In a blessed year, soccer clubs have too many memories to recount – moments, cast against each other, making it impossible to quickly describe a season. There are too many goals that stand out; too many milestones passed; too many victories that feel too important. Remarkable events lead to remarkable seasons, and in a number of ways, 2018 was a remarkable year for Portland soccer.
That extends beyond the Portland Timbers and Thorns FC families. The University of Portland’s soccer programs enjoyed standout seasons, with head coach Michelle Franch’s return to The Bluff marking an immediate turnaround for the women’s team, while Nick Carlin-Voigt’s progress with the men’s side cast the Pilots unbeaten well into their season, eventually claiming a victory at home in the NCAA tournament. Local legend and UP alum Tiffeny Milbrett was finally elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame, while in hosting an NWSL final at Providence Park, the Rose City Riveters were able to show the world the fruits of their six years’ hard work.
Over the course of 2018, the Timbers and Thorns shared in those spoils, the most obvious of which was the club’s presence in two championship finals. But elsewhere in the organization, both on the field and off, the last 12 months have been marked by more than a series fortunes. For an organization that’s been back in first-division men's soccer for eight years, 2018 looks like a point of maturation – a time when philosophies, executed within all levels and projects, start to yield similar rewards.
Those rewards added another trophy to the club’s cabinets, saw three professional teams make their respective leagues' playoffs, but also fostered a feeling of shared achievement: from the front office to the locker rooms; from Providence Park’s North End to the rest of the Portland community. With hindsight, 2018 may be seen as a new benchmark for Portland soccer, one symbolized by the new construction on the east side of Providence Park. Whereas once that type of growth was an aspiration, in 2018, aspiration became results.
Here are nine places where those results played out over the last 12 months.
The Gio era: Chapter 1
He demurred during the season, and if you were to run into him now in Beaverton or at Providence Park, Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese will insist his team’s highs belong to the players. And he’s right. With 116 appearances and 51 goals in his Major League Soccer playing career, Savarese certainly knows what the talent contributes.
But the nature of coaching a high-level club – the spotlight that comes with any head coach’s role – means having responsibility for the team’s results. For better or worse. At the beginning of the 2018 season, Savarese had to deal with the questions, doubts and demands of his team’s five-match, winless start. As such, it’s only fair that he receives the acclaim, virtues and rewards for where season ended up.
Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Portland Timbers
Those rewards started with the season’s sixth game, the Timbers’ 3-2 home opener win against Minnesota United FC, but arrived in earnest starting the following weekend. That was when New York City FC – the undefeated, seemingly at the apex of the Patrick Vieira era, NYCFC – came into Providence Park, with few convinced the previous week’s victory had turned the Timbers around.
The ensuing 3-0 win over the Cityzens was one of the biggest of the regular season, but more landmarks followed. The club’s first regular-season road win at CenturyLink Field. The late-season, 4-1 win in Utah that righted the team’s course, and the 3-0 win the next week, again over Real Salt Lake, that punched the team’s ticket to the postseason.
The playoff wins, we all remember most, not only because they were most important, but because they were most recent. But on the way to the postseason, Savarese made his mark, whether it was with a crucial, early turnaround game at Dallas, over a 15-game unbeaten run, or in those November moments he and his staff seemed to manage so well.
Over the course of 2018, Savarese certainly earned his plaudits.
From darkness to light, to another Cup run
A season-opening, 2-1 loss at LA Galaxy was quickly filed under “no big deal.” The same couldn’t be said for the next defeat, a 4-0 fall at the New York Red Bulls, and although the Timbers stabilized after an international break and three more games on the road (going 0-2-1), Portland finished its season-opening spell with an egg in the win column. By the time they kicked off their home opener against Minnesota, the Timbers had collected an array of doubts, any of which could have defined their season.
It seems so wrong, through the lens of what came, to imply that stretch augured anything, but with the learning curves that come with a new coaching staff and a significantly that had changed squad, the season’s start revealed a learning curve. Starting with game six, the team went on a 15-game unbeaten run, but there were still more lessons to come, as evidenced by the ups and downs of the late summer’s congested schedule. Come the season’s final month, it was clear Portland was a playoff team, but would they be contend for another Cup?
Within the team, there was little doubt, but it took convincing performances late, against Real Salt Lake, for those outside the team to see. Even in the postseason – with a slow start at Dallas; giving up the first goal to Seattle; trailing in the second half of leg two in Kansas City – the Timbers ups always came in response to their downs.
