So, so close.

A gif is worth a thousand words:

The Timbers scuffled along for the first two-thirds of the year, suffered one of the most embarrassing defeats in club history, then became an entirely different team – one that was entirely similar to the group they were last summer during their march to the MLS is Back Tournament title – en route to making a third-ever MLS Cup appearance, and their first as hosts.

Then, after being pretty poor for 93 minutes at Providence Park, they scored one of the most dramatic goals in league history in the 94th minute. A storybook ending was sure to ensue, right?

Wrong. Portland, as you certainly know if you’re reading this, lost MLS Cup 2021 via a PK shootout smack in front of the Timbers Army. It was a brutal end to what, nonetheless, has to go down as a successful season.

Formation and tactics

It was once again a 4-2-3-1 almost exclusively from Gio Savarese, which was obviously the right call – it fits the personnel, even when the personnel is being heavily rotated (at times) due to injuries or, less frequently, international absences.

It was, once again, a LOT of counterattacking from Portland, who have primarily been a counterattacking team for most of the past eight seasons. There was some movement away from that in 2020 and to start 2021, but Eryk Williamson’s mid-season ACL tear basically destroyed that plan.

So they settled back into that low block and, at the same time, Savarese started pulling his wildly attack-minded fullbacks deeper in order to stop leaving the center backs so exposed. Combine that with tightening up their set-piece defense (up until mid-August they were the worst team in the league defending on restarts; then they went 20 games without giving up a set-piece goal)... et voila. Contenders again.

Set pieces and counters isn’t all they did – just ask RSL, who they blitzed with a vicious high press to start the Western Conference Final – but they were dead last in the league in possession, and were among the league leaders in xG created in transition as per Second Spectrum. They know where their bread is buttered.

Highlights

In late August they found themselves below the playoff line and looking very much like a team that was not going to make the playoffs. Sebastian Blanco wasn’t quite back, Diego Valeri had finally lost to Father Time, the defense was a mess and there were only so many fires Steve Clark could put out.

It was do-or-die time, and they chose “do,” gritting out a 2-0 win at Seattle to kick off a 10-3-1 sprint to the finish that not only pulled them above the line, but actually earned them a home game to open the playoffs.

They dispatched Minnesota with ease in said home game, Blanco playing a star role in a 3-1 win. Then they went to Commerce City on Thanksgiving Day and ended Colorado’s dream season thanks to some fantastic second-half subs and adjustments from Savarese, as well as Larrys Mabiala’s towering presence on set pieces. And then finally they, as mentioned, blitzed RSL in a West Final that was never in doubt for a single second.

But you know what the real highlight is:

If Portland had gone on to win this would’ve gone down as maybe the second-most dramatic goal in MLS Cup history, only behind Eddie Pope’s winner in the very first one? Even with the loss, this goal will (and should) live forever in Timbers lore.

You spend your whole life rooting for a team hoping for just one moment of divine intervention, one moment of euphoria like that. It’s a feeling that is beyond words.

Lowlight

I refuse to list the PK shootout as a lowlight. It’s a brutal end to the season, and to the dream of a trophy, but if you get that close to winning a title and then lose it via coin flip… meh, that’s PK shootouts for you. It should not overshadow what this team accomplished throughout the back half of the season.

The lowlight was the 6-2 loss to the Sounders. It was a record loss in a rivalry that dates back damn near half a century, and it came at home in front of fans who were, uh, not pleased.

I know that, in a lot of ways, it was the catalyst for Portland’s surge into the postseason. But this was the type of loss that will be remembered for decades in both fanbases.

Revelation

A FULL YEAR OF PLAYOFF DAIRON!!!!

Asprilla entered the year with seven goals and seven assists in about 4200 regular-season minutes spread across 95 games. In the 2021 season he played 2095 minutes across all 34 games, scoring 10 goals and adding three assists.

This wasn’t like Wondo blowing up in 2010 when he finally got his chance; Dairon had plenty of regular-season chances over the past half-decade and had never made anything of them, at all.

But then, at age 29, he got one more chance and suddenly he was a different, and much more effective player. He is still Dairon – peep that 25-yard bike – but there were more basic, fundamentally good soccer plays as well. He is a monster arriving in the box at the back post, and he did a ton of unselfish vertical running to open up space for Blanco or Valeri or Yimmi Chara. His defense, both in open play and on restarts, was superb and extraordinarily necessary given Josecarlos van Rankin’s propensity to go adventuring.

He was one of the 10-best wingers in the league this year. I don’t think anybody saw that coming.

Disappointment

Williamson’s ACL tear is it. Portland seem cursed to suffer at least one every season – last year it was two, with Blanco and Jaroslaw Niezgoda, both of whom made good if not quite complete returns in 2021 – which means there’s always at least a little bit of flux in the XI, a sense of “this team’s not quite fully together yet.”

The absence of Blanco and Niezgoda contributed hugely to Portland’s rough first five months of the year, and I think the flux had sort of an amplifying effect. There might be more of that to come with Williamson’s absence in 2022.

2022 Preview

Five Players to Build Upon:

  • Blanco (AM): Not yet officially under contract for another year (or two), but it seems like he’ll be returning. The Timbers played at better than a 2 ppg pace with him in the lineup in 2021.
  • Diego Chara (DM): He’ll be 36 to start the season and sooner or later Father Time’s gonna catch him like it caught Valeri. But man, based upon his performance in MLS Cup, it ain’t happening soon.
  • Yimmi Chara (W/AM): Generally underappreciated outside of Portland because he doesn’t put up big numbers, Chara the Younger is one of the league’s best two-way wingers and also had some vicious cameos as a pressing No. 10.
  • Mabiala (CB): Utterly dominant in the air and spent the second half of 2021 being steady on the ground.
  • Felipe Mora (FW): 13g/2a in about 2300 minutes across all competitions, with two of those goals coming in the playoffs – including the big one in MLS Cup. He’s mostly just a poacher, but he’s very good at that job.

Offseason Priority:

I usually try to avoid listing guys who are over 30 for the “five to build around” section, but four of the five above are over 30. Three of them – Diego Chara (35), Mabiala (34) and Blanco (33) are solidly into their mid-30s. Mora, meanwhile, will be a spritely 29 by the time next season ends.

This is not a young team, though if Niezgoda, Williamson and Cristhian Paredes return to full health (and the starting lineup), and U22 Initiative signing Santiago Moreno brings his playoff form with him into 2022, that can mitigate some of that particular worry.

Big “ifs,” though, and this team clearly still belongs to Blanco, Diego Chara and, to a lesser extent, Mabiala. With Valeri likely gone and the ability to open up at least one DP slot, they will have some flexibility to bring in an in-his-prime centerpiece to add to that group. And while I don’t know what spot they’ll target, I do suspect that will be the main offseason aim.