“Playing for pride” is perhaps the oldest sports cliché of them all. And the most disappointing for any player — obviously, it would be much better to be playing in the playoffs.
But the Portland Timbers landed in Salt Lake City on Friday knowing that they would, indeed, be playing for pride. Thanks to New York’s win over Philadelphia on Thursday, the Timbers could not reach the playoffs no matter the outcome of their season finale.
Not that it mattered. The Timbers still battled Real Salt Lake man for man and then got a dramatic 90th-minute goal from defender Mamadou “Futty” Danso to earn a 1-1 draw at Rio Tinto Stadium.
WATCH HIGHLIGHTS: RSL 1, Portland 1
“We were excited to finish the year on a high note,” Danso said.
Portland’s tie, against one of the most experienced and successful MLS sides, who had weeks ago wrapped up a playoff spot, certainly showed the team’s growth in their inaugural season. In what was a constant struggle throughout most of the season, Portland’s play away from their home of JELD-WEN Field notably improved in the last two months.
The Timbers earned three ties and a win in their last five road games. That equaled the positive results in Portland’s previous 12 away games.
Danso’s goal, which came on a cross from substitute Brian Umony and was chipped on by Bright Dike, who also came on in the second half, punctuated a spirited effort. There was no question that head coach John Spencer’s insistence that his team’s motivation remain high resonated. There were five yellow cards distributed and players had to be separated on multiple occasions.
“They had to play that way because I demanded before the game that they play that way,” Spencer said. “I never take the foot off the gas. That’s what I’m like as an individual, and I’ve always been like that.
“You’ve got to place the demands on your team to play that way and we’ve never done anything different. We still did our video analysis before the game. If you don’t play that way, the way the coaching staff demands and the way the owner wants the team to fight every game, then you’re not going to be here for very long. I’m not going to be here (very long) if I let them do that.”
In the end, the comeback exemplifies the Timbers first MLS season: competitive but not quite contending.
There was the bad: Goalkeeper Troy Perkins coming off his line late on Álvaro Saborío’s goal in the 45th minute, and Jack Jewsbury’s missed penalty kick in the 56th minute.
And there was the good: Danso’s goal, that sent everyone home feeling pretty good about things.
“The reality of it is that [we] are an expansion team and, for pretty much every guy in this locker room, it’s their first year to play together,” Jewsbury said. “I think that we’re proud of where we’ve come.”