Those responses will, ultimately, be the defining trait of the team’s season, and in the growth of mentality that produced those result, the team has a new identity to take into next season. Even in MLS’ Cup final, as bitter as that result was, the team showed its ability to respond, almost immediately generating a chance that demanded a big save when, just before halftime, the team went down.
Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Portland Timbers
Darkness, and the light. It feels so cliché, until you go through it. But through the downs of spring, the uncertainties of summer and last challenges of fall, there were moments the Timbers lived in shadow. Each time, though, the team found their way to dawn.
Two teams, two finals; milestones at lower levels
It’s impossible to look back at 2018 and, in terms of both the Thorns and Timbers, ignore what could have been. The reactions of Mark Parsons and Giovanni Savarese, in the wake of their cup finals, said as much, as did the faces of Christine Sinclair and Diego Valeri. You don’t come within 90 minutes of an ultimate goal without wondering what else, over those two halves, could have been done to claim a star.
Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Thorns FC
Once you move from that disappointment, though, you see something any club can take pride in: history. Two teams, both at the top level, reaching Cup finals they’d played in before. But 2018 was the first time both the Thorns and Timbers reached their season’s final games in the same year. Given the short history of the NWSL, it’s no surprise: This is the first time any club in the United States has achieved that benchmark.
That context makes 2018, for a club and community that values all of its soccer, a stellar season, but that success wasn’t limited to the organization’s first-division clubs. In the second tier, Portland Timbers 2 reached the postseason for the first time in team history, rebounding from a three-win campaign in 2017 with a sixth-place finish in United Soccer League’s Western Conference. At the Academy level, the Timbers’ U-17s qualified for the Champions Division of the Generation adidas Cup – the premier competition for MLS academy teams and a first for the organization.
Photo: Sam Ortega / T2
Individually, none of these achievements were shocking. For an organization growing like Portland’s, you expect to those mile markers to pass while you’re forging a competitive product. But when those achievements arrive and the people who create them get a chance to reflect, they shouldn’t be taken for granted. It’s no accident that Portland has succeeded on multiple fronts in 2018, but that doesn’t make that success any less special.
Thorns shine, over and over
Expectations for the Thorns are so high that 2018’s loss in the NWSL Championship Game feels like the season’s defining moment – a nice privilege to enjoy. For most teams, a season that featured a Most Valuable Player, another league individual award winner, a personal milestone for the team’s coach as well as other milestones – like putting on the best NWSL final in league history – render 2018 fruitful.
Those fruits start with a Coloradoan, exported to Paris, who has since become one of Portland’s own. Whether that’s truly correct or not, it feels right when talking about Lindsey Horan, whose presence has become an intrinsic part of Thorns culture. Christine Sinclair may be the team’s soul, while many of the players who’ve devoted years to Portland contribute to the heart, but Lindsey Horan? After three years in the Rose City, she’s become something so important, it’s hard to value wedge into these types of metaphors.
Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Thorns FC
When Horan won her first NWSL Most Valuable Player award this year, it felt like every soccer fan in Portland had a part in it. Of course, they didn’t – the award was hers and her teammates’ – but the path that she’s walked, and the point at which it joined the Rose City’s, leaves the two intertwined. The 13 goals she scored from her central midfield position felt like constant reminders that we’re her from something special; something we haven’t seen before, something we haven’t haven’t had to see before not only because of the path women’s professionals have had to walk, in this country, but also Horan’s distinct path to stardom. In 2018, just as in 2017 and 2016, we got to see it unfold, in front of us.
Horan, though, wasn’t the only Thorn that snared the spotlight. Adrianna Franch not only started asserting her place in the U.S. women’s national team conversation but, for the second year in a row, se was recognized as the NWSL’s best goalkeeper. Emily Sonnett was nominated for Defender of the Year, while Tobin Heath joined her and Horan in the league’s best XI (Emily Menges and Sinclair were in the second XI).
Then there were the milestones. Mark Parsons joined the 50-win club with Portland’s victory on May 25 over the Utah Royals. Katherine Reynolds played in her 100th career NWSL game five days later, a benchmark Sinclair reached on June 25. Later in the season (Aug. 22), Sinclair became the third player in NWSL history to score 40 goals.
The Thorns’ history has been star-studded, with the club fortunate to have world-class players in the squad from the moment players were allocated to league rosters. But in 2018, each of those stars shined, enjoying some individual time in the spotlight as their team reached a second straight final.
The true arrival of T2
T2 barely missed the playoffs in 2016, the second year of the United Soccer League team’s existence. In their debut season, the team finished eighth in their conference, two spots away from postseason qualification. While much of the narrative this year, amid the team’s first playoff berth, has been about rebounding from a three-win season (in 2017), Timbers 2 had been near the playoff line before.
