The Portland Timbers capitalized on an error-strewn, frenetic opening to land its first MLS Cup after completing a 2-1 victory on the road over the Columbus Crew at Mapfre Stadium. Playing in Major League Soccer’s championship game for the first time in the club’s five-year history, Portland could not have dreamed of a better start. For Columbus, playing in only its second MLS Cup final and looking to repeat its 2008 success, it was a nightmare.
Just 27 seconds had ticked by on the clock when Columbus Crew goalkeeper Steve Clark dallied disastrously on the ball from a pass back and Diego Valeri was alert to close down, slide in and block Clark’s clearance into his own net. It was the fastest goal in MLS Cup history and it left Columbus shell-shocked. Further disaster was to arrive just six minutes later. This time, though, it was the officials who were guilty of a gigantic blunder on the big occasion.
After Portland took the ball clearly out of bounds down the touchline, Columbus’ Federico Higuain stopped, expecting to be given a throw-in. But the call bizarrely never arrived, Portland’s Darlington Nagbe stole the ball and played on, picking out Lucas Melano whose cross found Harrison Afful snoozing at the back post and allowing Rodney Wallace to head Portland into a 2-0 lead.
To Columbus’ great credit, they managed to steady themselves after such a traumatic opening in front of a sold-out home stadium. And continuing the mistake-laden, if entertaining nature of the game, the Crew pulled level in the 18th minute, this time off a blunder from Portland’s goalkeeper. Adam Kwarasey failed to hold onto a cross, spilling it straight to Kei Kamara, who composed himself and found space for a shot that he drilled low into the net.
Now settled into the final, it was Columbus that finished the first half the better. The breathless opening, though, gave way to something approaching a structured game. But the 20th MLS Cup was soon to descend back to the absurd.
Portland was left wondering how it failed to restore its two-goal advantage in the second half, having seen a blatant handball on the Columbus goal line missed and having hit the woodwork an incredible three times. But ultimately the unfathomable bad luck was not to matter, as Columbus, second seeds in the Eastern Conference, became just the second team to lose an MLS Cup final on home soil. Portland, which found form just at the right time to climb into the playoffs and surge past Sporting KC, Vancouver Whitecaps and FC Dallas in the playoffs, celebrated becoming kings of MLS for the first time and the first team from the Pacific northwest to land the crown.
For coach Caleb Porter, it was the ultimate reward for a late-season tactical switch that propelled them on a nine-game unbeaten streak en route to the trophy. Nagbe’s move into the central attacking midfield role was pivotal, seeing him combine with Argentine playmaker Valeri and striker Fanendo Adi. But, in truth, any tactical plans took a backseat in a final that so often veered from the bizarre to the ridiculous. And in all the ways Porter would have envisaged the game going in preparation, he could never have planned for what transpired on Sunday.
Still, credit is due to Valeri and Portland for being switched on from the start and taking full advantage of a horrific start from Columbus and the match officials. And while the Timbers certainly rode its luck for the second goal in particular, any fortune certainly balanced itself out in the second half.
Although Columbus still had plenty of possession after the interval, it failed to create meaningful chances, and Portland really should have extended its lead. In a most bizarre play, Kamara diverted the ball against his own crossbar, before it came down, struck Columbus defender Michael Parkhurst on the line, bounced off the post, and was finally cleared away. As if that weren’t frustration enough for Portland, more was to come. Just over 10 minutes late, Timbers front man Adi headed goalward and watched in agony, as the ball came back off the post and then bounced against Clark and, luck now smiling the Crew keeper, away to safety.
Columbus, though, couldn’t take advantage of its fortune. Despite performing so impressively to beat Supporters’ Shield winners the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference Championship, Gregg Berhalter and his side remains with only its 2008 success to look back on.