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Beards, beer and the betrothed: 24 hours behind the scenes at MLS Cup | THE WORD

MLS Cup - 2015 - Mohawked Timbers Army fan

BY NOW, MOST KNOW the roads that Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers traveled to reach MLS Cup 2015 at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday. But it can be hard to see, in full, the relentless work, careful preparation and raw emotion invested in such an occasion – not only by players, coaches and their families, but also fans, club employees, broadcasters and so many others.

No one can catch all the moments that go into making a final something truly memorable, but here we've tried to capture a few snapshots, both in pictures and words, of the people, places and moments that made MLS Cup 2015 a fitting celebration of 20 years of Major League Soccer.

We begin just under 24 hours before kickoff, as the deluge of Timbers fans washing over Columbus reaches its crescendo.

Saturday, 5:25 pm ET – A special guest arrives in Columbus

THE LUCKY WINNERS of a Timbers raffle contest touch down in central Ohio on a chartered Alaska Air flight nonstop to Columbus. Demand for those precious seats was high, but the large wooden box riding along in the cargo hold below took the most tortuous route to takeoff.

Inside the box is "Epic," the drum, five feet in circumference, that pounds out the beat for the Timbers Army in the North End of Providence Park at every home match.

Columbus wouldn't let Portland's "Victory Log" or Timber Joey’s accompanying chainsaw into MAPFRE Stadium, but after much discussion, Crew SC agreed to allow the traveling support to haul in their prized percussion instrument – if they could somehow get it to the game.

A Timbers Army member handcrafted the enormous box in which to ship the drum on Alaska's fan charter, but the first attempt to load it into the plane's hold was unsuccessful: It was 2 inches too wide. Jerry Makare and the rest of the group charged with ensuring the talismanic instrument made it to Ohio would not be denied. A few hurried alterations were made to trim the box's dimensions, and the axe-branded cargo slid snugly into its berth for the long flight.

Jeremy Wright, a vice president of the 107IST (Independent Supporters Trust) group that leads and coordinates most Timbers Army activities, meets the plane in Columbus, but it takes two tries to get "Epic" appropriate ground transportation.

"Of course, the drum didn't fit inside my rental SUV," Wright told ESPNFC. So another Timbers fan rolled up with a minivan that did the job – just one example of the many coordinated efforts behind one of the largest and most impressive traveling fan contingents in MLS history.

"It's been absolutely crazy," added Wright. "Nobody's sleeping, and so many people are stepping up."

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ESPN production meeting. Photo by Pablo Maurer

6:15 pm ET – ESPN crew irons out final details

ON SATURDAY EVENING, almost exactly 24 hours before the final whistle, the core of the ESPN’s coverage team gathers in a hotel conference room to run through their production plans.

Though viewers will experience the match through the lens of on-air talents Taylor Twellman, Adrian Healey, Monica Gonzalez and Max Bretos, production chief Todd Kulis estimates that his entire crew numbers nearly 120.

"We've got a lot of moving parts tomorrow, a lot to do," says Kulis, a no-nonsense character with a quick wit who hails from nearby Cincinnati.

The broadcast is ESPN's biggest soccer event of the year and will incorporate some two dozen cameras, a video feed from a watch party in Portland and a historic new feature set to be unveiled at game time.

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ESPN's coverage included two dozen cameras. Photo by Pablo Maurer

After months of research, tiny cameras – custom-engineered in a Disney laboratory and protected with the same material used in bulletproof windshields – have been embedded in all four of the goalposts.

Another troublesome wrinkle: Recent terrorist attacks in Paris, France, and San Bernardino, California, have ESPN on high alert, adding extra layers of security to events like this one. Producer Chris Alexopoulos opens Saturday's meeting with a reminder about the "rally point" in case of an emergency, and urges everyone to be cautious and observant.

"Rally Point B would be the hotel, Rally Point C would be Dempsey's [a local tavern]," cracks Kulis, injecting a welcome dose of levity.

The two teams' measured professionalism has given the broadcasters relatively few talking points to chew on, aside from an injury scare for star striker Kei Kamara at Crew SC's Saturday training.

