It only makes history if it’s crazy. The ordinary falls into binary codes of the internet. The bonkers gets implanted in our memories.
Raul Ruidiaz scoring a side volley to keep Seattle alive with four minutes left. Dairon Asprilla, statistically shown to be one of the worst finishers in MLS history, had a textbook finish to put Portland ahead in extra time. Nicolas Lodeiro stepping up to the spot, with the silence of 40,000 held breaths to bring the game even again.
Then Asprilla -- Asprilla again! -- standing over the potential game-winning penalty as Timbers fans across the country held their heads. All that hate they’d spewed toward Asprilla over the last few years… all those angry screams at bad misses, the frustration, the disgust… and it came down to this guy. “I didn’t mean it!”
The wild ending felt all the more stark given the tepid early stages of this Western Conference Semifinal. For 158 minutes, the Timbers imposed their defensive mindset on these Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs. They didn’t seem intent on creating anything -- instead banking on Seattle to mess up. And after Seattle lost two of their key players in the first 40 minutes of the tie, they never really seemed that likely to break Portland down.
Then Jeff Attinella gifted Seattle a goal.
From there, the teams simply couldn’t cope, tactically or mentally, with the rapidly changing game states. Within a 60-minute span, the teams swapped roles four times. But as the score shifted, the teams struggled to adapt.
With the series tied 2-2 on aggregate, the Timbers suddenly needed a goal. They subbed Asprilla on in replace of the more defensive Andy Polo. Seattle, on the other hand, didn’t have any defensive options on the bench to lock down the game. Harry Shipp -- in the starting lineup for the first time since September 15th, replacing the injured Cristian Roldan -- looked gassed. But Brian Schmetzer’s top two substitute choices, Will Bruin and Handwalla Bwana, were both attackers. So Schmetzer didn’t have a clean way to counter Portland’s changes. Portland became the ones pushing the game.
Then Portland scored through Sebastian Blanco in the 78th! Now Seattle needed to become the aggressor again and Portland needed to defend the fort. But Portland had Asprilla on the field, plus looked generally spent after pushing for the goal. Schmetzer made two attacking subs, bringing on Bruin to play next to Ruidiaz up top and Bwana in place of defender Kelvin Leerdam. Portland struggled to regain their defensive posture. Another mistake, this time from Blanco, gave Ruidiaz another goal.
As the game went to extra time, it felt like an inevitable Sounders win. Home team with the momentum? I’ll take that line every time. But then Valeri served a seven-course meal to Asprilla on the corner of the six and Asprilla took it perfectly. Advantage, Portland -- again! But, once more, they never seemed like they were going to hold onto it. At this point, they were in a 5-3-2 and ceding space in front of them. The Sounders were getting easy balls into the box, and the Timbers center backs weren’t winning the aerial duels once the balls arrived. Second balls turned into potential handballs that turned into a penalty.
The emotional duress and drastic mindset shifts were huge; when one team needed to switch from “HOLY CRAP WE HAVE TO SCORE!” to “WE NEED TO BE SMART AND DISCIPLINED,” they couldn’t do it. And we ended up with one of the more memorable games in MLS playoff history.
It’s heartbreaking for the Sounders’ community, but the team deserves credit just for taking the game as late as they did. How many teams in the league could reach extra time of a playoff series without two of their five most important players? Could Portland have won this tie without Valeri, Blanco, or Diego Chara?
It’s disappointing that the Sounders got eliminated the way they did. Seattle had an interesting project taking place. In the age of micro-managed, system-based teams, the Sounders were organic. They figured it out as they went. And I wanted to see how far they could take it.
They were attempting a new (or at least bringing back an old) paradigm and it deserved its chance to go as far as it could. I doubted it, but I was fine being proven wrong. Unfortunately, now we will never know, and never get a chance to learn from it. The injuries to Roldan and Marshall derailed the project. They didn’t lose because they weren’t good enough, they lost because they were missing two of their five most important players. I’m not sure we will see an open-ended team be as good as the Sounders were in 2018 for a long time.
It’s on to the next one for Portland. They survived. It wasn’t pretty, but rather more of the same. And that same has been invincible through 2018. When they take a defensive approach, they are undefeated in 20 attempts -- their losses in the last seven months have come when they’ve tried to diverge. They might not necessarily be one of the two best teams in the West, but they’ve proven to be the hardest to beat.
Timbers fans should be excited. But they may also want to whisper a few apologies to Asprilla at some point before the next round.