Soccer, much like football, didn’t come home either

A team from New York has won something!

A team from New York has won something!
Photo: Getty Images

I wanted to resist the temptation to give in to the Timbers Army’s desire to claim Portland as “Soccer City USA”. It is quite a label to attribute to yourself, and having grown up in direct opposition to Detroit’s self-flagellation of “Hockeytown,” my alarms don’t need a lot of stimulation to sound.

Still, it’s hard to refute. Watch even just a regular season game from Providence Park and get the mood off your screen or stroll through Portland, and you can feel how much football matters. And since they’re only one of two pro teams in town, there’s very little to distract from the Timbers and Thorns (and probably even less if Damian Lillard were to be swapped).

So there really wasn’t a more perfect setting than downtown Portland for the MLS showcase, the MLS Cup. The league would get the vibe, tension and unique look it craves so much for the biggest match of the year. A win for Portland would have been like cementing their place as the center of American football, with the roar throbbing for the rest of the championship. A coronation, almost, of perhaps the MLS’s biggest success story (except for the entire cover-up of sexual abuse and coercion among the Thorns, also owned by Merritt Paulson).

And truly, yesterday’s final couldn’t have been a better display than all that is MLS: weird, loosely organized, often a mess, yet hilarious in the craziest way.

All you need to know about yesterday’s match is that it started like this:

The best of intentions, nullified by conditions in and out of the league’s control, seem a little silly at the end but we all enjoy it anyway. There is MLS in a nutshell.

As for the game itself, Providence Park was really packed with music, impressive given the local midday start. Regardless of their normal style, you’d think the Timbers would have wanted to take advantage of the home crowd and spend at least the first five to ten minutes getting into NYCFC and having the place absolutely frothy. Instead, they didn’t even attempt a shot until 15 minutes, happy to hand over possession to NYCFC and seek a counterattack. Which is what they’ve been doing for most of the season — they’re one of the lowest-pressing teams in the MLS — and brought them here, so you can’t really argue too much. Letting Diego Chará destroy everything in front of the defense is usually a good strategy, although it is deeply shocking to see a 35-year-old having more energy and speed than the other 21 players around him. But it seemed like it required something different, if only for one segment of the game.

Not that the Pigeons were exactly besieging the Portland target, apparently too careful not to get caught on the counter the Timbers were waiting for. The problem for Timbers is when you play defensive and in your own half it only takes one mistake to destroy the entire floor. A mistake like, oh I don’t know, not scoring championship top scorer Taty Castillo:

This led to the worst moment of the match, with a Portland fan with bated breath throwing a full beer on the pitch and hitting NYCFC’s Jesus Medina. Such an atmosphere can always overflow, proving that MLS’s journey into adulthood is as tough and rebellious as anyone else’s. Emulating the worst parts of the grown-up crowds they see (NYCFC’s meeting with white supremacists infiltrating their crowds is another example).

The atmosphere on the pitch, and perhaps even indirectly, was not helped by referee Armando Villarreal who took the field with a policy of “I’m not going to warn anyone for anything in the first half except for skirmishes”. The tackles flew in from all angles causing an uproar after the whistles, all with Villarreal putting on a great show without calling anything, waving their arms as if directing traffic onto the asphalt with nothing in hand. But it’s MLS, and it’s the most important game that should be played with the same theatrical yet puzzling refereeing that we see week after week.

You would have thought that being under a goal and at home would have sent Portland into a frenzy in the second half, but it didn’t. They managed a shot on goal before recovery. From the 60th minute onwards they throw aimless crosses from the depth. They seemed to have run out of ideas. Probably yes.

But even if you don’t know how to make homemade explosives, leave the ingredients close to each other long enough and it could happen by accident. An indulgent referee, an increasingly nervous NYCFC and crosses thrown from all sides can be quite volatile. It was just at the last minute when the Timbers simply punched the ball into the box and Dairon Asprilla crashed into about three different defenders:

It was probably a foul. It certainly wasn’t art. It is not the result of any plan. Yet he gave MLS and all who watched an iconic moment, watching the stadium shake with sheer relief and disbelief in the pouring rain. You couldn’t help but giggle.

But again, Portland missed the momentum in extra time, even after hitting all of his forwards to equalize in regulation time. They were better, but not good enough. And leaving things to sanctions is essentially leaving things to the wind. It didn’t blow their way. NYCFC’s Sean Johnson got his hands on one more penalty than Portland’s Steve Clark, and the ribbons around the trophy were sky blue instead of green.

Which perhaps led to the perfect closing image of the collapse of the inflatable MLS Cup before the match:

That’s NYCFC manager Ronny Deila, shrinking into his underwear before lifting the trophy, fulfilling a promise he made. And that’s really MLS in an afternoon. Ridiculous all the way, hurtling to the finish line with every part of the car working against each other, splashing oil and smoke, rattling loudly and chaotically, and ending up mostly naked, screaming in the rain, putting a smile on face of anyone who has looked to the end.

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