"I'm wondering if he's going to not want to interview [if he's significantly injured]," muses Gonzalez, the sideline reporter known as MoGo to several of her colleagues.

If so, fellow MLS Best XI selection Ethan Finlay will take Kamara's place, says Kulis. As with every aspect of the broadcast, Sunday's schedule is carefully planned – practically down to the second.

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Crew SC's grounds crew won Sports Turf Managers Association's "Field of the Year" award. Photo by Pablo Maurer

Sunday, 10 am ET – Final touches at MAPFRE Stadium

GAMEDAY STARTED BRIGHT AND EARLY at the Columbus Fairgrounds, where many stadium employees and security personnel filtered in more than eight hours ahead of the 4 p.m. scheduled kickoff.

Crew SC director of grounds Weston Appelfeller and his crew conduct their final field maintenance later than usual, however, allowing a light coating of frost to dissipate before mowing then walking the pitch to hand-dress divots and other imperfections. Three generations of Crew SC grounds employees are present; Appelfeller’s two predecessors are helping out today as well.

Overnight, "grow blankets" were spread over the 6-yard boxes to give the goalmouths a bit of extra help. They’re miniature versions of the massive blanket that covered the entire field in the lead-up to this game, raising the ground temperature just enough to keep the lush blend of Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass growing deeper into the Midwestern winter than normal.

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Three generations of Crew SC grounds employees helped out on Sunday. Photo by Pablo Maurer

"Usually by this point we're done mowing for a month, and the grass is a lot longer than it is now," explains Appelfeller, who worked the pitch into gametime condition by Saturday to give both teams a true preview. "But this year's different. We're still cutting it short and trying to push it a little bit harder than what we normally are."

That sort of attention to detail won Appelfeller and his staff the Sports Turf Managers Association's "Field of the Year" award in November, their third such honor in six years. Even now, they're mindful that the US national team will visit MAPFRE for a World Cup qualifier in March, so the pitch is being maintained with a careful eye to make sure it's back in optimal condition by early spring.

"Weston and the group, they deserve a lot of credit," Finlay tells reporters earlier in the day. "There's a reason we play well here."

This is the grounds crew's moment in the big spotlight, just as it is for the Crew SC players and coaches whose expansive passing philosophy requires a quality playing surface.

"This is our livelihood. We spend hours – countless hours – out here working," says Appelfeller, noting that he and his MLS peers recently founded an association of their own. "We want it to shine on days like this, as much as the team wants to shine on days like this. This is our MLS Cup as well."

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Crew SC supporters. Photo by Pablo Maurer

11 am ET – Crew SC fans prepare for MLS Cup


"I'm trying not to!"

Kristina Balevska is playfully warning Kyle Mullenix as they jerry-rig a torn grommet on a "This is Columbus" banner the two Crew SC fans are clipping to the front-row railings at the bottom of Section 109.

It's one of the signs draped all around the stadium, many of them huge, most of them hand-made. The densest collection can be found in the Nordecke, the cauldron of hardcore supporters in the northeast corner, though the Timbers Army will hang a healthy assortment of their own signage in the visitors' sections behind the south goal.

Fans since the Crew debuted as MLS originals in 1996, Mullenix and Balevska usually do this work 3-4 hours before game time, but are ahead of schedule on this day – There’s an MLS Cup tailgate to get to after all.

Other gameday rituals are sacrosanct.

"This outfit – I have a T-shirt and a long-sleeve, and my socks, jeans, everything – I've been wearing this the last three games," says Balevska.

Mullenix's garb dates back even further.

"Before games, I have to wear this shirt and this scarf every single day. I have to wear it the day before, the day of and the day after," he explains. "I told my bosses that if we win this, I'm going to be coming into work and if you guys get all hurt about the fact that I'm wearing a Crew scarf, you can bite me.

"Represent, that's all that matters."

Another bit of superstition has Balevska – who attended Columbus' only other MLS Cup appearance, a 3-1 triumph over the New York Red Bulls in Carson, California, in 2008 – feeling bullish about the big game.

It's 2015, she notes, and dearly departed Crew SC icon Kirk Urso wore jersey No. 15. And that '08 MLS Cup win, keyed by legendary Argentine playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto? It was seven years ago; "Guille" wore No. 7.

