Monday, December 10, 2018

Abbreviated Silly Season Begins As Timbers Fall In 2018 MLS Cup To Atlanta United

There is a good chance we'll see more of this guy next year for the Timbers
While paying attention on social media to all the events impacting traveling Timbers Army members, I spent a great deal of time dissecting something I noticed during the MLS Cup 2018 coverage. Yes, the combatants, the host Atlanta United from the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference champions, the Portland Timbers, got some due, but the broadcast on FOX covered everything from a league state of address with Commissioner Don Garber, an extended interview with new USMNT Coach Gregg Berhalter, a former MLS coach with Columbus who had been long rumored as the USSF choice over the longest, worst kept secret in soccer, and an anthem celebration that was, well, it reminded me of something. Seeing the various takes from the national media after the end result, a 2 to 0 win for Atlanta United, calling Atlanta's win "era defining" as Coach Tata Martino was leaving the club after the match for the Mexican National Team job. The atmosphere was pure "spectacle" and breath taking, and it even led one local columnist to take a shot at the Pac-12 for not thinking ambitious enough about their aspirations.

Considering that most columnists still consider MLS to be a lower rung sport not worthy of regular coverage or being truly trend setting, this might very well be a true letter box moment. Having grown up as a pointyball fan of the NFL since I was very young, Saturday night reminded me all too much of that league's championship, the Super Bowl. When I was younger, the game had a bit more pageantry than the regular season because it was the season finale, but over the years, the Super Bowl has become a monstrosity. The game itself pales in direct comparison with the overblown pre-game festivities, dramatic rendition of the anthem, new product commercials, the halftime extravaganza, the end of game coverage, followed up by whatever premiere or show gets lucky enough to follow said game. Millions of people worldwide spend their day eating massive quantities, watching a game that decidedly few really care about, mostly for the outside antics and being able to talk about whatever events transpired with their work colleagues the next day. Many outlets have been asking that the Monday after Super Bowl should be a standing holiday considering how many people watch the game and drink to excess, making the following day huge for absenteeism. When a 7 year old actress/singer came out in Atlanta and belted the anthem - honestly, that's about as good as I can describe it, and I already have issues with the whole anthem process anyway - it hearkened back to the last few Super Bowls I've bothered to watch. Throw in pyrotechnics and loud music, smoke everywhere, a pre-match ritual involving a spike, and the loudest train whistle I've ever heard, and apparently the atmosphere was amplified to ADHD proportions.

The last original USL Timber is now officially gone after becoming a free agent
This was just the few impressions I got from television, but in reading various posts on Twitter, it seemed like everything was designed to make this a true showstopping exhibition. Whether this is how Atlanta matches are regularly or not, it seemed like everything was designed to showcase the city, stadium and fans in the best possible light - and I'd expect some of that anyway. As the match wore on, however, it seemed more and more like the powers that be were determining ways to anoint Atlanta as the next big thing in MLS, and that everybody else should be wary or do their level best to keep up. Call it ambition, call it arrogance, call it whatever - the win by Atlanta should be a wake up call for the rest of MLS that the rules of the league have changed, and those not willing to put in the time and investment to try and match them could be left in the dust and debris. Suffice to say, that has become more of the norm in the world of sports, as teams continue their efforts to maximize every revenue stream available and review each league rule to find any and every competitive advantage available to separate themselves from the pack. Portland itself is going through this exercise as Providence Park is getting a face-lift to add a full double deck of seating on the stadium's east side to add to the park capacity. Stadium revenue is an important component of any side, and maximizing that to augment a massive home stadium experience while denting the long season ticket wait list is a huge win.