In that context, the fact the team made this year’s postseason may be more important than the rebound. Portland had shown, before, that it could form a competitive USL team, but the club had never delivered a product that could compete beyond the last date of the regular season. Not only did T2 earn an extra game this year, but for much of the season, they showed the potential to compete with anybody in their conference.
Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / T2
Part of that was the new commitment, one that brought in talents like winger Marvin Loría, retained midfielder Renzo Zambrano, and reinforced the roster with veterans like center back Josh Phillips and fullbacks Jimmy Mulligan and Nathan Smith. True integration with the first team helped, too, with MLS-signed players like Foster Langsdorf, Jack Barmby, Victor Arboleda, Modou Jadama and Kendall McIntosh instrumental in the team’s success. When others like Marco Farfan, Dairon Asprilla, Jeremy Ebobisse and Bill Tuiloma wore T2 green, it showed how much Savarese cared about the success of the organization’s USL team, as well as the tasks at hand for head coach Cameron Knowles and his assistants, Andrew Gregor and Adin Brown.
It’s a standard that could prove difficult to maintain. After all, Loría and Zambrano have now joined many of their T2 influencers with MLS contracts, while most of the first-team players who helped Knowles and Co. will see their roles expand at the top level. But much like making cup finals or clinching Generation adidas Cup berths, qualifying for USL’s playoffs will be a plan, not a surprise. 2018’s achievement may have been a first, but it only built on where the 2015 and 2016 teams left off.
Goals on goals on goals, on goals
What the Thorns had in standout individual seasons, the club’s other professional teams had in standout, individual goals, with even T2 breaking into the ranks of Sportscenter’s Top 10s with two unforgettable efforts.
At least, they feel unforgettable when you’re reminded of Jeremy Ebobisse feeding Eryk Williamson with a back heel, putting his fellow DMV native behind the Galaxy II defense on July 28, helping T2 win a shootout in SoCal, 4-3.
There was also Marvin Loría, again in Southern California, dribbling through the Orange County SC defense four days later, finishing an individual effort that spanned 60 yards with a looping ball into the first-place finishers’ netting.
The Timbers, however, had the club’s most memorable goals of 2018, with the regular season’s best belonging to Samuel Armenteros. On May 19, the Swedish international crafted an early legend among the Timbers’ faithful, carrying the ball toward the North End before, pulling up just outside the penalty area, letting go of a left-footed shot that bent nylon as “You Are My Sunshine” echoed from the Army’s faithful. With sunflowers waving in the shadows of the Saturday’s afternoon sun, Armenteros celebrated with a climb into the stands, embracing the first line of Army corps after ascending the capo’s stand. It was his first goal for Portland and the game-winner in a 2-1 win over LAFC.
A week later, Armenteros was at it again, abusing Colorado’s Danny Wilson by flicking a ball past, then turning on the defender to win a second-straight MLS Goal of the Week. Sebastián Blanco, too, would add a memorable regular-season goal, celebrating a game-winner against Seattle Sounders FC by pulling out a Chucky mask from behind the south end’s signboards. Larrys Mabiala’s double at CenturyLink; Diego Chara celebrating his season’s first goal by announcing the impending arrival for his twin sons. In terms of scores, Portland’s regular season didn’t lack for memorable moments.
It was the postseason, though, that seemed to be defined by goal-scoring dramatics. It started in Dallas, with the Timbers’ first playoff match, when Diego Valeri converted an early free kick from 28 yards out. Two games later, Blanco was skidding a second-half ball off the Seattle turf to turn a Western Conference semifinal, an effort that was bested two games later when this, possibly the best goal in Timbers’ history, gave Portland control in leg two against Sporting KC:
Valeri’s goal in Kansas deserves a mention, too. As does Dairon Asprilla’s in Seattle. As do a number of other regular season tallies, like Chara’s run-past-the-world score in the season’s second meeting against Real Salt Lake. Still, from MLS to USL, the bar to make a Portland’s best was set incredibly high. It’s understandable that a few efforts, headliners in other seasons, didn’t make 2018’s cut.
Racking up the numbers
Beyond those goals’ isolated moments, Portland players spent 2018 making stellar contributions across the months, the teams’ arsenal of standout seasons reminding Oregon soccer of the talent that’s been amassed at Providence Park.
Horan was a standout in this regard, her 13 regular-season goals only touching on a statistical resume that extended across the length of the field. But her regular-season scoring total fell one short of the club’s professional-level high. That mark belonged to Foster Langsdorf, who spent his first season out of college amassing 14 goals with T2. Although Horan would eventually tie that mark with a playoff goal against Seattle Reign FC (with Diego Valeri’s four playoff goals pushing him to 14, too), Langsdorf’s regular-season mark highlighted a smooth transition from the amateur to professional level.
