The Portland Timbers had a wonderful playoff run. They made a lot of noise on the road and featured several victories after their backs were against the wall, but their 2-0 loss in MLS Cup to Atlanta United provided nothing but frustration and more than a little bit of bitterness.
The game did not have the same level of magic that they found in Seattle and Kansas City, and the Timbers don’t necessarily blame themselves.
The Timbers weren’t in an unfamiliar position and they knew that. Sure, the one goal they gave up in the first half was the result of a massive mistake on their part. It changed the game going into halftime, but the team never felt out of it. They came out in the second half with a strong start and the team had that feeling like they were going to find a goal at any moment.
“We had them on the ropes for 15 minutes,” right back Zarek Valentin said in the locker room after the game. “They did not know what to do coming out in that second half.”
“I thought we were really going to get a goal. I think the whole stadium thought we were going to get a goal,” Valentin added.
The real deflating moment came in the 54th minute. Larrys Mabiala committed a foul on Josef Martinez in the final third and set up Miguel Almiron for a dangerous free kick. His ball swung into the box, took a touch off Martinez, and fell right to Franco Escobar for a wide open sliding finish. The set piece was not well defended, but the Timbers felt rather bitter about the call that set up the chance.
“I think that the momentum was killed by the referee, in that foul that wasn’t a foul,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said in the postgame press conference. “Because I thought that in the second half we were doing very well and I thought it was pretty even. We had more momentum going forward and that second goal was tough for us to digest.”
The Timbers players echoed their coach’s feelings about that play. With all the physical play on the field and all the close calls referee Alan Kelly waved away, they felt Mabiala’s contact was minimal and shouldn’t have drawn a whistle. They felt it took away from what they considered to be a solid effort on the whole night.
“One foul, again, that I don’t think is a foul, but I’ll have to go back and check it, and the ball ends up in the back of the net,” Valentin said. “It sucks, man. It’s difficult to swallow because, again, if they’d have played us off the field, kudos, you give them a golf clap and that is what it is. If they play out of the back and complete 40 passes and score a goal then we can live with that. But when the goals just kind of happen the way they do that makes it tough to swallow.”
Portland did put in a hard effort on the night, particularly in the second half. They struggled with linkup play in the midfield, but they still managed to create a chance here and there. They just felt like they were hosed by some questionable referee decisions. And, in their minds, it affected the rest of the match.
“For a final so important and the caliber of referee that we had I expected more,” said Savaresse. “And I think the little things sometimes are very important.”
“Credit to a great Atlanta team who worked the entire season to deserve an MLS Cup,” the coach concluded, “but I found in this game that unfortunately that the officiating for me didn’t match up to the level of the match.”