The match itself really boiled itself down to a few key moments in time after Timbers Coach Gio Savarese chose his starting eleven: Jeff Attinella in goal; Zarek Valentin, Larrys Mabiala, Liam Ridgewell, and Jorge Villafana on defense; Diego Chara and David Guzman as the defensive midfield; Diego Valeri, Andy Polo and Sebastian Blanco as the attacking midfield; Jeremy Ebobisse as the forward. With Mabiala back, it was the strategy to use the experience of Ridgewell and Mabiala to deal with the speed and tenacity of Atlanta United strikers Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron. We already knew going in that Martino was done at game end, but rumors had been circulating for days previous that Atlanta would likely be selling either Martinez, Almiron or both to bring in more money to secure talent. With Atlanta already making one big move - trading for former Portland playmaker Darlington Nagbe and adding him to a midfield with Julian Gressel and Eric Remedi - United had surged to the East title behind a powerful offense and a defense that limited mistakes. Veteran center back Michael Parkhurst and goalkeeper Brad Guzan rarely get caught in the wrong spot, so it would be up to Portland to find space and time to counter when they could. The team, however, seemed to content to play their strategy of absorbing pressure to frustrate Atlanta and then catch them on the counter when they were being too aggressive.

This guy got a new contract, which is very well deserved
In the 20th minute, Atlanta defender Greg Garza put a cross to the top of the box for Martinez, and Mabiala tapped the ball away as Josef rolled to the turf. The home crowd and many observers felt the contact warranted a penalty, but it appeared that Mabiala not only got to the ball, but didn't really touch Martinez. Nine minutes later, another Garza cross found Almiron in the box, and he executed a spin kick shot towards the left post that Attinella pushed clear for a corner. The tempers were flaring more as the minutes continued until the 39th minute when Parkhurst cleaned out Ebobisse off a clearance, and the ball rebounded back to Martinez, standing at the top of the box without a mark and clear on goal. Mabiala was slow in tracking back, which allowed Martinez to stay inline, and despite the efforts of Ridgewell and Attinella, Martinez put in the easy tap in to give the home side a 1 to 0 lead. Portland, however, had a huge response as Blanco put a cross into the box for Ebobisse, and the youngster put a header on frame that forced a late reaction save from Guzan. The fact that Jeremy did this while being bracketed and fouled was impressive, but Ebobisse did need treatment after landing awkwardly. The match went into the half with Atlanta clinging to the 1 to 0 lead, but the next goal would likely be the key - Portland gets it, it's game on, but if Atlanta could add to their lead, it might be game over.

Portland ramped up the tempo to start the second half and seemed very re-energized after the break, but it was United that caught the first break when Mabiala was called for a foul on Martinez on a back pass. While Larrys got to the ball and cleared it initially, Center Official Alan Kelly judged Mabiala had gone through Martinez, even thought it appeared on replay that Josef was already going to ground. Almiron's restart found the head of Martinez, who punched it wide right for defender Franco Escobar, and his tap in past Attinella extended the lead to 2 to 0. While Portland did have some chances late after adding Lucas Melano, Alvas Powell and Dairon Asprilla on, Atlanta was able to ride out the match to secure their first ever MLS Cup. Atlanta's strategy of bracketing Valeri and Blanco to force somebody else to beat them seemed to work, as Valeri was held relatively in check most of the night, while Blanco was able to unleash a few quality shots and the cross to Ebobisse. In this round of the playoffs, Portland's supporting cast had been able to provide a spark or play to help their team secure a result, but on this night, the magic finally wore out and the Timbers didn't have an answer. Savarese was very happy at his team's effort, saying they couldn't have given much more, although he felt the officiating cost Portland dearly with the foul on Mabiala that gave Atlanta their free kick chance for goal number two.
This guy is now officially a Portland Timber and not just on an extended loan.

It certainly seemed very somber after the match and the following day when the team returned to Portland, knowing that the 2018 was done and it was another side that was hoisting MLS Cup. The business of the 2019 MLS season had already begun as rumors and news of various trades had already been filling social media. Portland had to make some key decisions about their squad - it seems Attinella is the number 1 goalkeeper, but who backs him up? Does the defense need an upgrade? What does Portland do to augment their midfield to support and eventually replace Chara and Valeri? Does this team need more creativity and firepower, now that it appears that Samuel Armenteros is not part of their long term plans? How do you find experience to fill needs while not squashing the developing youth that will man this club in a few years? Technical Director Gavin Wilkinson might have his critics from years of being a coach during darker times or making unusual personnel decisions over the years, but in his tenure at the helm of the Timbers, Thorns and Timbers 2, we've seen 3 championships, several playoff berths and other accolades. It's not a perfect record, but Wilkinson seems to have found a formula that works with Savarese's tactics and it produced a feisty, resourceful Portland team that was fun to watch most nights. Although MLS Cup wasn't their best overall effort, it was a joy to watch this group fight and claw to the Western Conference title. 

