A year of responses sees Portland en route to their second MLS Cup final

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – The Portland Timbers' chances of reaching a second MLS Cup final were on life support when they returned to their locker room after 45 minutes on Thursday night, the team having been exposed to the full ferocity of the Western Conference’s top regular season finisher. A Sporting Kansas City performance that saw the night’s hosts reach intermission with a 1-0 lead and a stifling momentum that produced two other goals, waved off, left Giovanni Savarese’s team in shock.

Then, with an effort few could have foreseen after the lopsided first half, Portland put the match on a different course. They took control of the game, put the match back on their terms and, come the 61st minute, had the goals they needed to advance to the postseason’s final game. Come full time, the 3-2 aggregate win the Timbers forged in Kansas put them one victory away from their crest’s second star.

“I thought it was a very difficult first half,” Savarese said. “I thought they were very good, and we were lucky to be only one goal down. But then the character (of the team) came out in the second half, and I thought we were very, very good.”

It would be difficult to exaggerate how poor the first half had gone for the Timbers. The one-goal deficit the team preserved felt like as much a blessing as curse. A Sporting team that put up their conference’s best record and goal differential played to every piece of the favorite’s status their regular season had earned. From Dániel Sallói’s 20th-minute opener to the disallowed goals from Diego Rubio and, with a potential second, Sallói, SKC produced what could have been a decisive first 45 minutes.

That the Timbers were forced to face their mortality and respond, though, feels apt, given the nature of the team’s season. After two weeks of the 2018 campaign, Portland seemed, from the outside, in crisis, having lost the year’s first two games by a combined 6-1 scoreline. The team responded with two draws in their next three games but still ended their five-game road stretch with only two points. Though the group was far from panicked, the season needed to be turned around.

Just as the team responded then – producing a 15-game unbeaten run that would carve a place in the club’s record books – the squad produced history again in Kansas City. A 52nd-minute blast from Sebastián Blanco, putting the team ahead on away goals. A looping header into an open net from Diego Valeri, nine minutes later. Then, nine minutes into a stoppage time seeded by a lengthy second-half disruption, Valeri put the series on ice, finishing inside Tim Melia’s right post to seal the Western Conference.

“At the end of the first half,” Valeri remembered, “we started to be on the ball much better to move it quicker, to find more spaces. And obviously in the second half, finding that unbelievable goal from Seba – amazing goal – that gave us confidence to go and find he second one.

“We knew it. Scoring the goal away after being 0-0 at home, it was hard for them. We did it. We were efficient in the last 20 minutes, and we’re lifting a trophy.”

As was the case all year, it was Blanco and Valeri providing the goals, yet it was the rest of the team, matching their marks with contributions that didn’t make the scoresheet, that helped push Portland to another level. Liam Ridgewell, resurgent over 2018’s fall months, guided a defense that, despite conceding twice, kept Portland afloat. Goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, too, with multiple highlight saves augmented by a harrowing effort to, with a collision, deny Rubio, proved why he has fully established himself as an MLS number one. And Diego Chara, constantly proving to be the Timbers’ foundation, delivered multiple exceptional defensive efforts before setting up the game-clinching goal.

They are among the biggest names in the team’s setup, but defender Bill Tuiloma, too, proved crucial. As did left back Jorge Villafaña, striker Jeremy Ebobisse, and the rest of the team’s contributors. The biggest names, and a few others, get singled out in articles like this one, but you don’t turn the tide on a monumental first-half effort like Sporting’s without contributions from an entire group. Go through the second half, see the efforts of David Guzmán, Zarek Valentin and Andy Polo, and you’ll see why the Timbers are Atlanta-bound.

“No one gave us a chance in Dallas,” Ridgewell said. “No one gave us a chance in Seattle. No one, definitely, gave us a chance tonight. I didn’t hear one person say that we would win tonight except for ourselves.

The Timbers will be underdogs again next week, too, when Atlanta United FC welcome Portland for the second time this season in the MLS Cup on Dec. 8 (5pm PT, FOX). The teams played to a 1-1 draw, before, but given the stakes of a league final, few will expect the lessons of June 24 to stay true. Ridgewell didn’t play in that game, Villafaña had yet to rejoin the team and, as the narrative of the 2018 campaign tells, the true Timbers, despite being in the middle of their 15-game run, had yet to emerge.

Based on Atlanta’s regular season, as well as a stellar 2017 debut, they’ve earned the right to be favorites. But as Portland’s proved three rounds over – and as much of the team’s core lived out in 2015 – a favorite’s status is worth nothing once a game starts. No matter the location. No matter the momentum. No matter the odds.

“We’ll go there, they’ll be favorites, think they’re going to do this,” Ridgewell forecasts, “but, watch this space.”