COLUMBUS, Ohio — The champagne fumes were overpowering. The music was blaring. There was dancing, singing, joking, beer guzzling, and even a FaceTime call to an old teammate.
The Portland Timbers were on cloud nine, having just capped a strong and memorable 2015 with an MLS Cup trophy that few on the outside thought was obtainable as recently as two months ago.
Extending their end-of-season unbeaten run to nine games, the Timbers were crowned MLS Cup champions on Sunday night. The club defeated the Columbus Crew at MAPFRE Stadium in an exciting and controversial final, using a pair of goals in the opening seven minutes to pick up a 2-1 victory that MLS commissioner Don Garber said made Portland “Soccer City USA”.
“It’s just amazing. I can’t describe it right now,” said Timbers goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey. “It’s so fresh. The adrenaline is high. You see the energy in this room right now. We just played a 90-minute game and I’m sure all of the guys are tired, but they’re still able to party like this. It’s unbelievable.”
That much was certainly true of the start of the game. The dream start of the game.
The Timbers found themselves up after just 27 seconds thanks to a poor play from Crew goalkeeper Steve Clark and the hustling of playmaker Diego Valeri. Then, six minutes later, a controversial play was finished off with a point-blank header from Rodney Wallace, who was peppered with projectiles from the Columbus crowd along with the rest of his celebrating teammates.
Ecstasy for the Timbers and their impressive contingent of fans. Anger, frustration, and disbelief for the Crew and theirs.
“I didn’t even expect that to happen,” said Wallace of the Crew supporters’ reaction. “That’s something that you rarely see here in this league, but people get pissed off.”
As good a start to the match as the Timbers enjoyed, they only held a one-goal advantage after Kei Kamara struck in the 18th minute. Caleb Porter’s side proved to be more dangerous the rest of the way, however, as its stingy defense held firm while its attack came within inches of adding to the lead on a couple of occasions.
A big key to the Timbers’ success on Sunday was the play of the midfield. Diego Chara buzzed all over the field. Valeri sparked several promising counterattacks. Darlington Nagbe was effective by being simple.
Chara, Valeri, and Nagbe have long been credited for helping turn around the Timbers’ season, which seemed to be destined for an early playoff-less finish in early October. Porter pulled off a stroke of genius, though, by bringing Nagbe inside so that the dynamic speedster could get more touches on the ball. The result was slightly better play and more offensive output for the club.
That tactical change paid dividends during the last few weeks, and it did so again vs. the Crew.
“I think Caleb found the right mix, and we found it at the right time,” said centerback Nat Borchers, who had his long beard trimmed postgame by teammates who were all too happy to cut it. “I think defensively, we were always solid. We needed to start creating some more chances. We did, and that was the difference.”
Another factor for why the Timbers were so successful was because of their pressure. From the opening whistle, the Timbers aimed to disrupt the Crew’s rhythm by pressing them high up the field. It not only worked because it led to Valeri’s record-setting opener, but also because the Crew struggled to deal with that for good stretches in the match.
The Crew did find some success building out of the back as the match wore on, but they had no answers once they got into the final third. Crosses were whipped in to Kei Kamara often, but none of them found the athletic forward due to the latest in a long line of solid outings from centerback tandem Borchers and Liam Ridgewell.
End result? The sweet, sweet feeling of lifting a trophy and being labeled a champion.
“All I could think about was sharing that moment with my players,” said Porter. “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.”
The Timbers will savor this title in the days and weeks to come, but things do not end here for them. The club wants to continue to be a strong contender in MLS, and appears to be in good shape to do so during the next few years because of how well the team has been built.
Nagbe is still relatively young at 25 and his best days are ahead of him. Center forward Fanendo Adi, also 25, is another player that continues to look more comfortable with each passing game. The partnership between Borchers and Ridgewell can improve given that this was their first year playing together.
It is always tricky to keep teams in tact in MLS, but the Timbers are going to do their very best to keep as much of this squad as possible. They have won a championship with it, and think the ingredients are there to compete for many more.
“We’re not going to be satisfied with one,” said Porter. “We’ll be humble again coming into the year. There’ll be higher expectations. You expect that, you want that, you bring it on, so we can’t rest on our laurels. We’ve done the first championship, but we want to do it again, so we’ll try to keep the core together.
“Certainly, there will be some tough decisions, we’ll make a few additions, but if you look at the teams that have won multiple championships or at least been in the hunt, they’ve kept the core together. That’s what we want to do with this team.”