 On the eve of the next MLS Expansion Draft to populate FC Cincinnati's first MLS roster for next year, the Timbers announced their 2019 roster status before offseason moves can begin. After forward Fanendo Adi was traded to FC Cincinnati, there were reports that the teams have a handshake agreement that nobody from the Timbers will be picked during the 5 selections made on December 11. Portland also released the current contract status for their entire team:

Under 2019 Contract: goalkeeper Jeff Attinella; defenders Julio Cascante, Marco Farfan, Larrys Mabiala, Alvas Powell, Liam Ridgewell, and Jorge Villafana; midfielders Diego Chara, Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, Dairon Asprilla, David Guzman and Erik Williamson; and forward Lucas Melano. 
Loan Extended: midfielder Cristhian Paredes (Club America)
Loan Converted to Contract: midfielder Andy Polo. Polo completed the necessary contract thresholds for his contract to revert to the Timbers, and he is now officially a Timbers signee.
Re-Signed Contract: defender Zarek Valentin, who got a new deal to stay in Portland.
Contract Options Extended: goalkeeper Kendall McIntosh, defenders Modou Jadama and Bill Tuiloma, and forwards Jeremy Ebobisse and Foster Langsdorf.
Contracts Not Extended or Out of Contract, But In Negotiations To Return: goalkeeper Steve Clark, midfielder Andres Flores, forward Tomas Conechny.
Contracts Not Extended: midfielders Victor Arboleda and Lawrence Olum.
Out of Contract: defender Roy Miller, midfielder Jack Barmby, goalkeeper Jake Gleeson.

This guy is also back for another season. For now. 
Williamson will be recalled from his loan in Portugal in time for the 2019 pre-season, while Paredes' loan is being extended. Of note that Miller and Gleeson are officially MLS free agents due to length of service in the league, and can negotiate with any team regarding a contract. Portland did also add some youth when former Timbers 2 players Marvin Loria and Renzo Zambrano signed first team deals today, adding some depth and speed to the midfield. While I'm sad to see these players go - Gleeson is the last holdover from the Timbers USL era to still be with the Timbers, leaving only Diego Chara as the lone MLS Timber from their inaugural 2011 season - I do feel that these moves add some youth in key areas, and give Savarese a chance to rotate in experience to build a strong foundation. Considering what he was able to accomplish in inheriting this club from last year, I'm thinking whatever he has planned should work out just fine for 2019. 

As far as what Atlanta has done with their team and atmosphere, I'm happy the area has embraced their team and that it's doing well for attendance, which is great for the league as a whole. It has made me appreciate how differently we do things here in Portland, not only relating to game day displays, but just as an organization. Not every team can follow the same approach, and so it's important to find what works for the fans that visit your matches. I can't see the pyrotechnics, very loud music and messages on the jumbotron working at Providence Park, but the team works very hard with the Timbers Army to create a game day experience that works. Whether you call it organic or authentic, what we do here is uniquely Portland - and I wouldn't change anything about it. 

Friday, December 7, 2018

MLS Cup Prediction Thread. Or Why Now Are We Tempting Fate?

What other tricks might the Maestro have in store for MLS Cup?
This site hasn't done prediction threads with any regularity since the events of the summer when our cat collective lost our most vocal participant with her thoughts about matches. So on the eve of MLS Cup with the Portland Timbers facing Atlanta United in their home park under rather steep odds, why start now? Atlanta United have been setting records all year in terms of attendance numbers and offensive numbers, and most prognosticators have been anointing them as the team to beat since the early stages of 2018. Atlanta has Plittle to disappoint, rampaging through the end of the regular season and playoffs with little to no opposition with a scrappy Timbers side being the only thing standing between them and this year's MLS Cup. With the odds stacked so decidedly in one direction versus the other, it seems as though the match tomorrow is just a formality for Atlanta United. The thing is, this stretch run for the Portland Timbers has been fighting against the odds for months, and honestly speaking, if there was a side that could upend this party, Portland is exactly the right candidate for the job.

