There were countless storylines created at Jeld-Wen Field Saturday night. Real Salt Lake deservedly advanced to the MLS Cup Final. The Portland Timbers clattered out of the playoffs, getting beat convincingly by an RSL team that was simply better. Jason Kreis has his team in the Final in what looks more and more like his last year in Salt Lake City.
But the moment on Sunday night that few in attendance will ever forget came as the final seconds were ticking off the clock. With their team moments away from reaching the end of the road in 2013, the crowd rose and gave the loudest “PTFC” chant heard within the friendly confines of Jeld-Wen Field.
On the field, Jack Jewsbury said, “It took me a little off guard there at the end to see how loud it was. I had to step back and take it in for a moment because it’s not every day that players get to play in an environment like this.”
Jewsbury’s step at the end of the match Sunday night may have been the only step a Timber took backward all year, as, despite a disappointing end, 2013 was a year of unbelievable growth for the club.
The message was clear, as Caleb Porter emphasized postgame, “We’re not going away. We’re not going away. This is just the beginning. We’ll be back.”
And for half an hour Sunday night, it looked like the Timbers might not be going away from the 2013 playoffs just yet, either.
After an early Javi Morales free kick found Devon Sandoval in the box only to have the ensuing header go just high, the Timbers seized control; playing some of the most connected attacking soccer they’ve shown in 2013.
In the 9th minute, Frederic Piquionne got free on the left side and whipped a dangerous ball into the box where a stretching Diego Valeri, hampered by a severe sports hernia, couldn’t quite reach to knock the finish home.
Six minutes later, however, the Timbers looked like they’d found their crucial early strike. After Will Johnson sent a corner kick into the box, Rodney Wallace earned position over Lovel Palmer and nodded back to the mouth of goal where Futty headed the putative opener home. Mark Geiger, who is working on a fledgling reputation for questionably disallowing goals in big spots, however, saw Wallace’s push on Palmer and waved the goal away. For a small push, it was a huge call.
In the 19th minute, Will Johnson found himself nicely teed up to hit one from outside the box after Rodney Wallace had a Michael Harrington pass tackled away from him, but the Captain’s strike screamed just wide.
Just two minutes thereafter it was Valeri’s turn to have the ball fall to him in a promising position, but both his initial effort and a follow up were blocked away by Kyle Beckerman.
For all their dominance, the Timbers couldn’t find the goal to change their fortunes in the series. Instead, in the 29th minute, it was RSL that found the vital tally to all but seal their victory. After Luis Gil collected a poor Pa Modou Kah clearance and fired a low shot from outside the box, the ball skidded on Ricketts, who accordingly spilled a rebound. Harrington and Kah looked well positioned to clean up the mess, but a miscommunication between them allowed an opportunistic Robbie Findley to slot it inside the near post.
Three minutes later, it looked like the Timbers might be able to pull themselves back into the game. After a Portland corner was partially cleared, Michael Harrington bent a reentry ball into the box where Diego Valeri was making a late run. Valeri gathered and fired from close range, but Rimando displayed his trademark elite reaction time to save with his left hand. Futty put back the rebound, but was correctly flagged offside.
From there, the frustration of conceding a preventable goal, losing Rodney Wallace and Frederic Piquionne to injury, and having two goals waved off was too much for the Timbers to handle. For the first time in 2013, the Timbers panicked. And the result was a lack of finishing that turned an unlikely comeback into the impossible.
But ultimately the missed chances, disallowed goals, and untimely injuries will be forgotten – drowned out by the sea change that took place in 2013 with Caleb Porter at the helm and the indelible moment after Sunday’s final whistle.
Notes & Observations
- After the match, I asked Will Johnson what it meant to have likely garnered a berth into CONCACAF Champions League. “It’s huge. The Champions League is the biggest competition that we can possibly enter.” Johnson – who has been to a Champions League Final before – noted that it also presents another challenge. “It’s something that for this club to be an elite club, you have to not only partake, but do well in the Champions League.”
- While such topics are chronically overplayed in sports journalism, the fabric of the Timbers’ locker room has maybe been a little bit overlooked in 2013. In answering a question about whether the extent of the team’s success was a surprise, Will Johnson took a tangent to cite the strength of the locker room. “As soon as I got to know the guys more and more and see what kind of guys they are, and their character, and the work ethic of everybody in this locker room, you start seeing it’s not a surprise, it’s not luck. It’s just hard work, and good training habits, and good character guys using their talent to perform. And it stops surprising you after a while because it becomes routine.”
- The day before at practice, Donovan Ricketts gushed at the strength of the locker room. “This [team] is more like a family. We do things together off the field, so once we leave here it’s not just, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’ We do things together as a team.” Ricketss continued, “I’m a very quiet guy, and they’ve got me doing stuff I’ve never done before. So it’s a big family.” When asked what kinds of things he’s been doing with the team, however, Ricketts demurred, “Ah, I can’t say.”
- While there are plenty of on-field reasons to keep this group largely together, the strength of the locker room may be the most compelling reason behind Merritt Paulson’s Twitter promise to only make a couple significant moves this offseason rather than reprise a 2012-style overhaul. Porter’s postgame promise to be back, then, may have been even more literal than he intended.
Onward, Rose City!
 Geiger’s activism in waving off the Timbers’ goal was perhaps most frustrating in light of his 7th minute decision to give Palmer only a yellow card for coming in very late on Will Johnson and catching him hard with a high boot to the knee. Ben Zemanski was almost certianly incredulous on the sideline.