After MLS Cup heartbreak, Portland Timbers bullish on chances for 2019

ATLANTA – The Portland Timbers’ inspired run through the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs fell tantalizingly short of the team’s ultimate goal: a second title in four seasons.

A convincing 2-0 Atlanta United triumph in MLS Cup made for a somber scene in the Timbers locker room after the game. Players sat silently with their heads in their hands, perhaps contemplating what might have been. In a postseason full of improbable road wins, they needed just one more.

“We’re sad we couldn’t get the result we wanted,” said midfield maestro Diego Valeri. “We were very confident. But I think it was a great season. We had plenty of moments when we got stronger and stronger as a team. And that level of confidence put us in the final.

“We had some chances where we couldn’t be precise, and you know how it is with chances in finals,” he continued. “They didn’t have a lot of chances in the game. It was very even. But they found the goals.”

“It was all geared up for Atlanta to win,” a wry Liam Ridgewell said when asked about Portland’s underdog role throughout the playoffs. “That’s the way it was going. It was a tough ask.”

As a team built around absorbing pressure and reflecting it on incisive counterattacks, Portland surprised many with their performances in Dallas, Seattle and Kansas City en route to an appearance in the final. But it was the Five Stripes’ night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, buoyed by another record-setting crowd and another MVP performance from Josef Martinez.

After the reality of their defeat settled, Valeri and Ridgewell were among a few Timbers players eager to put it behind them, confident in their ability to be back in MLS Cup next year.

“Of course we will be a better team,” said Valeri. “When you have these experiences, you become stronger.”

Though their core of stars will all be a year older in 2019 – Valeri and Diego Chara will turn 33, while Sebastian Blanco will turn 31 – they showed no signs of slowing down this season. And 21-year-old forward Jeremy Ebobisse made important contributions during the team’s regular season and playoff run.

With renovations scheduled for Providence Park next year, the Timbers may have to take their show on the road more than they’d like to start the season. But they certainly proved capable of beating some of the league’s best away from home.

Ridgewell, 34, is bullish on 2019 for his team, even if he expects the underdog label to stick.

“Why not? I don’t see why not,” he said when asked about a return to the final next season. “This was a good run and a very good team. You never know what the offseason might bring. Any time you get to MLS Cup it shows how good the team and organization is.

“We may be considered one of the favorites next year. Probably not, but we might be.”