Focusing on goals, though, overlooks somebody like Sebastián Blanco, who finished with (yes) 14 goals and 11 assists, when playoff and U.S. Open Cup results are considered. Christine Sinclair had a nine-goal, seven-assist season, with Tobin Heath matching her assist total while collecting eight goals of her own.
Dwelling on attacking numbers risks ignoring the other side of play, where players like Sonnett, Menges, Larrys Mabiala and Zarek Valentin had great seasons. Jeff Attinella, too, made himself noteworthy in the Timbers’ goal, while Franch’s continued dominance was acknowledged at a league-wide level.
A banner year against a chief rival
The 100th meeting between the Timbers and Sounders gave Cascadia soccer a chance to reflect on its history. Beyond that celebration, though, 2018 was a year the Timbers, Thorns, and T2 fans will remember for success against their rivals, even if the Cascadia Cup ended up in Seattle. In both MLS and the NWSL, Seattle’s soccer seasons ended at the hands of their Portland counterparts, while at the USL level, two notable victories over Sounders 2 (including a late-season, 4-1 trouncing) helped mark T2’s turnaround.
In MLS, the final record between the teams was 3-2-0, in the Timbers’ favor, but the nature of those results was far more swayed toward Portland. One of those victories was the team’s first regular-season win at CenturyLink Field in the MLS era, while one of the losses still left Portland leaving Seattle celebrating after eliminating the Sounders in the playoffs. Even in one of Rave Green’s triumphs, the difference was an own goal, coming in a game Portland largely controlled.
There have been years the Timbers have been on the other side of this divide, left explaining why, amid certain results, the Sounders weren’t as dominant as play on the field might suggest. And there have been plenty of times when players like Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins gave Portland too much to handle. This year, however, Seattle’s successes against the Timbers were few, and their answers for Giovanni Savarese’s plans far between. In 2018, Portland got the best of their rivals, and for the second time in as many meetings in MLS’ postseason, the Timbers ended the Sounders’ season.
Unfortunately for Seattle soccer fans, the Sounders weren’t the only Emerald City team to suffer that fate. Although the NWSL’s Reign FC had success against the Thorns over the first two games of the 2018 season, the matches that mattered most went the other way. In the last game of the regular season, Portland defeated Seattle 3-1 at Providence Park to secure home field advantage in the league’s semifinal. One week later, the Thorns took that rematch, ending Vlatko Andonovski’s first season in Seattle with back-to-back losses to his new team’s rivals.
The Cascadia Cup gives Seattle fans some bragging rights, but through a wider lens, this was a banner year for Portland. On all three professional fronts, the Timbers got the best of their rivals.
Showing how much community matters
Portland isn’t the only sports team that takes its community outreach seriously, but the fact the team has an arm like Stand Together, as well as a whole department within the organization devoted to managing it, tells you the importance people like Merritt Paulson and Mike Golub place on their club’s place in Rose City’s community.
People like Maryn Chapman and Mustafa Abed gave the club a reward for that commitment, coming into the lives of Thorns and Timbers players during the season, providing inspiration throughout. The end of her fight with brain cancer saw Maryn pass away after the Thorns season, but with the presence of her parents and her sister, Cora, at MLS Cup in Atlanta, the organization was able to embrace an important part of its extended family. Likewise, Abed and his mother were in Atlanta, too, continuing a relationship that saw each spend time with the club in early 2018, as Mustafa received new round of treatment a left leg lost when he was two.
Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Portland Timbers
Stand Together’s efforts were only part of the team’s community focus, though. This summer, Timbers and Thorns players took outreach into their own hands, with Zarek Valentin’s, Hayley Raso’s and Meghan Klingeberg’s #Ribbonz campaign helping drive awareness and funds for local LGBTQ youth. It was part of a year that saw Valentin, along with the Thorns’ Emily Menges, named as Stand Together Community MVPs, with Valentin also nominated for MLS WORKS’ Humanitarian of the Year.
Much like the competitive side of its organization, Stand Together’s efforts continue to grow with time, with this year’s seventh Stand Together Week the club’s biggest and broadest community effort yet. But those efforts aren’t confined to one week a year, as ST’s presence at MLS Cup showed. For both the Thorns’ and Timbers’ sides of the club, community mindfulness is an expectation, not merely a goal. In 2018, for Stand Together and beyond, those expectations shined through.