Penalty kick line up, Timbers vs. FCD, 11.22.20
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

2020 season may be gone too soon for Timbers, but it is still gone

PORTLAND, Ore. – With one lunge from FC Dallas goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer, the Portland Timbers’ 2020 was over. Or if you choose to look at it a different way, the goal the Timbers gave away stood out: a score that flew in the face of how the game, to that point, had played out. But this is soccer, a sport that requires neither being outplayed nor an actual loss for your season to end. And end, the Timbers’ season did.

After eight rounds of a penalty-kick shootout, the Timbers were eliminated from the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs on Sunday night, giving up a late goal in second-half stoppage time to draw FC Dallas, 1-1, ahead of a 8-7, tiebreaker loss.

“We believed we could fight all the way through and be a team that was a contender,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, when asked to reflect on the season, “because I thought this year, what the guys have been able to give me, to give to the organization, has been a lot. I’m extremely proud of every player that is in this club because they have fought through so many adversities.”

For most of Sunday’s match, Portland seemed to be the better team, amassing a 22-12 edge in shots over the 120 minutes while keeping 54.7 percent of the night’s possession. Those numbers don’t always line up with the way soccer games are actually played, but on Sunday, they were a decent approximation. In regulation’s final minutes, as Portland defender Jorge Villafaña’s 82nd-minute goal held up as a possible game winner, the potential 1-0 scoreline felt like a fair result.

But then a stoppage-time mistake by the Timbers off a late goal kick allowed Dallas to equalize, with 17-year-old Ricardo Pepi converting on a breakaway after his initial shot went off Steve Clark’s left post. Over the 30 minutes that followed, FC Dallas outshot their hosts and rarely looked in danger of conceding a second goal. By the time the game reached penalties, the control Portland had shown over the first 90 minutes was an afterthought.

“We played a good game and it’s just the game, in the last ball of the game, we allowed them to be back in the competition,” the team’s captain, Diego Valeri, said. “In the end, it’s very frustrating … It’s hard to process now.”

That the game made it to penalty kicks at all was a credit to Dallas, but it also a telling strike against the home team. The Timbers were the favorites coming into the match – a team that had reason to think themselves contenders to win MLS Cup. They’d had enough control to score more than one goal and, perhaps more importantly, had maintained enough control to keep a clean sheet. In terms of process, they played like a team that should have advanced, yet something about their lack of execution, as well as Dallas’s determination, kept the game within one goal. It allowed one of Portland’s season-long weaknesses to take hold.

Conceding late had been an Achilles heel for the Timbers throughout 2020, with Portland having given up 15 goals in their games’ final 15 minutes over the course of the campaign. Then, in the next and most important phase of that campaign, it happened again, with a ball sent behind the defense from near the center line providing a snapshot of Portland’s season.

“[It was] a match in which we had in control,” Savarese said. “A match in which we should finish 1-0, but unfortunately something that not only has happened today but has also happened a few other games – the closing of the match; the final minutes – we needed to be better ...

“It’s unfortunate because we did everything to be able to have won this match until [Dallas’s goal]. This is what the game is all about. At the end of the day you need to be good in all areas and we allowed that to happen today.”

As painful as it was for the Timbers to concede another late goal, it was pain that was overshadowed come the end of the penalty shootout. In 2015, penalties were kind to the Timbers as they survived the famous double post game against Sporting Kansas City. In 2018, the team won a dramatic penalty shootout over Seattle Sounders FC en route to a second Cup final, and this summer in Orlando, Florida, the Timbers eliminated FC Cincinnati ahead of their MLS is Back Tournament triumph.

On Sunday, that kindness ended. Though Portland, like Dallas, converted their first seven kicks, Maurer guessed correctly on the eighth. The result left the night’s first goalscorer, Villafaña, walking back to his teammates as Maurer was smothered by his, with Dallas getting revenge for their 2015 and 2018 playoff losses to Portland.

“It’s kind of the worst feeling, because it’s one kick that changed everything,” Valeri said, about losing in a shootout. “But at the end, this is soccer. Something has to decide who advances and who doesn’t, and it’s tough to process now that it’s a loss.

“Nobody expected that. We were very confident in our team and obviously, we wanted to play another final. But, we have competitions next season to play and we have to reinforce and keep building the team for the next season.”

Suffice to say, this was not how the Timbers’ season was supposed to end, though no team ever plans on going out on penalty kicks, let alone so early in the playoffs. Yet for a team that won MLS is Back and competed at the top of their conference for most of the season, the end feels especially abrupt. In much the same way that injuries and fate seemed to conspire against the Timbers in 2017, when an early playoff exit befell the West’s first-place finishers, a similar pall hangs over the 2020 squad, albeit in a different way.

By the time 2017 ended, injuries left the season feeling out of control. This year, though Sebastian Blanco and Jaroslaw Niezgoda might have been out, everything still felt within reach. The way Sunday’s first 90 minutes played out was a testament to Portland’s postseason potential. The team had experienced misfortune and absence – from Jorge Moreira’s early injury and departure to Dairon Asprilla’s late, surprise suspension – but the squad at Savarese’s disposal still seemed strong. There was reason to believe the group could overcome.

“At the end, you can believe all you want,” Savarese said, “[but] you need to execute.”

Ultimately, belief wasn’t enough. A moment of failed execution, then the vagaries of a penalty-kick shootout, mean the season is over. For the second year in a row, Portland is done after one playoff round.

The 2020 season may be gone too soon, but it is still gone.