When the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers meet for their Cascadia Cup clash at CenturyLink Field on Sunday (9:30 pm ET | FS1, TSN2), they’ll have their work cut out for them to top the theatrics of their last MLS meeting.
Last season’s Western Conference semifinal series between the rivals was an instant classic, with the second leg in Seattle featuring a back-and-forth second half and a chaotic extra-time before the Timbers prevailed on penalties.
It was a euphoric night for Portland and an equally painful one for Seattle. And for neutrals, a gigantic reminder of what the Timbers-Sounders rivalry can produce.
“I think it was one of the best matches in MLS history,” Timbers coach Gio Savarese said this week.
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Added Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer: “That was playoff soccer at its best. I thought it was a good soccer match. It was clean, it wasn’t ugly, it was well played tactically. So, hopefully that manifests itself again on Sunday and the better team will come out with the points.”
After the Timbers edged out a 2-1 result at Providence Park in the first leg, the second leg stayed scoreless through 67 minutes – a result that would have sent Portland through. Then, Seattle striker Raul Ruidiaz pounced on a loose ball in the box that had deflected off Portland goalkeeper Jeff Attinella and lashed home the finish into an open net, leveling the aggregate at 2-2.
If the Sounders could have held that line, they would have advanced on the away goals tiebreaker thanks to a goal from Ruidiaz in the first leg. But Portland’s Sebastian Blanco had other ideas, lacing home a long-distance tally in the 78th minute to put the Timbers back in the driver’s seat with a 3-2 aggregate advantage.
“We gave up a goal, [Blanco] made a mistake off a header and guess what, he went down and banged in a goal and then stepped up and hit a PK,” recalled Portland defender Zarek Valentin. “Kudos to him for being strong-willed. I think that was a sign of our team.”
That set the stage for Ruidiaz to provide one of the most electric moments of the 2018 postseason.
Deep into second-half stoppage time, with Seattle seconds from elimination, the Peruvian volleyed home past Attinella to level the series at 3-3 and send the match to extra time. Sounders defender Kelvin Leerdam has said immediately following that stoppage-time leveler was the loudest he’s ever heard CenturyLink Field.
“Did you see that goal last year?” Schmetzer said. “That goal to bring us back at the death? We got a guy that’s hungry for goals.”
Matters didn’t slow down in extra time. Dairon Asprilla put the Timbers back ahead with a headed finish just three minutes after kickoff, giving the visitors what looked like would surely be the series-winning tally.
But Portland was whistled for a handball in its own box just four minutes later, giving Nicolas Lodeiro a look from the spot at yet another last-gasp equalizer. The Uruguayan coolly slotted home the finish to make it 4-4 on aggregate, capping off one of the most frantic, high-stakes sequences in the history of C-Link.
“It was a very up-and-down night," said Timbers forward Jeremy Ebobisse. "They came in and they were motivated knowing they have to overturn a deficit, and I think we were a little bit rattled at the beginning. They got on the front foot and they got their goals, but I think that’s where we showed what we’re best at, our resiliency in a hostile environment, on the road, when our season is on the line. I expect Sunday to be no different.”
The penalty shootout was memorable in its own right, with several Portland players reacting as though they had advanced on away goals after the final whistle in regulation. They quickly realized away goals don't apply in extra time and penalty kicks would decide the match.
It didn’t matter, as the Timbers took a 4-2 victory in the shootout, capped off by a winner from Asprilla. Their playoff run would end with an appearance in the MLS Cup final against eventual champions Atlanta United.
“I’m sure their fans and their fanbase is going to use it as more motivation, but that just adds to the rivalry,” Valentin said of Sunday's rematch. “They don’t like us and we don’t like them, and we’ve got to go there and get a result.”
The Sounders insist they're not propping up Sunday’s match as a revenge game. Both teams are different now, as goalkeeper Stefan Frei pointed out on Friday, and there’s plenty at stake in 2019 without dwelling on how last season ended.
For the Sounders (10-5-5, 35 points), it’s competing for that coveted No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. For the Timbers (7-8-4, 25 points), it’s continuing their recent surge up the table that has coincided with the arrival of striker Brian Fernandez, who's already looking like a premier attacker in MLS.
“For me, if you come out on top, then it’s going to feel good to get back at them,” Frei said. “But MLS teams change so much from year to year, they’re a different side, we’re a different side. They’ve evolved throughout this year and so have we. So to focus too much on that game would be living in the past and hurting yourself more than anything.
“We’re trying to focus on what’s going right now, what’s going on with us, what’s going on with them and hopefully what we bring on the weekend is going to be better than what they’re bringing.”