Numbers don't lie, right?

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Timbers Army gathers in the MAPFRE Stadium parking lot. Photo by Pablo Maurer

Noon ET – Parking lot nuptials with the Timbers Army

CORDELIA GILLMAN AND BRENNEN CISSNA WERE ALL SET to get married next summer, but they decided to tie the knot at MLS Cup instead.

So the two Timbers fans, whose first date was a PTFC match back in 2011, get hitched in front of friend and officiant Andre Muller and about a hundred other supporters amidst the little slice of Portland which has been temporarily erected in a central Ohio parking lot.

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Photo by Pablo Maurer

That's just one of many amazing stories among the 2,000 or so who came to cheer the visitors, some of whom partied hard at three packed bars in Columbus' Arena District on Saturday night and kept right on until it was time to tailgate.

"It's going good – [though] last night was a little rough. Good times," says Gabe Moyer, a Portland native now living in Sarasota, Florida, who decided to jet to MLS Cup after the Timbers beat FC Dallas to advance to the final. Living on East Coast time, a temporary ticketing glitch gave him an inside track on the seats that sold out within 24 hours of last week's Conference Championship matches.

"Got lucky, got some tickets," Moyer says, "And now we're here, with a few thousand of our closest friends."

A large cargo truck emblazoned with the Timbers logo anchors a sprawling scene with music, a wide range of food and beer by the keg from breweries across North America.

Beer, as you might have heard, is basically a founding tenant of the Timbers Army.

"They used to sell $2 beer on Thursdays, it was called 'Thirsty Thursday.' People sort of migrated down towards the stadium, and we watched bad soccer and we drank $2 beers," recalls Mike Kocher, a seasoned Rose City resident who traces his fandom back to the club's debut season in 1975, in the old North American Soccer League.

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Mike Kocher and his distinctive mustache. Photo by Pablo Maurer

"It was Thursday afternoon in the summer and it was just a lot of fun. But there was no organization."

Sporting a handlebar mustache dyed deep green for the occasion, Kocher looks out at the mass of Timbers fans in the MAPFRE parking lots and shakes his head slightly, then smiles wistfully.

"What started [Timbers Army] was a bunch of people who were kind of rowdy," he says, "And they would take 5-gallon pickle barrels into the stadium and would flip them upside-down, buy cheap tickets in the end zone behind the opponents' goal, and they would beat on the drums and yell obscenities at the goalies. Obscenities! And they would make every bad hand signal they could at the goalie when he was on the other end … Eventually it just started to turn into a gathering point."

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Frankie Hejduk (wearing hat) is Crew SC's brand ambassador. Photo by Pablo Maurer

4 pm ET – Columbus' ultimate hype man takes center stage

AS CREW SC'S "BRAND AMBASSADOR," IT'S Frankie Hejduk's job to spread excitement for days like today. But he needs no extra motivation: the retired wingback retains much of the tireless workrate that marked his playing days, and his effervescent personality hasn't dimmed an iota since he scored the trophy-clinching goal in Columbus' 2008 MLS Cup win.

Doing his best to whip the home fans into a frenzy, Hejduk sounds more like a professional wrestler than ex-player when interviewed by Brian Dunseth shortly before kickoff. After helping his former club and country teammate Brian McBride carry the MLS Cup trophy to its podium at midfield, Hejduk races from section to section to hype up the crowd like a tightly-wound, uncontrollable ball of energy.

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Frankie Hejduk. Photo by Pablo Maurer

Finally, Hejduk slows down just long enough to marvel at the size and spectacle of the occasion.

"I'm more amped up for soccer, to be honest," he says. "This is what all of us have dreamed of … This is how every MLS game should be. This is what we want, what we envisioned 10 years ago. These guys deserve it. These guys are working their butts off and finally it’s all coming to fruition.

"We’ve landed. Is there more to go? Yeah, there’s a lot more to go. This is what it’s all about, man. The city deserves it," he adds, briefly at a loss for words as he gestures at the crowd. "This is … this is … just look at this, man."

Above and to Hejduk's right, a group of 25 or 30 Crew SC fans are brandishing a less familiar set of colors: The blue, green and white flag of Sierra Leone.

