The hot favourites to take the Major League Soccer (MLS) title were eliminated in dramatic second-leg play-off matches on the last weekend in November. Though main round winners New York Red Bulls won 1-0 against Columbus Crew they were ousted because of their 2-0 defeat in the first leg, as were FC Dallas, who achieved only a 2-2 draw with the Portland Timbers after a 3-1 loss in the first encounter.
Lucas Melano shot the Portland Timbers into the MLS final on that “weekend of outsiders”. The 22-year-old Argentine, sent on only deep into added time, became the hero on a memorable night with his equaliser for 2-2 (90th+5) at Toyota Stadium, which won the Timbers the Western Conference title – and with their 3-1 win in the first leg ensured their ticket to the grand finale.
Portland will travel to Columbus Crew for the final on December 6. Though the team lost 1-0 to New York Red Bulls, they made the final thanks to their 2-0 win in the first play-off. The two hot favourites New York (1st) and Dallas (2nd) were eliminated, and as Columbus (4th) finished the main round in a better position than Portland (5th) the club enjoy the right to play at home.
But that’s something Portland and the fans of the “Timbers Army” can cope with. Their first ever qualification for the MLS final triggered ecstasy among players, coaches and spectators alike. In a classy match Fanendo Adi scored the first goal to take the lead (54th), but Dallas turned the match around with goals from Ryan Holingshead (68th) and Blas Pérez (73rd). A further Dallas goal would have meant extra time, but then came Melano’s great moment. After skilful dribbling he netted the equaliser – and only seconds later was smothered by his jubilant team-mates.
Thousands of fans celebrated the greatest success in the club’s history in Portland’s bars, fought valiantly through an incredible play-off series. The Timbers were the only one of the four semi-finalists who had to qualify for the quarter-finals in the knock-out round, where they achieved a historic victory against Sporting Kansas City, 7-6 after penalties involving all 22 players. In the quarter-finals the Timbers defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-0 and 0-0 to meet the favourites from Dallas.
After the match the players flooded social media with photos from the dressing room and the ceremony awarding the Cup. But the Western Conference title need not remain their only trophy this season. “I am very proud of the guys. That’s a great moment for the club. That’s our first trophy but we want to win the really big one”, said coach Caleb Porter.
Crowd favourite Nat Borchers, who ably assisted Melano’s equaliser in added time, can hardly wait: “You don’t get many opportunities to win the trophy. It’s a great chance and a very special match for anyone who has something to do with the club”.
But with Columbus Crew, Portland will meet a team that also showed outstanding and spectacular performances in the play-offs – and are brimming with confidence. However, Columbus had to accept defeat in the semi-final second leg against the Red Bulls, when Anatole Abang scored for a 1-0 lead in injury time and some anxious seconds later NY striker Bradley Wright-Phillips headed against the post. Top striker Kei Kamara could hardly handle the late drama: “That definitely was a moment when I thought it’s impossible, it can’t happen. We were already four minutes over time, and then the ball cannons into the post”. With this late luck, and the beating of the favourites (2-0) in the first leg, confidence is high: “I am proud to bring the final into our city. But we are not yet done”, said coach Gregg Berhalter. But the former Bundesliga professional certainly has some respect for their final opponents: “Portland are the best away team in the league; it will be a tough task”.
Both teams can definitely rely on their strong nerves. Columbus also had to overcome some precarious situations during the play-offs. On the road to the title in the Eastern Conference they managed to oust Montreal and super star Didier Drogba only in extra time of the second leg. Then followed the hard struggle with New York – and the chance for their second championship title since 2008.
Two players, who already have received personal awards in addition to reaching the Conference title, can help. Kei Kamara and midfielder Ethan Finlay were nominated for the MLS eleven of 2015. A Portland player is missing from that list, but if the Timbers triumph in the final on Sunday, so crowning their crazy season with their first MLS Cup, they will hardly be bothered.