It was easy to think of a typical pattern of play for last year's Portland Timbers. They would get on the ball, try to transition. If it was on they were deadly; if it wasn't, they were dead meat. They'd eventually get both fullbacks upfield and one of the other — but usually right back Jorge Moreira — would end up launching a cross toward the penalty spot.
Those are low-percentage plays, and worse, they often turn into counterattacks going in the other direction. That's how Minnesota United annihilated the Timbers way back at the end of February, at the start of this weirdest of MLS seasons.
The Timbers left that version of themselves in February, it turns out. They bunkered their way to a home win in Week 2, then four months later as MLS is Back kicked off, they were an entirely new, entirely balanced team. One that — I'm not even kidding here — has been good at basically everything this tournament. This team that could only hurt you one way in 2019 has now discovered how to beat you on the break, via their occasional-but-often-deadly press, on set pieces and even via possession. They are getting numbers forward without taking unnecessary risks with their fullbacks, and that means they are scoring goals from patterns of play that did not exist for them in 2019:
Wednesday's 2-1 win over the Union wasn't about that, of course. Wednesday's win was about being smarter and more opportunistic on set pieces, and getting a bit of luck when Sergio Santos went NASA with his first-half PK.
But being lucky is good, and it's especially good to be both good and lucky. Those are two boxes that it's always nice to have checked in any kind of tournament. Beyond that, the Timbers are now also deep and multi-faceted, and while they weren't quite clean enough on the ball through midfield to entirely take the Union out of the game, it says something about this Portland side that they didn't have to be. Because they are so good at finding the cracks and controlling the game state — they have scored first in five of six games and have trailed for just 57 minutes over the past month — their margins have grown. They don't actually have to control the game.
And so because of that; because they can beat you so many ways, and with players like Diego Valeri or Jaroslaw Niezgoda (or both) off the bench; because they have the odds-on tournament MVP in Sebastian Blanco; because Jeremy Ebobisse and Eryk Williamson have come of age and come out of nowhere, respectively; because the defense and Steve Clark in goal have hung on just tight enough, and because Diego Chara is still Diego Chara, the Timbers are into the final.
Truth be told, they deserve it.