Consider their run to the postseason. Portland started the season with 3 losses and 2 draws in their first five matches on the road before playing their first home match; while the win versus Minnesota was a victory, the Timbers struggled to overcome their own struggles and held on tight for the results. Over the subsequent months, Portland put together a 13 match unbeaten run to help stem the early season struggles, but a 4 match losing streak in August brought up the same early questions about whether Portland had the components to succeed long term. It's been a season long adjustment for the team under new coach Gio Savarese, who took over the side this year after Caleb Porter left unexpectedly after the 2017 season. The up and down results continued through September until the result that many said gave the Timbers the confidence that they could beat anybody at any point - a 4 to 1 win in Salt Lake City over Real Salt Lake on October 6. RSL and Rio Tinto Stadium has traditionally been a tough place for the Timbers to get results over the years, so overcoming all of that seemed like a really good indication that Savarese had his team in the right mindset. The Timbers followed it up with another win versus RSL at home, and a well played loss to Vancouver in the season finale using most of their young players. The results got the Timbers into the postseason as the fifth seed in the Western Conference, but they would have to win on the road in the knockout round to advance.
Sebastian Blanco has had 2 extremely memorable goals in the playoffs.

Portland wasn't supposed to beat FC Dallas, who has been one of the stronger teams in MLS over recent years. Previous versions of FCD have struggled late or in the postseason, but with the situation what it was, FCD was expected to advance. Portland not only advanced with a 2 to 1 win on the road, but did so after losing Lawrence Olum to a red card violation that forced Portland to play 10 men for the last 33 minutes of the match. With RSL upsetting LAFC in the other knockout round match, Portland ended up being paired with their long time rivals, Seattle Sounders FC, who had their standard summer pattern of a long unbeaten streak propel them from outside the playoffs in late June to the second seed in the West. Seattle traditionally plays strong soccer after July, and they've used this late success to win their own MLS Cup in 2016 while being traditionally a tough out in the playoffs. Portland went down a goal in leg 1 at home at Providence Park, but they responded with 2 goals to regain the lead. While Portland didn't get another goal at home, they had the 1 goal overall lead versus Seattle despite conceding a road goal to the Sounders. In leg 2, the teams played a tense first half until Seattle got a goal early in the second half to get the series draw. Portland still had plenty of time to respond, and a goal from Sebastian Blanco was enough to break the deadlock and put the Timbers in the driver's seat to advance, but a late stoppage goal for the Sounders forced the teams to play extra time. After trading goals through the periods, the match went to penalties and the Timbers prevailed in dramatic fashion to play Sporting Kansas City, the top seed in the West.

Portland wasn't supposed to beat Seattle on their home turf in the postseason, especially on penalties. The circumstances of the match were altered because of a venue conflict, so Portland and Seattle ended up playing 4 days after the leg 1 match instead of the usual week lag time. After the victory, Portland had 2 and 1/2 weeks to wait to play SKC, who experts had tagged as the team to beat in the West. And match 1 in Portland ended up being a defensive chess match as neither side could tally a goal to give their team a lead, which put everything on what happened in leg 2 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas. Sporting has a strong record at home in front of a raucous crowd, and with playing again 4 days later on the road, the Timbers weren't supposed to have a chance. In the first half, Sporting scored a goal and had 1 waived off due to interference in the box, but they were certainly dictating the tempo in the first 45 minutes. After having another goal waived off, it appeared that SKC was in complete control until Blanco struck again to level the match with a ridiculously awesome strike. Diego Valeri added another goal minutes later, and it looked like smooth sailing until the match was delayed by flying bottles from the crowd. Sporting got a goal back in the 80th minute to make it interesting, and when the officials showed 9 minutes of stoppage time, Sporting certainly had their chances to see if they could steal the result late.

Not bad for his first year as MLS Coach - qualifying for MLS Cup
In the ninth minute of stoppage, Blanco was at it again by clearing a ball from danger, but Diego Chara made a wonderful run to break down the left to run it down to control and hopefully run out the clock. Valeri had shaken his mark, and when Chara saw the Maestro in open space with no defense, Chara put a pass over to him where it was just Valeri versus Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Tim Melia. The odds were in Valeri's favor in this matchup, and when Valeri put the shot into the back of the net, it caused a massive celebration among the visiting supporters and the Timbers' substitutes. Seconds later, the final whistle blew and Portland found themselves as the 2018 MLS Western Conference Champions and qualifying for their second ever MLS Cup berth. Portland could now plot their strategy to face Atlanta, who had already qualified for MLS Cup earlier in the day; both Eastern Conference participants had a better standing in the Supporters' Shield race than either Portland or Sporting, so regardless of the result, MLS Cup would be played at the home of the Eastern Conference Champion. Since those matches back on November 29, the experts have all indicated that it would be difficult to knock off Atlanta United in their home park with all the weapons they have and a massive home crowd of support.

