FRISCO, Texas – When the Portland Timbers joined MLS five years ago, they were celebrated as a club that seemingly had everything: a rich history in the origins of professional soccer in North America, a rabid fan base and an unparalleled atmosphere in their cozy downtown stadium.
What lacked over the course of their first half-decade in the league was a major trophy to add to the NASL Western Division title won in the club’s original inaugural season in 1975.
That changed Sunday night at Toyota Stadium, with Portland pulling out a thrilling 2-2 draw to win the Western Conference Championship 5-3 on aggregate goals over two legs. They’ll have a chance to play for an even bigger trophy next Sunday when they play in their first championship match in 50 years.
“When we started the year, we wanted to get into the playoffs and win a trophy,” Timbers head coach Caleb Porter said in his postgame comments outside a champagne and beer-drenched locker room. “That was the goal, and here we are. We’ve won one, and now we want to win the big one. So it’s very satisfying.”
It’s a feat accomplished in just the club’s second year in the MLS postseason, the first ending one step short of the ultimate goal after they were eliminated in the Western Conference Championship by Real Salt Lake. Center back Nat Borchers, so crucial to the Timbers’ success in this series with a stoppage-time goal in Leg 1 and a dramatic block to deny FC Dallas an aggregate-goal equalizer in Leg 2, was on that RSL team two years ago.
“I’ve been so impressed by the history of this club, and I’ve been so proud to be a part of it,” he said. “It just gives me goosebumps thinking about some of the great members of this club… and just other fans who have been a part of this club for so long. So I think we’re going to go and bring them with us to MLS Cup and hopefully get one for Portland.”
Before the Western Conference trophy could be hoisted in an on-field ceremony – fittingly in the rain, which has steadily fallen here in the three days since Portland arrived – the Timbers had to weather some nervy moments.
After netting the opening goal on a spinning Fanendo Adi left-footer from the center of the box and taking a commanding 4-1 aggregate-goal lead, Dallas started the second half on a mission. They broke through with goals five minutes apart, first by Ryan Hollingshead in the 68th minute and then by club veteran Blas Perez, who had come on as a substitute just two minutes prior, in the 73rd minute.
After Borchers’ heroics, however, substitute Lucas Melano dribbled in the Timbers’ second in the 95th minute to all but start the celebrations.
“These second legs get crazy, you’ve seen it time and again, and all it takes is one goal to turn it,” Porter said. “And we talked about that a lot as a team: In these games you’ve got to be composed, even though the game turns on you and goes in a way maybe you’re not quite ready for, maybe you didn’t see coming. You’ve got to then manage it and show composure and maturity.”
It was a microcosm of the Timbers' final two months of the 2015 campaign, with the team falling below the red line after a 1-0 home loss to Sporting Kansas City on October 3. They then won their final three regular-season games in impressive fashion, two coming on the road against RSL and the defending MLS Cup champion LA Galaxy. They survived a wild shootout to beat Kansas City in the Knockout Round before bagging two goals on the road in Leg 2 of the Conference Semifinals to eliminate the Vancouver Whitecaps.
“In 2013 we expected to get to this point, fell a little bit short, but I think we’ve learned from that year,” said midfielder Jack Jewsbury, one of five players who have been with the club since their inaugural MLS season and served as captain for the first two seasons. “… I think we learned a lot from these last few years. Some have been tougher than others, but it’s good to get this win.”
The Timbers also become the first Cascadia team to advance to the MLS Cup, beating bitter rivals Seattle Sounders to the punch despite the Sounders getting a two-year jumpstart after joining the league in 2009 and having advanced to the playoffs in all seven years of their existence. The third Cascadia club, the Vancouver Whitecaps, came into the league with Portland in 2011.
“I hadn’t even thought of that, to be quite honest,” Jewsbury said. “It is special, it’s a special place to play, with that competition [Cascadia Cup], there’s no other competition like that, aside from MLS Cup and the Open Cup, between your rivals. So yeah it’s nice to be the first one to play [in the final], but it will be a lot nicer to be the first one to win the MLS Cup.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.