The Throw-In: Portland Timbers, Montreal Impact, Tijuana all star in Game of Thrones, soccer style

Throw-In Timbers celebrate

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USA Today Sports

Those of you who follow this space on a regular basis know that I’m fond of making big, sweeping generalizations about individual results and reflecting on how they’re more important than you realize.

It’s a convenient vehicle for hyperbole, I’ll give you that. And when your league is so young that if it were a person, it wouldn’t be old enough to drink legally in the US, it’s natural to find flashpoint moments that we may look back on some day as historic.

What I’m most fond of, however, is when you can taste change in the wind: when the old guard falls and the ensuing race to fill that void blows the doors wide open for some precocious and ambitious challengers. (Or maybe I’ve been watching too much Game of Thrones).

In any case, the events of the past three days have been a big shift in power. Let’s take a quick look at a three for Friday:

Down goes Seattle! It’s probably safe to say that no one outside the immediate Puget Sound region was upset when the Sounders were bounced from US Open Cup play at the hands of the surprising Tampa Bay Rowdies.

For the first time in five years, Seattle won’t be at the USOC final. And that’s a good thing. Just like it was a good thing that Sporting KC took the title away last year. It engenders parity in the tournament, sure. And it’ll give another club a chance to make the Open Cup a priority, and hang their hats on any success they have in it.

But I also believe that the Open Cup had become a crutch for the Sounders. No matter what else happened in their previous MLS seasons, they always had the USOC to fall back on as a convenient way to excuse their failures in league play or CONCACAF Champions League.

Now, they’ll be forced to focus on MLS. They’ll have to get tougher. They’ll have to pace themselves better. And they’ll have to prove that disappearing in big moments – especially against the LA Galaxy – just isn’t good enough.

As far as the Open Cup goes, however, the Sounders have also written the book on how to succeed as an expansion team in MLS. The USOC is the easiest trophy to win out of the three major ones MLS clubs compete for. And by clinching it, you set an immediate culture of winning. You win it again, you’re a mini-juggernaut. You win it a third time, and you’re expected to compete across the board, every season, in every tournament.

READ: Throw-In — What others cities have MLS ambitions? A top 10

If you’re looking for a new Sounders in that regard, just look a few hours south down Interstate 5. I don’t think anyone should be shocked if the Portland Timbers keep pushing as hard as they did against Wilmington on Wednesday night and don’t stop until they’re hosting their first major trophy in August. Then, who knows what other magic Caleb Porter & Co. will conjure.

Brace for Impact. Once Toronto FC – thankfully, mercifully – went down in the Amway Canadian Championship semifinals, we knew we were guaranteed a new Canadian entrant into the CONCACAF Champions League. And although Vancouver fans won’t admit it, all of MLS should be glad it was Montreal who ended up winning the Voyageurs Cup.

Why? Well, without mincing words or sparing anyone’s feelings, I think it’s safe to say this Impact team is the best Canadian squad in MLS history. It’s the deepest team, the most experienced and cultured, the best-coached and the most versatile.

That’s no slight on Toronto’s 2009 team – which actually was pretty good until their late fade and last-day-of-the-season collapse – but if the CCL were to start today, you’d have to think these Impact would hang pretty well. They’ll almost certainly get a Mexican club in their group-stage draw (we’ll find out on Monday), but they’re probably the best-equipped to deal with that.

Of course, this is all conjecture. Montreal could mimic TFC's swoon by late summer and not look as impressive as they have. Then again, stranger things have happened. If you would have told me before Wednesday night that Alessandro Nesta would be so impressive on turf, I wouldn’t have believed you either.

The TJ Factor. Club Tijuana’s Copa Libertadores assault came to a disappointing end on Thursday night, closing out a spirited run in South America’s biggest club tournament. But Xolos were so inspiring – and arguably played so far over their heads – that if the CCL were to start today, you’d have to consider them a favorite.

There’s something else at play here, though: Americans will likely root for Tijuana in the Champions League more than they have for any previous Liga MX squad. With their rags-to-riches narrative in a scruffy border town, Tijuana have quickly established themselves as a de facto true American tale. They’ve absorbed fans on both sides of the border and have overachieved in record time.

They’ve also got US national teamers Edgar Castillo and Joe Corona in the first team, a handful of other Yanks in and out of the reserves, a wide-ranging academy that’s recruiting more young Americans by the week and the ambition to get more proven players into the fold (Herculez Gomez, anyone?).

Tijuana have also shaken up the balance not just in the Liga MX and in the Copa Libertadores, but they’re a headliner in an unprecedented party-crash in the Champions League. They’re one of eight clubs who have never participated in the tournament in its current form.

That’s a list that includes traditional powers (Club América, believe it or not, have never been in the CCL) and upset-minded minnows (Panama’s Sporting San Miguelito and Costa Rica’s CS Cartaginés are two of the more colorful examples).

These are just three quick examples of why soccer on these shores is truly anyone’s game. I can’t wait to see who else surprises me in the coming months. Summer is coming, after all.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.