Sunday, December 19, 2021

Portland Timbers FC – New York City FC (11-12-2021)


I have been a Portland Timbers fan since I moved to the US, in 2008, watching my first games when the team was still in the USL (Second Division), but already playing for many thousands of fans. I flew to the Timbers' first ever MLS game in Denver, flew in for the first derby against the Seattle Sounders in the MLS, and drove to the first MLS Cup Final they were in, and won, in Columbus. So, when the Timbers qualified for the MLS Cup Final, to play at home, I was desperate to get a ticket. Although I failed, my friend, and Timbers mega-fan IM, was successful in getting an extra ticket. So, I plundered my frequent flyer points and was on my way from Athens, GA, to Portland, OR (roughly 2,700 miles or 4,300 km).


The game started at noon, local time, and around 10 AM there was a loud group of most of the present New York City FC fans walking to the stadium from the city center. I arrived around 10.30 and could barely recognize the ground or area around it.


The last time I was here, it was still called Jeld-Wen Field and had some 10,000 seats less. Providence Park has 25,000 seats (?) and is a beautiful ground in the heart of Portland, truly Soccer City USA. After a 15-minute or so of cueing, they scanned my electronic ticket (which had cost $110), and I was in.


This might be the time to mention that the weather was absolutely terrible, even by Portland standards. It was cold, grey, wet, and windy. Moreover, my seat was uncovered! After walking around the stadium to find some food – poor options for insane prices – I met up with IM and took my seat with some of his friends. The rain was unrelenting, but fortunately the wind didn’t make it into the section of the stadium that I was in. In terms of view, the seat was quite good, in the corner behind one goal, quite close to the pitch.


Obviously, the stadium was sold-out, although NYCFC had not sold all of its 2,500 allocated tickets – despite allegedly subsidizing the tickets for its fans. I would estimate that there were at best 1,500 away supporters. Sure, New York City is literally on the other side of the (huge) country, but this would have never happened if Portland would have played the MLS Cup final in New York. Says a lot about the fan base of NYCFC, a truly corporate enterprise, co-owned by (the owners of) the New York Yankees and Manchester City.


The atmosphere was electric, despite the horrible weather. As always, the Timbers Army brought the songs and tifo, as many other parts of the stadiums joined in the singing as well. To be fair, the NYCFC supporters sang for most of the game as well. Overall, Providence Park is loud, really loud. It is an almost un-American, genuine football, atmosphere, which can hold its own with almost any other stadium I have been too.


Unfortunately, the game could not. Playing on a wet Astroturf pitch didn’t help either. From the start it was a combination of poor passes and pinball football, with NYCFC having the somewhat better of the game. Neither team was really better than the other, but Portland played too slow and predictable, and the strikers were almost invisible. NYCFC has tall defenders, who had few problems heading the high balls away.


As half-time was getting close, I was absolutely soaked, despite my “rain jacket”, and getting colder and colder. And then, out of nowhere, NYCFC scores in one of the few balls at goal. Almost directly it is half-time and the stadium went silent, with the exception of the away fans, at least for half time.


The second half was dreadful. The Timbers tried to create chances, but everything was too predictable and slow. The many changes helped a bit, with at least Moreno making some moves, but most final balls were high into the box, where NYCFC had a serious height advantage. If the Timbers won three headers up front, it was be a lot.


Where Portland could not, NYCFC did not want to. They just tried to get to the end of the game by wasting times, rolling around after the slightest of physical contact. The referee let a lot of things go, but he only started to punish this behavior late in the game, giving several yellow cards. When the referee indicated 4 minutes of extra time, I mainly saw it as four more minutes of suffering through terrible football and cold- and wetness. But, with almost the last shot of the game, out of nowhere, a loose ball was tipped in from close range, and the Timbers equalized in the fourth minute of extra time. Providence Park exploded and I experienced one of the most intensely emotional moments in my 50+ years of football fandom. 1-1 was also the full-time score: extra time!


After a short break, extra time started. The first fifteen minutes were completely dominated by the Timbers, who played their best football of the game (not a high bar admittedly), while New York was still dazed by the late equalizer. The Timbers created some chances, and even a few balls between the posts, but there were no goals. In the second period of extra time, the guests had come out of their shock and played slightly better, although both teams took few risks. Hence, it was still 1-1 after extra time. Time for penalties.


After 120 minutes of football, one of the most amazing things was that only a handful of people had left the stadium, despite the cold and wet weather and the uninspiring play by the home team. I am not sure how optimistic the home crowd was, but that optimism disappeared quickly, as the Timbers missed their first penalty. Although the guests missed shortly after, the hosts did too, which meant that when New York City FC scored their fifth penalty, it was all over. NYCFC had won the 2021 MLS Cup 2-4 on penalties and it was not totally undeserved.


As soon as the final whistle was blown, I left the stadium, with pretty much everyone else (except the NYCFC fans), and walked with IM and his friends to the Timbers Army “after party”, where most people were quiet but resigned. After a quick visit to the Fan Laden, I made my way back to my hotel to warm up.



As I flew back to Atlanta the next (very early) morning, I was disappointed but did not regret my decision to fly to Portland. Sure, it was an extremely expensive defeat, but I had been at the first home MLS Cup Final of the Timbers and experienced the enlarged stadium is all its glory. Providence Park is truly a unique US football stadium and the atmosphere will even impress hardened fans and groundhoppers from more traditional football countries. Portland is and remains Soccer City USA!