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Kei Kamara donated 15 tickets to a group of fans. Photo by Pablo Maurer

This is Kamara's fan club, a group of his countrymen who support him at every home game – though this day their ranks have swelled with Sierra Leoneans who've journeyed from as far away as California and Washington, D.C., to root with pride. Kamara's mother Fatima is sitting nearby; she, too, has traveled from the Golden State.

"He plays for our national team and we want to give him all the support we can," says Sahr Jimmy, the club's president. "It's sold out, but we made it – Kei Kamara volunteered to give us 15 tickets free and we bought the rest."

But what about Kamara's leg injury? Will be be able to play today?

"I think he'll be good," says a supporter named Tupeezy Bundu. "He's tougher than that."

"He wants this," adds Jimmy. "And we go win this, trust me – it's going to be like 3-1 or 3-0. Trust me."

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Wil Trapp hugs is 95-year-old grandfather, "Papou". Photo by Pablo Maurer

4:10 pm ET – Homegrown hero Trapp's pregame routine

THE STARTING LINESUPS DROPPED about an hour ago, and just as Bundu predicted, Kamara is spearheading Gregg Berhalter’s XI much to relief of the home fans. Less surprising is the presence of Wil Trapp, the cerebral Homegrown midfielder who has become a fixture in the Crew SC midfield at age 22.

And as usual, Trapp concludes his pregame by giving his Papou a hug and a kiss.

"Papou" is Trapp's 95-year-old grandfather, who played the beautiful game for most of his life and even founded one of Columbus' first-ever soccer leagues when he arrived from Greece several decades ago. He's also been Wil's roommate at the Trapp household for the past decade, and is naturally his grandson's biggest fan, anchoring a large bank of some 20 family members and close friends in attendance today.

"He's loved the sport for his lifetime, and to see his grandson not only play, but be so successful at playing, is a godsend," says Wil's uncle, Tom Michaelides. "Wil's parents have a tailgate every game, and we cherish that, because Wil's playing here in Columbus and the family can enjoy it firsthand."

In a tradition that dates back to his first appearance in the 18-man gameday roster at MAPFRE, Wil concludes his pregame warmups by walking over to Section 109, hopping the fieldside advertising boards and reaching over the railing to embrace his maternal grandfather as well as his paternal grandmother, who is 93 and stationed in a wheelchair next to Papou's.

"This is the new senior section over here," says John Trapp, Wil's proud father. "When they can get here, and believe me, they try – all 18 home games – to be in this spot if they can. Well, they won't come out in the rain."

"The first time he got to put the uniform on, this was a special moment," John adds. "He was going to be on the bench, but that's alright – he was dressing for the Crew. He was probably nervous about the whole thing, but he sees his grandfather right here, might as well run over. They were roommates, man – they were living together! You can give your roommate bud a shoutout, a hug. It just happens to be his grandfather."

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Diego Valeri (left) and Steve Clark (right) Photo by USA Today Sports Images

Kickoff, 4:25 pm ET – Joy for Timbers, disaster for Crew SC

THE ATMOSPHERE IS UTTERLY ELECTRIC when kickoff finally arrives, but things get off to a nightmarish start for the home team.

Columbus goalkeeper Steve Clark finds himself closed down by Diego Valeri barely 30 seconds in, the Timbers' Argentine star sliding in to block Clark's attempted pass into the net for a stunning 1-0 lead that Crew SC ultimately never recover from.

"I put us in a bad spot," Clark says afterward. "Portland's pressure wasn't the problem. We can't go down one goal in the first minute of the game."

Rodney Wallace's diving header doubles the lead just minutes later. Rather than stunned silence, however, the second setback sparks angry boos and jeers – not to mention a few flying beers – from the home fans, who are enraged that assistant referee Corey Parker kept his flag down when the ball was widely seen to have crossed the touchline just before Wallace's goal.

Portland played on, while Columbus did not, as a confused Tony Tchani was dispossessed to set up a chance created by Darlington Nagbe and finished by the Costa Rican Wallace. The Crew SC faithful spend the rest of the game expressing their displeasure with Parker and center referee Jair Marrufo. Nearly every movement of Parker's flag draws mock cheers.

