Gio Savarese: MLS Cup 2021 will show soccer's growth in Portland, United States

Giovanni Savarese

PORTLAND – Anticipation is brewing in Soccer City USA, and it’s up to the Portland Timbers to capitalize on the opportunity before them.

Priority number one is lifting their second MLS Cup since joining the league as an expansion club 11 years ago, which gets accomplished by beating New York City FC on Saturday at Providence Park (3 pm ET | ABC, UniMas, TUDN).

But there’s also the desire to show what Major League Soccer is becoming, with this year’s championship match the 26th edition. A raucous environment, attractive on-field product, star power, clear club philosophy and identity will all be on display when the Western Conference’s No. 4 seed plays host to the Eastern Conference’s No. 4 seed.

“If you ask any coach, any player, any general manager, anyone that's part of a club in the United States, they want to play an MLS Cup and they want to do it at home,” Savarese said Thursday as the buildup continues. “So for us to have the chance to be able to host this match knowing that the passion of our fans, the environment that Portland brings, it is unique.

“We love this game, we want to see the game grow in the United States. I believe that being here in this stadium, in this city will show very well for everyone that is going to watch this match and I think for the two teams that are going to be on the field, I think are two teams that are going to show well. So we're extremely, extremely excited, extremely content.”

Unlike NYCFC, a 2015 expansion club that’s making their first cup final appearance of any variety, Portland have danced on these stages before. They won MLS Cup 2015 at the Columbus Crew, plus emerged victorious at last year’s MLS is Back Tournament over Orlando City SC. And they reached MLS Cup 2018 at Atlanta United, only to fall short against Tata Martino’s high-octane, high-flying group that took North American soccer by storm.

Now, adding more silverware before 25,000-plus fans in the Rose City is within touching distance.

“It’s all we want, it’s all we want,” veteran midfielder Diego Valeri said after Thursday’s training session. “We want to have our supporters, our city celebrating things like this. And obviously at this point, we didn't have the chance to do it in our house. So that’s gonna be very special. But we know that we have to perform and play a game in order to celebrate and have them happy.”

Valeri is one of several adopted sons in Portland, a walking legend along the Willamette River who’s now in his age-35 season. A similar title belongs to his fellow Argentine, Sebastian Blanco, a 33-year-old midfielder whose availability (hamstring injury) is being watched closely ahead of Saturday’s clash.

They’re both MVP-caliber players – Valeri won the league award in 2015, while Blanco was on track in 2020 before an ACL tear derailed his quest – and represent the high end of Portland’s international-heavy group, a roster-building approach that’s kept them in MLS’ upper echelon.

Whether Blanco’s good to start or not, he knows how monumental the game is.

“Of course when I arrive to this club, my wish and my dream was to play a final with this team, to win an MLS Cup,” Blanco said. “Fortunately we can do it. But playing at home, it's a unique possibility with our people. Usually we can see this stadium full because we have one of the best fans in MLS for sure. This stadium will be amazing like always and we'll be ready for this game to take advantage for our people.”

Home support will surely spark the Timbers forward, with the victor also claiming MLS’ final 2022 Concacaf Champions League spot alongside New England, Colorado, Seattle and Montréal (Canadian Championship). That’s added incentive, Savarese said, but first comes bright lights on Portland.

“I believe it's going to be a great event because of what we're used to in the stadium [from] our fans and the atmosphere that you're going to encounter,” Savarese said. “So we're very excited as a club to be able to host MLS Cup, and we know that we have a very good team to play against.”