Going into Saturday's match at Providence Park, RSL were riding high after road wins against two of the West's top three seeds in the Seattle Sounders and Sporting Kansas City. But the magic finally ran out, as Portland reached their third-ever MLS Cup behind goals from Felipe Mora and Santiago Moreno.
"I couldn't be more proud of being a part of this group," RSL interim head coach Pablo Mastroeni said after the match. "Nobody gave us a shot when the season started and no one gave us a shot when the playoffs started either. And so to have the mental toughness to overcome the perception of who we are is fantastic. You can always look at things from either perspective, but I couldn't be more proud of the effort and commitment of this group that I was able to lead."
RSL showcased lights-out defense in each of their first two victories, conceding just one goal (from the penalty spot) across both matches. That solidity would prove decisive against an always-dynamic Timbers side, but Mora's fifth-minute opener off a defensive error from Aaron Herrera blew a hole in the visitors' game plan virtually from the get-go.
"At the end of the day we wanted to keep a [clean sheet] as long as possible," midfielder Damir Kreilach said. "Unfortunately it was an unlucky goal we conceded, but it happened the same situation against KC. We know that we're going to stay in the game, that we need one goal to turn the game around. Unfortunately at 1-0 we didn't use a couple of chances, a couple of good shots, didn't score and then as well it was a second unlucky goal we conceded."
Kreilach was at the center of perhaps RSL's best chance of the night – a 33rd-minute header that looked goal-bound only to be denied by a huge reaction save from Portland goalkeeper Steve Clark.
Looking back, Mastroeni said that moment could have changed the complexion of the match.
"If we get that one back where Clark makes that save on [Kreilach], it's a new game and it breathes life into the group and I think the outcome could have been different," Mastroeni said.
Instead, RSL enter the offseason proud of their odds-defying run as the West's No. 7 seed, but with the undeniable disappointment of coming up short.
Looking ahead, Kreilach said he believes the club showed that the foundation is in place to learn from the experience and find themselves right back in contention come 2022.
"This team is something special. It was 11 months ago when we started, earlier preseason than it should be, we were training on our own," Kreilach said. "We put so much hard work in to prove all the things we did this year. Not so many people believed in us and I can understand because they don't know what quality we have on our team. During this year we had ups and downs, which is a normal thing, but every time we came in front of the wall, we broke it. And because of that I would point, not just the team, I would point to the coaching staff, media staff, medical staff, our fans, our whole organization was on the same page this season.
"This is at the end of the day why the team had such a good run," he added. "Unfortunately we didn't go all the way through but I would say those moments, as the moment today, could in the future pull you down or you should learn from those moments to have a great experience that can pull you up. We learned so much from this experience from today as well, and next season we're going to prove as well what we proved this year."