Saturday, March 12, 2016

MLS Cup Final 2015: Columbus Crew – Portland Timbers

I moved to the US in September 2008, where I spent one year in Oregon, where I picked up my US football allegiance, the Portland Timbers FC. In 2008-2009 the Timbers were still playing in the United Soccer League (USL), the Second Division of US “soccer.”  But even then the team was known for its supporters, in particular the Timbers Army, and its Cascadia rivalry with the Seattle Sounders and the Vancouver Whitecaps.

In 201o they became a Major League Soccer (MLS) “franchise” (that horrible word), commercializing the club and logo though still keeping its unique alternative following. Although I had moved to Indiana by that time, my wife and I flew to Denver, Colorado, where the Timbers played their first MLS game in 2011. Later that season I flew to Portland to watch the first home game against the ultimate rivals from Seattle. Obviously, when the Timbers made the MLS Cup Final this year, I had to be there.

The MLS has a regular competition, followed by a play-off system within each of the two divisions. The MLS Cup Final is the last game of the season, between the winners of the Eastern Division (Columbus Crew) and the Western Division (Portland Timbers). Somewhat oddly, it is not played at a neutral ground, despite the fact that it is just one game – my friend I. suggested that this was because otherwise the stadium would be largely empty. This year it was to be in the stadium of the winner of the Eastern Conference, so I made the 9.5 hours (almost 600 miles) drive up to Columbus, Ohio.

I arrived some two hours before kick-off, which was at 4 PM local time. I. had told me that the Timbers Army were having a tailgate party in Parking Lot C, where hundreds of green-gold supporters were enjoying their food, drink, and song. The atmosphere was both relaxed and a bit tense. Everyone was aware of the unique occasion, the first MLS Cup Final of the Timbers.

One hour before kick-off the Timbers Army was allowed to enter the stadium. Almost two thousand people had made the 2,400 miles trip from Portland, some even by car! Well behaved they marched into the stadium, flags waving and songs singing. Even the home supporters came out to watch the spectacle.


I had bought my ticket on Stubhub and would be sitting among the home supporters. I entered the stadium shortly after, walking around and sampling the excellent food options – the Holy Moly sandwich at Hot Chicken Takeover was absolutely insane! I passed the ESPN make-shift studio as well as a playground –yes, in the US a soccer stadium can have a playground inside!

Columbus Crew and Portland Timbers interacted freely; there was some friendly banter, some exchange of scarves, but mostly appreciation. Both Columbus and Portland are relatively small, provincial cities that have fully embraced soccer as their city’s sports. You could feel the pride among the Crew supporters – something I had already noticed in 2006, when I saw my first Crew game (and they still had their awesome, A Clockwork Orange inspired, logo).

The MAPFRE Stadium, as the official name is these days, is a soccer-only stadium that holds just under 20,000 people. There are big stands alongside the length of the pitch and smaller stands behind the goals. Games are always well attended, seats are quite spacious, and the atmosphere is quite good. Obviously, this game was sold out – I paid almost $200 for my seat, which originally costs just $52, but was very close to the pitch and had a perfect view of the pitch and the Timbers fans.

After taking in the energy of the Timbers Army, which were on the stand to the left of me, but several small groups were, like me, scattered around the stadium. Then it was time for the obligatory commercial and patriotic moments, this time including a fly-over of a huge military plane – obviously it was a military plane, as everything in US sports includes at least some military reference.

Finally, it was time for kick-off. I had been talking with some Crew fans around me, who were very optimistic, but soon almost everyone in the stadium was silent, and in shock. Within 30 seconds the Timbers had scored! The Crew goalie was slow responding to a pass back and Diego Valeri slid in front of him and blocked the ball, into the goal: 0-1. The Timbers Army went crazy!

As we were all still trying to get our heads around what had just happened, Portland scored a second! Just minutes in the ball seemed out but Timbers continued the play, profiting from some Crew players that had stopped, and Wallace finished with a beautiful diving header. Six minutes in and the Timbers are up 0-2! I actually felt sorry for the home fans around me, who simply couldn’t believe what was happening. Just ten minutes later the Crew got one back; following another dodgy referee decisions Kamara finished from close by: 17 minutes in and it was 1-2. That was also the half-time score.

The second half continued where the first half had left off: poor football on both sides complemented by terrible refereeing. Portland was happy to keep the ball away from it penalty box and Columbus seemed unable to create any pressure. It must have been absolutely terrible to watch for the neutral viewer, but in the stadium fans were nervous enough not to get completely depressed from the quality of play.

With every minute passing the home fans became more desperate. It was indeed amazing how poor the Crew, the clear favorite before the MLS Cup Final, played this afternoon.

While not playing well itself, the Timbers easily kept their lead and, after a few minutes of extra time, which actually included one of the few semi-chances for the hosts, the referee blew the final whistle. Time to celebrate!

Like most other fans, home or away, I could hardly believe it had really happened. The Portland Timbers had won the MLS Cup in only its fifth year in the MLS. Even better, the Timbers are the first Cascadia team to win the MLS Cup (screw you Seattle! ;-).

I celebrated for at least fifteen minutes before leaving the 2,000 other Timbers fans behind me and making my way back to my car. I felt exhilarated… having been at the first ever MLS game of the Timbers in Colorado in 2011 and now I had been at their first, of hopefully many, championship. That made the 9.5 hour drive back to Georgia a lot easier.