However, Portland wasn't supposed to beat FC Dallas in Texas. Portland shouldn't have beaten Seattle in their home park. Portland wasn't supposed to run Sporting Kansas City out of their home park in leg 2 after not scoring in leg 1. Yet, Portland has done all of those things to qualify for MLS Cup. It's hasn't been pretty at points, as the backline has shown moments of inconsistent play and the offense has struggled to score during certain stretches. Portland has essentially rode the creativity and golazos of Blanco and Valeri, sprinkled with huge contributions from their supporting cast to advance, and right now, it's hard to bet against them while they are on this kind of roll. The Timbers have struggled in even year seasons - 2012 was the trainwreck that cost John Spencer his job, 2014 had a very talented Timbers club that should have qualified for the playoffs but bad results and inconsistent play kept them for achieving success, and 2016 saw the defending MLS Cup champions fail to qualify for the first time in postseason history. Portland has gone against the odds and tradition to get to this point all year, so anyone overlooking this bunch does so at their own risk. It might not be pretty, it might not work the way it's expected, and there might be mistakes along the way, but this scrappy, resourceful Portland Timbers side has done enough - and had some good fortune along the way - to get them a conference title.
We are back. And let's hope for more hardware

For me, the first goal of the match will likely be the catalyst for teams to adjust their attack, so I expect a chess match between Savarese and Atlanta United Coach Tata Martino. If Atlanta is able to score first - and they have one of the best pure scorers in the league in Josef Martinez - it will likely force Portland to counter and push to level, giving Atlanta chances to run their own counter off a turnover. If Portland can get the first goal, Atlanta could be forced to pressure even more with their numbers, and the Timbers are deadly on the counter - often absorbing pressure for long stretches until they have a chance to relieve pressure and challenge against the run of play. Atlanta loves to pressure their fullbacks forward, and that should give Portland a chance to attack wide, but they also struggle with wide pressure, and United would prefer to avoid pushing in the middle against the likely defensive midfield duo of David Guzman and Chara. Tactically, this should be a fun match to watch, but I'm expecting multiple goals on the night. My cats don't seem that interested in calling for a result, but I'm picking Timbers 3, Atlanta United 1 as my result which will give the Timbers their second ever MLS Cup. I might be tempting fate with this, but considering what Portland has done so far to get here, I'm actually in really good company.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Portland Advances To MLS Cup 2018 With Dramatic Win Over Sporting KC

Number 8 is really good at soccer. Really, really good.
The parallels for the Portland Timbers between the 2015 MLS Cup winning season and this year's playoff run are fairly dramatic, especially after the Timbers secured their second ever MLS Cup appearance with a gut wrenching 3 to 2 win versus Sporting Kansas City on November 29. Knockout round win? 2015 saw the Double Post win over SKC, 2018 saw the Timbers run FC Dallas out of their own park. Win over Cascadia rival? 2015 had the Timbers beat Vancouver in the conference semifinal with a huge win at B.C. Place in leg 2. 2018 saw the Timbers outlast the Sounders in heart wrenching fashion in extra time and penalties with a huge performance in penalties. Huge leg 2 performance in the conference finals? In 2015, Portland upended a heavily favored FC Dallas side in leg 1 at home, then advanced by drawing FCD at home with a late goal from Lucas Melano giving the Timbers breathing room. 2018 had the Timbers and Sporting play to a scoreless draw in Portland for leg 1, but the Timbers did something that nobody expected in leg 2 - score 3 goals on the road after conceding a goal in the first half to SKC. Without the offside flag being on target, the Timbers could have fallen behind by additional goals as Sporting had a Diego Rubio goal negated for offside in the 49th minute (obvious call on replay) while SKC defender Ike Opara interfered with Timbers keeper Jeff Attinella in the 24th minute off a Daniel Salloi header that hit the net, 4 minutes after Salloi had given SKC the early lead off a pass left by Rubio.

