Portland and Atlanta both have long histories of professional soccer with each city being represented in the original North American Soccer League (NASL), the second division at the turn-of-the-century, and now in MLS. Saturday's 2018 MLS Cup (5pm PT, FOX) is the next chapter in the long and winding road between Atlanta and Portland soccer clubs.
Before the Timbers made their debut in 1975 in NASL play, Atlanta had already had a team exist and relocate. The original Atlanta Chiefs were a member of the NASL for their inaugural season in 1968 and stayed in the league until 1973 with their last season playing under the name the Atlanta Apollos.
Led by future U.S. national team manager and NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam, the Chiefs steamrolled their way through the NASL in 1968, tying for most wins in the regular season and winning the final by a 3-0 margin over the San Diego Toros. Fifty years later that is still Atlanta’s only top-flight professional soccer title.
Atlanta returned to the NASL final in 1971 when they fell to the Dallas Tornado in a three-game series. The Chiefs were shutout at home in the third and decisive game, falling 2-0. After struggling the next two seasons, the team folded.
Meanwhile on the opposite coast, the Portland Timbers made their debut in the NASL in 1975. Similar to Atlanta in its first NASL season, Portland made the final. The championship was now a one-off at a neutral site rather than a two-legged home-and-home series. The Timbers fell 2-0 to the Tampa Bay Rowdies in San Jose, Ca.
One of Portland’s best NASL seasons came in 1978 when the club won 20 of its 30 matches and made the NASL semifinals, before falling to the juggernaut New York Cosmos. The following season Atlanta returned to the league, again under the name Chiefs.
The Chiefs and Timbers played four times between 1979 and 1981 with Atlanta winning three of the four contests. In 1980, the clubs met for the first time in Atlanta at the old Fulton County Stadium on June 4. The match, played in hot and muggy conditions, was one of the lowest-attended matches in Chiefs history with just 2,368 fans in attendance. On the field, Atlanta scored a late goal to win 2-1 with Rob Rensenbrink scoring for Portland.
Two weeks later, Portland scored its only win of the series, defeating Atlanta, 1-0, behind a Brian Gant header at Civic Stadium, now known as Providence Park. Jim Gorsek sealed the shutout by saving a shot from George Nanchoff, father of former Timbers player Mike Nanchoff.
With the NASL on its last legs, Atlanta and Portland both folded in the early 1980s. However, that was not the end of soccer for either city. In 1994, the Atlanta Ruckus joined the A-league and played four seasons until rebranding as the Atlanta Silverbacks.
The Silverbacks and USL-version of the Timbers met 12 times between 2005 and 2008 before the Silverbacks went on hiatus prior to the 2009 season. In 2005, Portland’s Dan Antoniuk scored five goals in just two matches against the Silverbacks, three of which came in a 6-1 drubbing.
Prior to Saturday’s MLS Cup, the only previous matchup between Portland and Atlanta in the playoffs took place in the 2007 USL semifinals. The Timbers headed into the two-legged series as the No. 2 seed to Atlanta’s no. 4 seed. In the first leg, the teams played to a 1-1 draw with Bryan Jordan scoring the goal for Portland.
At home, the Timbers dominated Atlanta in most categories, including outshooting the Silverbacks by a 22-to-10 margin. Current Timbers player Lawrence Olum came on as a substitute and almost scored the winner on a long-range blast only to be denied by the Atlanta goalkeeper. After a controversial decision by the referee not to take the penalty kicks in the North End, Portland succumbed in the shootout, 3-1.
In 2008, the two teams finished at the bottom of the USL standings but they did combine for a memorable last match between the two clubs. Heading into the 90th minute scoreless, both teams scored in second-half stoppage time with Olum scoring for the Timbers.That 1-1 draw would be the last time Atlanta and Portland would play in pro soccer until 2017.
After Atlanta United FC joined MLS prior to the 2017 season, Atlanta and Portland have played to a pair of 1-1 draws. Including all eras of the clubs, the Portland Timbers have squared off 18 times with a club from Atlanta. But none of those 18 matches will be able to compare to the magnitude of their match on Saturday.