The Portland Timbers are a most worthy champion! The five year-old franchise won its first ever title, MLS Cup, in dramatic fashion, when it defeated host Columbus Crew, 2-1, at MAPFRE Stadium last Sunday, Dec. 6.
The title went to a team that is one of the oldest in North American soccer; The Timbers was a member of the old NASL (North American Soccer League) and in its first year in that league, it advanced to the title game, the Soccer Bowl, in 1975, eventually losing to the Tampa Rowdies. I played against the Timbers in Portland in 1978, when the team was led by former West Ham United (England) and Bermudan international, Clyde Best; and even back then, the city of Portland showed unwavering support for its Timbers, which is why the franchise survived after the NASL and playing in the lower U.S. leagues.
The tradition of unwavering fan support continues today in the MLS, as Portland is one of the most successful franchises at the gates. It is among the top three clubs — along with the Seattle Sounders and the Vancouver Whitecaps — that boasts sellout crowds every weekend during the MLS regular season. Its successful marketing and promotion of the sport is reflected in its game-day gimmick, Timbers Joe, the man who was the huge slab of timber and cuts a slab for each player who scores a home a goal; there is also the Timbers Army, the boisterous group that dons the Timbers Army green colors and is omnipresent, not only at home games, but on the road. The Timbers is one of the franchises that has kept soccer alive in North America — kudos to owner Merrick Paulson and his family.
The title win was also deserving of the Timbers for other reasons; the team, which finished third in the Western Conference, had a ho hum season as it had to advance from the first round by a 11th round penalty shootout against Sporting Kansas City; overcame a strong Vancouver Whitecaps team, 2-0, and survived another dramatic, 4-3, finish in the conference championship – all on the road.
After the win, winning coach Caleb Porter had this to say: “It’s a great feeling, great feeling. All I could think about was sharing that moment with my players, we have been through a long season. We have been together through highs and lows and they deserve all the credit, they are the ones playing the game inside of the lines and they had belief. I don’t think it has fully sunk in completely yet. Good teams, when they make a run like this, they are so locked in, laser focus that there’s a next game. I don’t think it has sunk in yet that there is no next game, we are raising the trophy and we are the best team in MLS this year.”
The win had its share of drama, which came early when MLS Cup MVP, Diego Valeri, who had a quiet season, suddenly came to life and scored the fastest goal in MLS history with just 27 seconds gone in the game to put the Timbers on the road to victory; Valeri capitalized on a mistake by Dallas goalkeeper Steve Clark’s reckless as he redirected the ball into the Dallas goal. Six minutes later, Crew midfielder Tony Tchani was very casual on the ball when he saw that it went out of bounds; the whistle never came and the ball was stolen from Tchani, passed to Lucas Melano, who dribbled up the right swing and sent a cross to the waiting Jamaican international Rodney Wallace to head home for the 2-0 lead after just 10 minutes.
The Crew had its work cut out for it and went to work, which yielded a goal from team-leading scorer Kei Kamara in the 17th minute, but the home team struggled the rest of the way in search of an equalizer. Kamara’s goal was his fourth in the playoffs to lead all scorers.
Portland is the 10th team in league history to win MLS Cup and the third expansion team to win MLS cup. Timbers head coach Caleb Porter — along with Bruce Arena (LA Galaxy, Univ. of Virginia), Sigi Schmid (Columbus Crew, UCLA), and Steve Sampson (LA Galaxy, Santa Clara Univ.) — are the only coaches to win an MLS Cup title and a NCAA Division I college championship. Porter also became the sixth former MLS player to also win an MLS Cup as coach.