The Timbers have been behind the proverbial 8-ball throughout the 2018 postseason; they fell behind versus Seattle at home in leg 1 of the conference semi finals, but Portland was able to secure 2 quick goals to grab the series lead. In the leg 2 match, Seattle leveled the overall score early in the second half until Sebastian Blanco brought the match even. Portland almost won the series in regular time until conceding late, but Dairon Asprilla gave them an advantage with one of the most beautiful headers I've seen ever. Seattle once again drew even, but Portland not only held off conceding more but won the penalty shootout convincingly. In the leg 1 match versus Sporting, Portland had the advantages in offensive statistics and chances, but couldn't put anything past SKC goalkeeper Tim Melia or the stout SKC defense. Portland's defense matched the effort in terms of keeping Sporting in check, so everything fell into the leg 2 match. The Timbers did have one notable advantage - the road goal tiebreaker; anything they scored against Sporting in their home park would force SKC to score one more goal than them in order to advance. The big question in this match would be which team would score first, and if that first goal would change the strategy for either side too dramatically.

One year in Portland, all Gio Savarese has done was advance to MLS Cup.
I might have expected some really significant alterations in the Timbers attack and approach if not for one big event in the 40th minute when Andy Polo, back in the starting eleven after missing the first leg due to an ankle injury suffered during international duty, forced Melia to make a quick decision off a turn and shoot play. Blanco dropped in a wonderful pass on the left flank, and Polo outdueled his defender and just missed the goal off the quick shot putting the ball off the side netting. It was a telling moment for the Timbers, because up to that point, they had absorbed all of the pressure and tempo from the SKC offense. The Timbers weren't able to find any possession or threat to counter, despite having one of their strongest available lineups at the start: Jeff Attinella in goal; Jorge Villafana, Liam Ridgewell, Bill Tuiloma and Zarek Valentin on defense; David Guzman and Diego Chara as the defensive midfielders; Polo, Blanco and Diego Valeri as the attacking midfielders; Jeremy Ebobisse as the lone forward. Possessing experience, creativity and pure speed, this was likely the strongest available combination of players, especially considering that Samuel Armenteros continues to battle various ailments that have kept him from the lineup for several weeks now.

There have been stronger Timbers clubs that might have folded at the prospect of absorbing nearly 40 minutes of pressure, conceding a goal and then having a second waived off due to interference only to have one quality shot that seemed to change the complexion of the match. Portland was having trouble dealing with the creativity and pace of Rubio, who wasn't part of the leg 1 match, and his interplay with Salloi and Johnny Russell was wreaking havoc against the Timbers backline. Attinella was holding up reasonably well under pressure, but the Timbers defense was having trouble adjusting. The lone goal conceded officially was aided by a lackadaisical play from Ridgewell, who had a chance to push a loose ball out of danger along the touchline or back to Attinella, but Rubio beat him to the ball and put a cross past Attinella in a place where Salloi could tap it in. Ridgewell has shown bouts of being slow to react on plays at times, and the offense was having trouble possessing or doing much of anything until Polo's shot. Whatever had happened before wasn't important as the team appeared to find composure or energy to finish out the half, while Savarese was quick to point out that his team needed to find their pace in order to get back into the match.

Blanco's second half goal is the best goal I've seen for the MLS Timbers.
Rubio's waived off goal to start the second half was fairly obvious, as he was steps behind the Timbers defense as Tuiloma played exceptional positioning to mark him yet be in good positioning to show offside once the pass was released. It was three minutes later when the match complexion was dramatically changed courtesy of Blanco, who was making a run on the left off a turnover as SKC had pushed players forward. Blanco moved quickly and decisively, and launched one of the most epic distance shots I've seen from the left flank about 25 yards from goal, and the shot uncorked and flew past Melia into the upper right corner of goal to level the score. It was crazy, dramatic, awesome, and it put Portland back in control in the aggregate score series; while the score was drawn at 1, Portland had the road goal that was enough to give them the advantage. The situation changed even further when Villafana found Blanco on the same left side in the 61st minute, and Seba put a pass into the box for Ebobisse, who had a sliver of space to work. Jeremy took the quick shot but it was deflected up with Melia and Opara charging against Ebobisse, while Valeri had staked out space just behind the play. The ball found Diego first, and he was able to put a header over the defense and into the net to give the Timbers a 2 to 1 lead. The second road goal now meant that Sporting would need to get 2 goals in just 29 minutes to have any hope of advancing. The Sporting crowd was very upset at the play, and beer bottles and cans soon found their way onto the pitch, necessitating Center Official Mark Geiger to pull both teams off the pitch and SKC Coach Peter Vermes to plead with the fans to stop throwing things.

