It was all there for the taking for the Colorado Rapids.
After surprising many to superbly finish atop the Western Conference, Robin Fraser's side had the national spotlight of hosting MLS' first-ever Thanksgiving Day game in front of a raucous full house of supporters at Dick's Sporting Good Park. And in the first half, they reveled in their role, grabbing the ascendency and creating the better chances against the Portland Timbers in an impressive first-half display in their Western Conference Semifinal of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs.
But the goal never came and, just as the game was about to enter stoppage time and with extra time looking lightly, the Timbers, through Larrys Mabiala, scrambled the ball into the net to grab the win and a place in the Western Conference Final.
"It’s a hard one to take today," said captain Jack Price. "You know, football can be cruel sometimes. I feel like we probably deserved to go through tonight but like I say that's football and especially first half I thought we played really well, some of the best stuff we played this season."
Price's frustration was added to by an unheeded appeal for a penalty kick when midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye went down under a challenge in the penalty area.
"[Kaye] said there’s contact so, at the end of the day, if there’s contact in the box it's a penalty for me," he said. "Very disappointed because like I say first half, we were on top and we get a penalty and we go 1-0 up it changes the game. But I haven't seen it back so it's easy for me to sit here and criticize the referees, but I feel there was contact, [Kaye] says there was contact so I feel we should have had a penalty."
Still, there's plenty for Colorado to reflect upon with pride, both from the day and the season. High on that list was the hugely impressive atmosphere the Rapids supporters created on Thanksgiving.
"Absolutely fantastic," said head coach Robin Fraser. "I’m trying to think how many times I've been in this stadium, even with other teams, and I've never seen our stadium look like that. A big, big thank you to our entire front office for being able to produce an effect like that and a big thank you to the fans. They were phenomenal. We heard them the whole way. We'd love to have given them something more to cheer about but it was the best atmosphere I've ever seen inside the stadium."
The Rapids saw tremendous year-on-year improvement during the regular season, going from fifth in the Western Conference in 2020 to top of the pile in 2021. But the end result in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs is the same: an exit at the first hurdle.
"This is different than last year," Fraser said. "Last year we were inexperienced and it showed in the game. This year we did everything we needed to to be in this position, to be in the top seed in the West. First half, we showed how good we can be and really at this point that the sting needs to last and come January 9th or 10th when we start up again, that sting needs to stay in us for the entire year with a determination that it's going to end better next year."
Even amid the bitter disappointment, there's plenty of belief that it can.
"We will come back stronger," insisted Price. "We will. We have to, it’s the only way. And hopefully next year we go a little bit further and we lift MLS Cup. But I honestly believe this year that we could all the way, I really did. The group we had, the togetherness. I keep going back to it but football sometimes can be cruel and today's shown that."