"It's pathetic that the linesman didn't make that call. I was right there. I saw it. But that's part of the game. What can we do?" Justin Meram says later. "We have to be more in tune and play 'til we hear the whistle. Essentially it's on us."

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Kei Kamara (23) celebrates his goal. Photo by USA Today Sports Images

Halftime, 5:15 pm ET – Kamara gives Columbus hope

THOUGH LOOKING SHORT OF HIS BEST, Kamara nonetheless scrambles home a loose ball to halve Portland's lead and provide hope for Crew SC heading into halftime. Above and to the northeast of the tunnel that leads the players back to their locker rooms, another proven veteran finds himself in the spotlight.

In a large temporary press tribune built high atop MAPFRE's stage, a loudspeaker announcement congratulates Michael Lewis, the only journalist to cover all 20 MLS Cups. The respected New York-area scribe's peers quickly break into applause, then a "Mich-ael Lew-is" chant rings out.

The genial Lewis stands up to address his colleagues, pauses and wryly says, "No cheering in the press box," sparking a wave of laughter.

Down at the opposite end of the venue, Portland's traveling masses are cautiously optimistic.

"Going up 2-0 early on is a great feeling for sure," says Timbers fan John Paul Tyler. "It's a bummer that we gave up that goal, and I'm not so sure [goalkeeper Adam] Kwarasey wasn't fouled on that … But I feel like the Timbers have shown their quality and they can continue to show that quality and see this through."

Adds his wife Andrea: "From the fan perspective, it's been a really wonderful cup overall. People have really been welcoming … No fireworks, other than the ones they intentionally set off. Good spirit."

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Will Johnson (right, kneeling) consoles Kei Kamara (sitting) after the match. Photo by Pablo Maurer

Final, 6:15 pm ET – Timbers make history at Crew SC's expense

PORTLAND SPURN SEVERAL GLORIOUS CHANGES to extend their lead, as two attempts rattle the goalposts bearing ESPN's new cameras. But Crew SC's desperate waves of pressure crash against the stout Timbers back line and dissipate, their hunt for an equalizer ending unsuccessfully, when Marrufo blows the final whistle on a 2-1 Portland victory.

While every other Crew player retreats to the locker room as the trophy ceremony gets underway, Kamara sits alone inside his team's penalty box, watching his adversaries celebrate on his home field even though it drives him to tears.

A member of Crew SC's training staff attempts to console him. Then Portland midfielder Will Johnson trots over and takes a knee, putting his arm around Kamara as the rest of the Timbers gather on stage for the trophy ceremony.

Just after the cup is raised, the Nordecke begins chanting Kamara’s name over and over. The 31-year-old, who missed out on MLS Cup championships by one year in previous stints with Columbus, Houston and Kansas City, finally gets up and walks over to his club's most devoted fans to thank them before heading for the showers.

"I want to see what it feels like to lift up that trophy," Kamara says afterward. "That's why I was sitting out there. Those are the things that keep you going, working harder and harder."

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Diego Valeri embraces his six-year-old daughter. Photo by Pablo Maurer

6:30 pm ET – A blessing and an MVP award for Valeri

WHILE MOST OF THE CREW SC'S SQUAD can't wait to get off the field, the Timbers' family members are eager to race on to it and join their loved ones' celebrations.

Valeri's wife Florencia and their 6-year-old daughter Constanza are pressed against the railings alongside the other partners and children of Portland's Latin American contingent, waiting for permission from security officials before sprinting out to join the fun.

"I’m very happy – I just want to embrace him and share all of this with him. It’s wonderful," Florencia says in Spanish; Valeri earned MLS Cup MVP honors barely a year after tearing his left knee's anterior cruciate ligament in last year's season finale. "It was a blessing that after this injury he was able to come back and achieve this – thank God. We’re very happy.

"The second we came to Portland, we were in love with it – The city is incredible, and the people are too."

