PORTLAND – Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese knows how the storybook ending was supposed to go.
The Timbers were hosting MLS Cup 2021 at Providence Park, their soccer cathedral, and 25,000-plus of the Rose City’s soccer-mad followers gathered to witness history on a rain-filled, windy Saturday afternoon that’d cap the league’s 26th season.
And fortunes were looking up when Felipe Mora equalized in the 94th minute, energizing the hosts after Taty Castellanos had opened the scoring for New York City FC just before halftime. Momentum was surely on their side.
But the Timbers couldn't capitalize with a winner in extra time, prompting a penalty kick shootout to determine who’d raise silverware. And that’s where things turned pear-shaped for Portland, with goalkeeper Sean Johnson, the MLS Cup MVP presented by Audi, saving opening PKs by Mora and Diego Valeri in front of the Timbers Army.
That set the stage for Alexander Callens to net the winning spot-kick, much like he did to vanquish record-setting Supporters’ Shield winners New England Revolution in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. And just like that, the 4-2 shootout went the visitors’ way, the heartbreak of a missed opportunity becoming apparent.
“Soccer can be cruel because only one can win. And when it's in PKs, it's even worse,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said postgame. “So I have to make sure that we don't forget the most important part, is that this game today showed why it's in the final, why we fought through a difficult season. For me, they are champions. But it's difficult not to lift the trophy at home.”
Portland have now lost their last two MLS Cup appearances, both with Savarese at the helm. In 2018 they lost at Atlanta United, making them one-for-two after beating Columbus Crew in 2015 under former boss Caleb Porter.
Then hosting with the chance to bring the Phillip F. Anschutz Trophy back to Soccer City USA? That’s the stuff legends are made of, as Savarese knows well.
“It feels cruel, it feels sour, it feels difficult to accept,” Savarese said. “So before we learn something from it, we need to feel and understand the emotions that we're going to have after this match, not to achieve what was our goal to lift a trophy at home. We couldn't have thought about a more beautiful situation for us than lifting the trophy.”
Question marks, short-term and long-term, will surface. Will Sebastian Blanco return for the 2022 campaign? Is legendary midfielder Diego Valeri really departing? How many more years does Diego Chara have left in the tank? Where did it go wrong against NYCFC? There are plenty more.
But for now, it’s about processing this moment and trying to find the positives to fuel future success. Even if opportunities like these are incredibly fleeting in professional sports.
“As I believe every experience enriches in you, in anything you have to do, it's not only about your career and the things that each player will do and also as a team and me as a coach – these are learning lessons for life as well,” Savarese said. “That's why soccer is so important and that's why soccer has such a passion from us to give because we understand these moments change us because you learn so much.
“But before we learn we have to still sink and manage the emotions that unfortunately we will have from now until who knows when about not achieving this goal and celebrating the championship at home.”