COLUMBUS, Ohio – In the chilly December air permeating Mapfre Stadium, the Portland Timbers stunned Columbus Crew SC with two quick goals to earn their first MLS Cup last night, 2-1.
While this was admittedly not the matchup, nor the venue that Major League Soccer would have preferred for their biggest event of the year, it was predicted by many to be one of the better matches this year in MLS. And to the victors, go the spoils.
With supporters chanting from both ends of the stadium, the atmosphere was boisterous. The Timbers capitalized on a lackadaisical pass in the Columbus end, scoring merely :30 seconds after first kick, as Diego Valeri got the ball past Crew SC goalkeeper Steve Clark. It was apparent that one team was raring to go, while the other might not have heard the whistle to signal that play had begun.
“We knew the aggressiveness the first 20 minutes from us had to be there,” said Portland’s Diego Valeri. “We tried to be aggressive and pressure their backline.”
Portland showed an immediate sense of urgency in the aggressive and fast pressure they exerted on Columbus. They were dispossessing the Crew SC players of the ball seemingly at will and running roughshod over the home team.
Leading up to the second Timbers goal, there was a badly botched non-call by the sideline official, as Diego Chara passed the ball out of bounds to Alvas Powell. While CrewSC players slowed in anticipation of the whistle to stop the run of play, Portland didn’t miss a beat.
“If the ball had clearly crossed the line, a throw-in should have been given,” said referee Jair Maruffo. “However, the assistant referee did not see the ball leave the field of play.”
No whistle and stoppage of play meant that this paid dividends for the Timbers, as Rodney Wallace found the back of the net. The score stood at 2-0 to the visitors in under eight minutes.
“Obviously, that’s not the start we wanted,” said Columbus’ Steve Clark, “but we did the best we could after that. It was a disappointing start for me, and for the team as a whole.”
On the night of MLS’ grandest stage, and on national television, the Crew SC supporters situated in the Nordecke threw beverage cans and trash on the pitch after Wallace scored, casting a cloud over what should have been a joyful event.
Crew SC’s Kei Kamara would halve the Portland lead at 18’, after a scramble in the Timbers box and the ball be knocked about like a pinball.
The match took on a decidedly physical tone as the first half wore on, with players utilizing rougher tackles that fell just short of being yellow card-worthy. The officials were letting them play on, at times almost losing control of the match.
“I think the referee let us play,” Steve Clark said, “which is fine by us.”
The first half drew to a close with 1’ of stoppage time tacked-on, before the teams left the pitch with Portland leading 2-1. That’s the way the score would remain throughout the second half, as well.
“We were never in danger,” said Timbers’ head coach Caleb Porter. “We were comfortable. We were tight. We saw the game out. We shut it down. That’s a part of winning.”
Confidence, with a touch of smugness, is to be expected from the winning side, surely, and Porter did not disappoint in that regard. His team showed an aggressiveness that Columbus was unable to match, especially in the pivotal early stages of play.
“It’s a big game,” Crew SC’s Ethan Finlay said, “and obviously when you go down (0-2) it’s a shock. I don’t even know if it helps you wake up because you don’t want to have those kind of thoughts, but you do start having the thought after it goes down two-nothing and it’s like ‘Okay, what just happened? We’re playing at home.’
“You play every game for this one. Being gutted at home like this can only make us better.”
Although the supporters tried to energize the home team, Crew SC was unable to sustain any attack in the Timbers end until the latter stages of the match, as Portland collapsed into a defensive fortress, protecting their one goal lead. It appeared as if Columbus head coach Gregg Berhalter was hesitant to adapt to the aggressive pressure from Portland.
The time wasting efforts from the visitors was very obvious in the final fifteen minutes, at times bordering on being ludicrous. And yet, the referee let the match play-out to its conclusion.
“I’m sorry to the people of Columbus that we couldn’t bring them a championship,” said a much-subdued Berhalter after the match. “We couldn’t bring them that trophy but they deserve it. The support we have gotten over the last month has been amazing.
“So, I thank the people, I thank the city for getting behind us.”
With the Timbers’ supporters raucously celebrating the team’s first MLS Championship, the players danced and celebrated with the members of the Timbers Army that made the cross-country trek to support their club. Afterward, the team congregated at midfield to receive the MLS Cup as their just reward.
“They earned the right to have the Rose City be called Soccer City,” Commissioner Don Garber said when presenting the trophy to the team. This created a bit of a stir and was seen by many in Columbus as a slap in the face. Surely, multiple MLS Cup victories should earn the moniker of “Soccer City”; not a first trophy.
Be that as it may, the city and supporters of Crew SC are gutted with the loss, but should be proud of the performance of this band of players and their gritty style of play throughout the year. They were not given much of a chance to make a deep run in the playoffs, let alone play in the MLS Cup Final.
And yet, they found the fortitude to stick with the system Gregg Berhalter has instituted and, more importantly, believe in themselves.
As disappointing as the loss was on Sunday, the cold, grey light of Monday morning seemed to match the mood of a Championship lost. But, the new day should provide some much needed perspective for the denizens of Columbus.
Take heart, of faithful supporters, the new season is merely a few months away from commencing.