I wanted to resist the urge to give into the Timbers Army’s desire to claim Portland as “Soccer City USA.” It’s quite a label to bestow on yourself, and having grown up in direct opposition to Detroit’s “Hockeytown” self-flagellation, my alarms don’t need much prodding to go off.
And yet, it’s hard to refute. Watch even just a regular season game from Providence Park and have the atmosphere spill out of your screen or walk around Portland, and you can feel how much soccer matters. And given that they’re only one of two professional teams in town, there is very little to distract from the Timbers and Thorns (and probably even less if Damian Lillard were to be traded).
So there really was no more perfect setting than central Portland for MLS’ showcase, MLS Cup. The league would get the atmosphere, tension, and unique look it so craves for the biggest game of the year. A win for Portland would have felt like cementing the place as the center of American soccer, with the roar pulsating throughout the rest of the league. A coronation, almost, of perhaps MLS’s biggest success story (except for that whole cover-up of abuse and sexual coercion among the Thorns, also owned by Merritt Paulson).
And really, the final yesterday couldn’t have been a better exhibition of everything MLS is—weird, loosely organized, often a mess, and yet exhilarating in the most bonkers way.
All you really need to know about yesterday’s game, was it started like this:
The best of intentions, undone by conditions in and out of the league’s control, ultimately looking a bit silly but entertaining us all anyway. There’s MLS in a nutshell.
As for the game itself, Providence Park was indeed packed to the gills and rocking, impressive given the noon local start. No matter their normal style, you’d think the Timbers would have wanted to take advantage of the home crowd and at least spend the first five to ten minutes tearing into NYCFC and have the place absolutely frothing. Instead, they didn’t even attempt a shot until 15 minutes in, happy to cede possession to NYCFC and look for a counter. Which is what they did most of the season—they’re one of the lowest pressing teams in MLS— and it got them here, so you can’t really argue too much. Letting Diego Chará destroy everything in front of the defense is usually a sound strategy, even if it shakes one to the core to see a 35-year-old have more energy and speed than the other 21 players around him. But this felt like it called for something different, if only for a segment of the game.
Not that the Pigeons were exactly laying siege to Portland’s goal, seemingly overly careful to not get picked off on the counter the Timbers were waiting for. The problem for the Timbers is when you play it defensive and in your own half, it only takes one mistake to trash the whole plan. A mistake like, oh I don’t know, failing to mark the league’s leading scorer Taty Castillo:
This led to the game’s ugliest moment, with some mouth-breathing Portland fan hurling a full beer onto the field and hitting NYCFC’s Jesus Medina. Such an atmosphere can always boil over, proving that MLS’ journey into adulthood is about as rough and wayward as anyone else’s. Emulating the worst parts of the more fully grown crowds they see (NYCFC’s bout with white supremacists infiltrating their crowds is another example).
The atmosphere on the field, and maybe indirectly off of it too, wasn’t helped by ref Armando Villarreal taking the field with a policy of “I’m not going to yellow card anyone for anything in the first half short of swordplay.” Tackles flew in from all angles causing ruckuses after whistles, all with Villarreal making a big show out of calling nothing, waving his arms around like he was directing tarmac traffic without anything in his hand. But it’s MLS, and it’s biggest game should be played with the same theatrical but bewildering refereeing that we see week in, and week out.
You would have thought being down a goal and at home would have spurred Portland into a frenzy in the second half, but it didn’t. They managed one shot on target before injury time. They were launching aimless crosses from deep from the 60th minute on. They looked to have run out of ideas. They probably did.
But even if you don’t know how to make homemade explosives, leave the ingredients close to each other long enough and it might happen by accident. A lenient ref, an increasingly nervy NYCFC, and crosses launched from everywhere can be volatile enough. They were in the very last minute when the Timbers simply fist-fucked the ball into the area and Dairon Asprilla went crashing into about three different defenders:
It probably was a foul.It certainly wasn’t art. It didn’t come as the result of any plan. And yet it gave MLS and everyone watching an iconic moment, watching the stadium shake with pure relief and disbelief in the driving rain. You couldn’t help but chuckle.
But again, Portland didn’t seize the momentum in extra time, even after chucking on all their attackers to tie it in regular time. They were better, but not enough. And leaving things up to penalties is essentially leaving things up to the wind. It didn’t blow their way. NYCFC’s Sean Johnson got his hands to one more penalty than Portland’s Steve Clark could, and the ribbons around the trophy were sky blue instead of green.
Which led to perhaps the perfect bookending image from the collapse of the inflatable MLS Cup before the match:
That’s NYCFC manager Ronny Deila, strpping down to his underwear before lifting the trophy, keeping a promise he made. And that’s really MLS in one afternoon. Ridiculous all the way through, hurtling to the finish line with every part of the car working against one another, spurting oil and smoke, clangling loudly and chaotically, and ending mostly naked, screaming in the rain, putting a smile on the face of anyone who watched all the way through.