Order was restored moments later, but Vermes pulled Salloi for Gerso Fernandes to see if he could jump start the offense. Gerso challenged Attinella in the 67th minute with a close range shot on the left post, but Jeff was up to the task to make the save. Minutes later, Felipe Gutierrez challenged Jeff with a low range shot that he knocked away, but Fernandes was able to give his team hope in the 81st minute off a Graham Zusi cross from six yards out. Fernandes was able to break down the defense with a well placed shot, but the Timbers' defense was already starting to struggle. Valentin, carded in the first half for a professional foul, executed a late slide tackle on Fernandes minutes earlier to give SKC a free kick just outside the box, but since it was from behind and late, it could have been (and maybe should have been) his second caution. Savarese brought on Alvas Powell and Lawrence Olum to give more bodies to the backline for the late run, but with Fernandes' late goal, the home side finally had some hope that maybe they could steal this match late. Once Geiger's crew had signaled 9 minutes of stoppage for the second half, mostly due to the match delay and a couple of injuries, Portland knew this was going to be a wild ride to the finish.

Valentin was very fortunate to avoid getting a second caution in this match.
But this group didn't fold under the pressure and kept organized. Late in stoppage, Blanco was able to push a clearance out of the box to relieve pressure, and Diego Chara ran the ball down on the left flank in space. After settling it briefly, he put a deft pass to an open Valeri with just Melia left to beat in space, and Valeri was able to secure the match very late by tallying his second goal of the night. The match was now officially 3 to 2 Timbers, and with just seconds on the clock before the final, the Timbers could start to breathe slightly easier. You could see the sense of relief as the final whistle blew, and Portland could celebrate the result as the 2018 MLS Western Conference Champions. The Timbers would advance to play in the 2018 MLS Cup, and the venue was determined earlier in the day when Atlanta United eliminated the New York Red Bulls by a 3 to 1 aggregate series score. Atlanta and New York were higher in the regular season table, so the Eastern Conference team that won their final would end up hosting the championship. For Portland, it was their third qualified final appearance in their overall history (1975 Soccer Bowl, 2015 MLS Cup) and gives the Timbers a chance to earn their second ever championship cup. A team that had fought against odd circumstances, a very slow start to the year, player adjustments, injuries, inconsistent play, struggles on the road, and facing huge road obstacles during the postseason had overcome it all to secure the berth.

Ironically, Atlanta United is the MLS team that most experts felt would be in this situation. Their offense, with Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron and Hector Villalba, has been scoring goals in bunches all year, and their defense has done enough against their opponents to vault them to 21 wins in 2018. The key addition to their team for 2018 is a familiar name to Timbers fans in Darlington Nagbe, who was Portland's first ever MLS Super Draft pick back in 2011 during the franchise's very first days. Over 7 seasons in Portland, Nagbe tallied 28 goals in 226 appearances, putting him near the top in Timbers history for games played, but over his time here, his role was never clearly defined. Showing great talent and having a knack for the dramatic goals, Nagbe was never the scorer that many thought he should be during his tenure, and his creativity with the ball faltered at times. However, as a ball possessing midfielder that could run from box to box and make dramatic runs holding the ball in traffic, there isn't anyone better in MLS than Nagbe. And it's this possession skill that has added a new dimension to the track meet offense that Atlanta has run in previous seasons under Coach Tata Martino. Martino is slated to leave United at the end of this season, and they would love nothing more than to send him off a winner in front of their home crowd. However, few clubs in the playoffs could match Portland's resourcefulness during their season, which has been a pillar of Gio Savarese's attack all year.