BEAVERTON, Ore. – With Sporting Kansas City on the Portland Timbers’s horizon, parallels to the 2015 season will be a major theme of the next seven days. With memories of that 2015 Knockout Round – and the famous Double Post – still lingering in fans’ minds, the teams’ new meeting in Sunday's first leg of the Audi 2018 Major League Soccer Playoffs Western Conference Championship (4:30pm PT, FS1 | Presented by Oregon Lottery) will pair anticipation with nostalgia.
For one Timbers player, though, the meetings’ parallels will run deeper than most.
“The way I remember it, they’re two very similar years,” Timbers attacker Lucas Melano says, leveraging memories that transcend the mere pairing of two clubs. “Both years, I arrived in the summer. We made the playoffs, we went to the conference finals …
“Just like in 2015, we’re giving everything we have, because we know we have an excellent team, and an excellent group of guys.”
Melano has certainly added to that group. Admit debates about how the Argentine would fit on the field after two years back home, on loan, there were never doubts as to how the Belgrano product would fit within the group. As was the case in 2015, there is a strong Argentine contingent in the current Timbers’ squad, with the continued integration of Spanish into the group’s culture making it easier for players like Melano to return.
That return comes after loan stints with Belgrano and, last season, Estudiantes de La Plata, where he started for a team that reached the knockout rounds of Copa Libertadores. That experience in South America’s premier club competition helped hammer home lessons from Portland’s 2015 MLS Cup run.
“I learned a lot (in Libertadores), and I have a lot more experience with these types of tournaments, now,” he explains. “After all, they’re very similar tournaments … Even when I was playing there, it was always so important that you play hard at home, especially when you’re playing the first leg at home, because you know you’re going to have to go on the road, play in front of their fans.
“It’s something really great to be in good form, to have the edge going to the other team’s home. But you always know that one slip, because of the away goals rule, can change everything, even in when you are playing well.”
Having re-established a regular role with the Timbers, Melano will have every chance to put those lessons to use, even if his spot on this year’s team is different. In 2015, he often started at right wing, scoring an important goal in the conference finals against Dallas before Portland claimed their first MLS Cup title in Columbus. With the Timbers’ team being deeper, this season, Melano has developed into a bench option under head coach Giovanni Savarese, becoming one of the players you’re most likely to see in a game’s final moments.
It’s a role which, defined by the circumstances into which he is thrust, aligns Melano’s purpose intimately with his team’s. That may explain why, when recalling the parallels between 2015 and 2018, his answers keep coming back to the challenge the Timbers begin Sunday at Providence Park.
“We know we’re going to have to perform well there,” he says, of the team’s impending decider on the road, “but first, we have to fight hard in Portland, before we do the same in Kansas.
“We have to a chance to win it all, but we’re going to be facing a very good team. That’s part of what makes it exciting, because we know we’re a very good team, ourselves.”
That may be the ultimate parallel between 2015 and 2018, one that also defined Portland’s regret at the end of last season. Melano wasn’t with the team for that disappointment, but when the Timbers were eliminated by Houston in the 2017 Western Conference Semifinals, there was the feeling of bad injury luck having undermined the potential for another championship run.
This year, the team’s title hopes have returned – a feeling Melano remembers so well from three years ago. And between his time away from Portland, his experience at Estudiantes, and his summer return to the Rose City, the 25-year-old already knows these chances at history can’t be taken for granted.
“I hope the same thing (that happened in 2015),” he says, “happens this year – conference final, then going to MLS Cup – because it’s something really special. It’s fantastic for everyone: for the club; for the city; for the squad; for the coaching staff …
“We know we have another chance to be champions, and that’s very important to this club. We know we have to be more united than ever, to play strong, winning soccer if we’re going to accomplish what we know we can do.”