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Photo by Pablo Maurer

6:45 pm ET – Crew SC rue "wasted opportunity"

UNSURPRISINGLY, THE ATMOSPHERE in Crew SC's changing area is funereal by contrast, thick with silence and thousand-yard stares. While Berhalter and his teammates speak out in his defense, Clark cuts off a question about how his team's possession-minded philosophy might have played into that fateful moment in the match's first minute.

"No, no, no. No. This is completely on me," he emphasizes. "There's no second chances in championship games. So I have to shoulder that and we have to shoulder that."

Meram's anguish is writ large on his face, and in his voice. He knows how hard it will be to climb back to this mountaintop.

"This is the biggest moment of the year for us," says the 27-year-old, "And we weren't ready."

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Frankie Hejduk. Photo by USA Today Sports Images

Alejandro Moreno and Steve Sirk stand outside, quietly commiserating the unhappy ending of a delirious week in the city they love.

"Even in the weeks leading up this, the support of the city for the club is probably as high as it's ever been," says Sirk, a longtime Columbus journalist, club historian and author of "A Massive Season," the book that chronicled the 2008 MLS Cup victory.

Moreno, a Crew SC-striker-turned-ESPN-analyst who scored the opener in that 2008 MLS Cup victory, is a bit more downcast.

"It was a great week for Columbus. And it was a great week for Columbus Crew that needed to be culminated with a title, and did not. And so it's easy to then feel disappointed," Moreno says. "I'm sure the players, the staff and the organization [feel] a sense of failure.

"What you saw out there from Columbus Crew fans and what you saw from this city throughout the week, gives you a sense that this team and this organization is trending in the right direction and that has to be encouraging for the future.

"You feel, though, the sense that it was a wasted opportunity."

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Teammates clip Nat Borchers beard. Photo by Pablo Maurer

7 pm ET – Borchers' famous beard gets a trim

NOT FAR FROM WHERE CREW SC MOURN their loss, Nat Borchers is mobbed by his teammates in the Portland locker room, everyone eager to witness the Timbers' defensive linchpin commemorate their triumph with a trim of his huge red beard.

Amidst the constant spray of champagne and beer, striker Fanendo Adi produces a cheap disposable razor and a can of Barbasol, the shaving cream brand that adorns the front of Crew SC's jerseys.

Borchers takes the can, gives it a look, then yells, "I can’t use Barbasol. Get this stuff out of here!"

That doesn't stop the ritual, though: Two or three of his teammates take turns cutting off locks of his beard with a pair of scissors.

It's the culmination of a dogged road for much of the winning squad, none more so than Caleb Porter, their coach. Four years after his United States U-23 national team crashed spectacularly out of Olympic qualifying, Porter finds himself atop MLS, leading the Timbers to their first-ever major trophy.

Jumping and dancing with his team, Porter takes the full brunt of a champagne blast right in the eyes. He staggers around momentarily, then turns to an assistant coach and yells over the fray: "They always tell you this stuff stings your eyes. I guess they’re right."

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Timbers owner Merritt Paulson holds the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy. Photo by USA Today Sports Images

8:30 pm ET – Timbers celebrate "the big daddy"

SPORTING A BRAND-NEW CHAMPIONSHIP T-SHIRT in place of his champagne-soaked apparel, Timbers owner Merritt Paulson ducks away from the ongoing revelry and into the vestibule of his team's locker room.

It's a particularly poignant moment for the man who led PTFC into its MLS era with ambition, no shortage of controversy and an abiding desire to reward the passion of some of the most colorful and dedicated supporters in North American soccer.

"It's been a ride," Paulson says. "I mean, five years in now, this is our 40th anniversary, our fifth-year anniversary in MLS. What a cosmic, what an appropriate – somewhere somebody smiled on us, but it was hard work and these guys, it's pretty cool. It's pretty damn cool.

"I don't think it's hyperbole to say we've been the best off the field in North America in years, in terms of our support: the quality of our support, the authenticity of our support," Paulson adds. "And to actually now be the best on the field in this country, in North America, and to be champions, they deserve it. They deserve it, they really do.

"They've been bleeding green. Look, I've only been here since 2007 but there are people here who have been following this team religiously since 1975, and they don't have [anything] to show for it in terms of trophies. And when we won one, we won the big daddy."

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Merritt Paulson after the match. Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers

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