BEAVERTON, Ore. – It was one of the darker moments of the Portland Timbers’ 2015 season, a lifeless performance in a late September home game against the New York Red Bulls that ended in a 2-0 defeat.
The aside to that game, however, was a celebration of the club’s origins 40 years ago, with more than 30 team alumni honored at halftime, including a handful of members of the original inaugural Timbers team in 1975.
That group was the last Timbers side to play for a major trophy, winning the NASL Western Division crown and advancing to the 1975 Soccer Bowl before losing to the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Forty years later, the Timbers will play for another title when they meet the Columbus Crew SC in the MLS Cup final on Sunday (4pm ET, ESPN, WatchESPN, UniMás in US, TSN1/4, RDS2 in Canada, match preview).
The Sept. 20 game against the Red Bulls was part of the team’s yearlong 5/40 celebration, which also pays homage to the five years that have passed since Portland joined MLS. Appropriately enough, five players from that 2011 team are still pulling on the green and gold every day.
“It makes it even that much more special,” said veteran midfielder Jack Jewsbury, who was one of the MLS club’s first signings and served as captain from 2011-12, after Tuesday’s training session at the team facility. “I did have an opportunity to meet a few of the guys when they were here for that weekend, not as many as I would have liked, but knowing the importance of this year and the club, it would make it that much more special [to win MLS Cup].”
When the team celebrated in a champagne-soaked locker room Sunday night at Toyota Stadium after beating FC Dallas in the Western Conference Championship, Jewsbury said he and a few of the other original Timbers shared their thoughts on how rewarding the run has been for them.
Jewsbury, defensive midfielder Diego Chara, winger Rodney Wallace, midfielder Darlington Nagbe and backup goalkeeper Jake Gleeson have been through a lot in their five years with the club. The first two MLS seasons passed with no playoff berth, with their dreadful 2012 campaign costing original head coach John Spencer his job.
The 2013 season, current head coach Caleb Porter’s first year at the helm, ended one step short of the MLS Cup after being routed by Real Salt Lake in the Conference Championship. They once again fell short of the postseason last year.
“I think it makes it even more sweet when you accomplish something when you have guys that have suffered,” Porter said. “I hope we get it done because they’ve been through a lot, just like our fans have been through a lot. It’s very rewarding to bring joy to players who have been here prior to me coming and fans who have stuck with us.”
The five have not just stuck around by default. Chara and Nagbe are two of the team’s most important pieces in midfield. Gleeson stepped in for an ill Adam Kwarasey in the first leg of the Conference Semifinals to record a shutout. Jewsbury has perhaps played the most unique role in all three years of Porter’s tenure, moving to right back in 2013 and the start of last season after playing in midfield nearly his entire career.
This year, he was called upon again as a defensive midfielder after injuries to Ben Zemanski and Will Johnson, a role he has continued to fill throughout Portland’s playoff run. All along, Porter has praised Jewsbury’s leadership and on-field calming ability.
“I always feel in the programs I’ve been in, the clubs I’ve been in, I think it’s always important to keep a piece of the past, always,” Porter said. “It’s important to have guys who have been through the wars and suffered. I always believe that: You’ve got to have guys who appreciate that adversity and that journey. I think when you look at Jack and you look at Rodney and others, Chara, they have character.”
Forty years from now, there’s little doubt that Jewsbury and those five, along with the entire 2015 Timbers club, will be honored in some way. In a city that reveres its soccer history, it’s not lost on the group what this run means in the big picture – especially if it ends in celebration.
“I think for us, it’s probably a little bit more emotional, to raise that trophy the other day and then hopefully raise the MLS Cup on Sunday, than for some of the other guys who have just gotten here or been here for the last few years,” Jewsbury said. “The ups and downs and all that go with it, you know you’re going to have that, but to be a part of this from the get-go and to see where we’ve gone is truly special.”
Dan Itel covers the MLSsoccer.com.