How we got here, part 5 (of 5)
With the Timbers going to the MLS Cup Final this Sunday in Columbus, Ohio, I thought it would be fun to give a rundown on how we got here. And not just a basic rundown of the 2015 season, or even the five years in MLS, I wanted to give a 15 year rundown of the re-emergence of the Timbers in 2001 to how they got to MLS in the first place, and how many times the team almost didn’t continue on to the following season during that time. It’s been 15 seasons since that rebirth, and today we look at 2015 and the unlikely Timbers run to the final:
After missing the playoffs in 2014, expectations were higher for 2015, but most preaseason predictions didn’t even have the Timbers making the playoffs, but having Diego Valeri back in midfield was a major difference in 2015, as well as adding Nat Borchers and Adam Kwarasey to the defense, and new DP Lucas Melano up front.
The season started out with three draws and a loss before their first win vs. FC Dallas in early April. A four game league winning streak in May and June got the Timbers into third place before a 5-0 loss to the LA Galaxy brought the Timbers back to earth. Over the next few months the Timbers showed no consistency, hanging around near the playoff red line until late September when the tide suddenly changed.
After a dissappointing 2-0 home loss to New York Red Bulls, the Timbers went on the road and took an unexpected 2-1 win in Columbus. The Timbers returned home and played well against Sporting Kansas City (outshooting the visitors 17-8) before losing late on a show of poor defense as Krisztián Németh weaved around the Timbers defense before putting a shot inside the far post for the 1-0 win.
That was October 3. The Timbers have not lost since.
Some eyebrows were raised when the Timbers took a 1-0 win at Real Salt Lake, and the league began to take notice when the Timbers went to LA four days later and flattened the Galaxy in a 5-2 rout. The Timbers just now needed a win in the last match of the season vs. Colorado to assure a playoff spot and responded with a comfortable 4-1 win that secured them third place in the west.
So what happened that caused the Timbers to surge at the end of the season? It was a simple change after the Sporting Kansas City loss to a 4-3-3 that changed the entire dynamic of the midfield, especially in the play of Darlington Nagbe, and opened up the flow between Nagbe and forward Fanendo Adi, and nobody has been able to figure it out since.
But the Timbers needed a late rally and a big of magic to get through the first round playoff match against that same Sporting Kansas City team. After a second half goal by Rodney Wallace appeared to have the Timbers in control, Kansas City’s Kevin Ellis found space late and headed in a game-tying goal that send the match to overtime. Then the visitors shocked the home crowd when Krisztián Németh once again made a great deep run, then turned the ball to his right foot near the touchline and made a spectacular tight-angle shot in the top right corner to put the visitors up 2-1. It looked like that score would hold until the Timbers turned the tide, by getting a late equalizer themselves when Dairon Asprilla found Maximilano Urruti open at the far post and he one-timed the pass into the net to level the score again and force penalty kicks.
The 22-kick penalty kick shootout has become a legendary story so I won’t repeat it all here, but will remind Timbers fans that Kansas City had two chances to knock the Timbers out just by converting a PK, and Ellis first hit the left post on his chance, before the unlikeliest of all fortune when Saad Abdul-Salaam attempt hit the left post, then the right post, and avoided hitting Adam Kwarasey’s back as it bounced out for the miss. Of course Kwarasey would convert his chance then save Tim Melia’s chance for the unlikely win.
The point of rehashing what you all knew? It’s easy. The Timbers don’t believe they can be beaten. Why should they?
They went up against second-seeded Vancouver in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs and dominated, not allowing a goal, and winning 2-0 in their home away from home at BC Place. Then they went against top-seeded FC Dallas in the Western Conference finals, and though there were tight moments, the Timbers controlled the series from Liam Ridgewell’s goal in the 23rd minute of the first leg 3-1 win at home right through Lucas Melano’s clincher in stoppage time in Frisco, though Nat Borchers’ block of a late FC Dallas chance just before the Melano goal did truly save the day.
So where are we now? Well the Timbers are in a league championship match for the first time since the NASL Timbers got to Soccer Bowl ’75 in their first season. Many Timbers fans remember the near miss in the 2007 season when they lost on PK’s to Atlanta with a trip to the final on the line. But this time the Timbers surged into the final with an incredible amount of momentum, in only their fifth season in MLS, and have just one more hurdle to cross before finally putting a league championship trophy in the trophy case.
It’s about time, and if the Timbers maintain the momentum they are carrying into Columbus, Ohio this weekend and bring home the prize, it’s hard to look back at the slight change in formation, and the shape of the posts at Providence Park and smile and know that it was destiny.