from the club, will always be felt by the players who delivered the moments.
“That’s something really great,” Melano said, when asked about the fans’ memories. “It’s also something really great, for me, personally, when thinking about what I did on the field during my (first) time, here, …
“And when I think about the time between 2015 and 2018 – the three years that have passed, between now and then – it makes me want to do something like that again: for the fans; for all that they’ve remembered; and also, for the club.”