It wasn't the first goal that turned MLS Cup 2018.
Sure, Atlanta United taking a 1-0 lead six minutes before halftime through the mighty Josef Martinez to send Mercedes-Benz Stadium absolutely bonkers wasn't particularly ideal, but the Portland Timbers had more than reasons for optimism.
Jeremy Ebobisse nearly equalized between Martinez's goal and the halftime whistle, denied only with a diving save by Brad Guzan. Reflexively, more than 70,000 fans screamed GUUUUUUZ! Even so, Portland came out of halftime feeling good. All they needed was one moment, anyway. They returned to the pitch armed with belief of we can go get this.
So it was the second goal that turned MLS Cup 2018.
Franco Escobar tapped in from close range in the 54th minute after Martinez flicked on a Miguel Almiron free kick. It ended up being the last scored on the day in Atlanta's 2-0 win. More specifically, according to Timbers head coach Gio Savarese, the foul and subsequent ball placing was the fateful turning point for his side.
“I still think it was a little bit questionable," Savarese told MLSsoccer.com Thursday when reminiscing on the match. "And it was clever by Almiron to bring the ball probably 10 yards ahead of the spot of the foul.”
The MLS-record crowd of 73,019 didn't help either.
“It was the loudest (stadium) I’ve ever coached in," Savarese said. "The amount of people in the stadium and it was covered, so it’s very loud. But I was very proud of our fans in how they traveled all the way there and I know we could have had many more fans if we had the ability to get more tickets. Our fans were incredible.”
Portland's road to that day was paved with upset after upset. They arrived in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs as a fifth seed in the Western Conference. They beat FC Dallas in the knockout round. Then they knocked off Sporting Kansas City over two legs in the conference semifinal before overcoming rival Seattle Sounders in an all-time great two-legged series.
Up against it once more for MLS Cup, the Timbers couldn't finesse a final upset.
“Unfortunately, my first thought of the game is a missed opportunity," Savarese said. "But then I think of the experience, and how great it was to get to that match. I was very proud of the players in how we got there. The road to get there was difficult, but the guys were incredible.”
Savarese set his side to be difficult to beat, but wasn't an overly cautious bunker-and-counter scheme. He said they found moments to press higher up the field, even while understanding the risks of leaving space for Martinez and Almiron to gallop through in transition. The second goal allowed Atlanta to soak up pressure and focus on defending.
“The more time progressed towards 90 minutes, we felt the game was becoming difficult to get it," Savarese admitted.
After the match, Atlanta coach Tata Martino was sure to carve a few moments to talk to Savarese. Martino congratulated his adversary on a great season and being difficult to play against. The pair spoke a few times prior that season through Atlanta's fitness coach Rodolfo Paladini, who worked with Savarese during his playing career.
“Tata and his group are a class act," Savarese said. "Even though at that moment we were trying to go at each other, at the end, it’s just competition. There’s a lot of good feeling between the two sides, it was great right after to have that conversation with him.”
Still, even while understandably wondering what may have been with a trophy on the line, Savarese looks back with nothing but pride on that day.
“If my players didn’t give it all, then I’d have been disappointed," Savarse said. "But they gave it everything they had. I was very proud of the players.”