On Sunday, the Portland Timbers scored what might be their most improbable and most important win of the 2016 season to date — overcoming an early Diego Chara red card to beat Sporting Kansas City by a resounding 3-0 scoreline.
It was a big day. That being said, nothing we saw on Sunday — and, most likely, nothing we'll see for a long, long time — measured up to what happened on a cold Thursday night at Providence Park last October, when these two teams combined to play one of the greatest games in MLS history.
Here is a look back at the 2015 Western Conference Wild Card game between the Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City, and the fifteen most incredible minutes in Timbers history.
Before there was a shootout, though, there was a game. And the game, by every possible measure, was going to be too close to call.
Portland hadn't scored against Kansas City in 270-plus minutes of soccer in 2015. The first two meetings of the season had finished 0-0; the previous game in Portland had only been decided late on what would be the MLS Goal of the Year from Krisztian Nemeth.
So even before it took 22 penalties to pull them apart, it was clear enough that these the Timbers and Sporting KC were far too evenly matched. This game, between these teams, was going to be hell.
Sure enough, it was a battle. Right from the word go. Rodney Wallace scored a scrappy goal to give the Timbers the lead in the second half, only to see Kevin Ellis lose Liam Ridgewell and equalize from a Graham Zusi cross three minutes from time to save Kansas City's season.
Seven minutes into extra time, it was Nemeth again — scoring an incredible sidewinding goal from an impossible angle, to both one-up his effort from the beginning of the month and give Sporting the lead.
And it looked for all the world like that was it. The Timbers were exhausted. Their 2015 had all but faded away, when, in the 118th minute, substitute Maxi Urruti, from nothing, reignited hope.
What was incredible about that goal was its simplicity. The Timbers had scored just once against Sporting in 390 minutes in 2015, and in that extra time, they hadn't even come close to half a chance. And then — throw-in, turn, cross, finish. Just like that.
For a moment, time stood still. Then Providence Park exploded. The Timbers had been granted a stay of execution. Penalties were to follow.
There was plenty of reason to be optimistic. Portland had all the momentum, what was more, Sporting was without its starting goalkeeper — Tim Melia forced out of the game just before the Kansas City goal with a head injury. Backup Jon Kempin, who had only played three games all year, stood in his place.
The Timbers won the coin toss, and elected to go first, and sent Diego Valeri forward to begin the shootout. It had been a trying year for Valeri. The Maestro spent the spring working his way back from an ACL injury suffered in the last game of the 2014 season, and he still hadn't found his best form.
Valeri had taken penalties throughout the 2014, but he had missed a spot-kick at San Jose in August, and been replaced on penalty duty by Fanendo Adi for the end of the season. Valeri would end up pouring in four assists during the playoffs, as well as scoring an iconic goal in the final, but in this moment, his difficult season would continue.
Valeri's penalty, hit hard down the middle, would be expertly saved by Kempin's left hand. Just like that, the air left the arena.
Benny Feilhaber, Sporting's chief creator, slid his penalty away without breaking a sweat. The Timbers had their backs to the wall again. They called on Nat Borchers.
It was a fairly shocking sight, but Borchers had been in a similar situation before. The 2013 MLS Cup Final shootout against — you guessed it — Kansas City, went ten rounds at a freezing Sporting Park, calling on every field player to take a spot-kick.
Former Timber Lovel Palmer would end up sending his penalty off the crossbar to win the title for SKC, but the round before Palmer missed, Borchers stepped up and blazed his attempt straight down the middle to stave off elimination for Salt Lake.
Here, there would be no waiting for Borchers. With his team in desperate need of a conversion, the center back stepped up second — and absolutely murdered his penalty into the top left corner. Kempin guessed the right way, but he didn't even get close to the ball.
Borcheres' immediate reaction after his shot hit the back of the net was to stop, stand up ram-rod straight, and ferociously salute the Timbers Army.
It woke the Timbers up. Borchers had plenty of Braveheart moments throughout the 2015 season, but this stood apart. He willed Portland back into this fight. Actually, he might have even done more than that.
Sports Illustrated writer Ben Lyttleton, who wrote the book Twelve Yards on penalty shootouts, says that players celebrating in shootouts has a tangible effect on their outcomes.
So maybe it was just coincidence that Adam Kwarasey would save Dom Dwyer's penalty for KC next, or maybe the salute played some small part. What we know for sure is this: Had Borchers missed, and the Timbers failed on their first two attempts of the shootout, there wouldn't have been any championship to speak of.
But Dwyer did miss, and the Timbers, now looking at an opportunity to take the lead in the shootout, naturally turned to their other center back. Ridgewell opted for a long run-up, and then breezily sent Kempin the wrong way to make it 2-1.
Graham Zusi answered for Kansas City to make it 2-2. Up stepped Jack Jewsbury.
In retrospect, it was remarkable that Jewsbury was in the game at all. The old captain had missed almost a month injured, but with Diego Chara out, Caleb Porter had trusted him to play almost 130 minutes in a knockout game — mostly as the single pivot in the Timbers' 4-3-3.
Under normal circumstances, there are few players you would have been more confident betting on scoring. But at this point in proceedings, Jewsbury's legs were gone. He leaned back, and blazed his penalty high into the Timbers Army.
All Sporting needed to do was convert their final two attempts, and they'd be through. But captain and next taker Matt Besler had other ideas — namely an audacious Panenka that landed on the main North End capo stand.
Jewsbury — thankfully — had been bailed out, and the Timbers fifth penalty taker was their surest bet of all.
Maxi Urruti had many flaws, and his days as a Timber were already numbered, but he was a pure finisher — and on this night, in this shootout, he wasn't going to miss if there were two Jon Kempins in goal.
Urruti sent an arrow into the Timbers Army, and sent Kansas City to what could have been a final reckoning. But Paulo Nagamura, a utility midfielder who had established himself as something of a penalty specialist in the team's 2013 and 2015 shootouts, put his kick just out of Kwarasey's reach and tied the score at three.
The Timbers were quickly running out of credible takers. Darlington Nagbe was, at this point, standing with his back to the North End with a towel over his head. He wanted no part of the shootout. Jorge Villafaña stepped up.
The little fullback, one of the greatest credits to this Timbers team and especially its coaching staff, would play so well in the following playoff games that he'd earn a lucrative move to Santos Laguna in Mexico when the season was over.
Here, though, he looked very small under the bright lights. Kempin would save his low, reasonably central penalty without difficulty. Match point for Sporting.
Kansas City, now, would turn to its other center back to seal the deal. But the penalty of Kevin Ellis, who sent the game to extra time, would hit the base of the right post, and bounce away.
Salvation again. Kwarasey got up screaming and kicking the advertising boards behind the goal in furious celebration. Villafaña lay collapsed on the ground, Urruti was in the same position directly behind him. Borchers made a beeline for the fullback, trying to pump him up.
Dairon Asprilla was next for Portland. By this point, Kempin was doing everything in his power to make a nuisance of himself — jumping up and down on the line and repeatedly shaking the crossbar. But the Colombian was unfazed. He lashed his penalty in and jogged back to the halfway line without changing expression.
Earlier this year, the exact same penalty in a game against Vancouver would be Asprilla's last goal for the club. On this night, Soni Mustivar — who was sent off on Sunday — staved off elimination for Sporting again with a cool take.
Now there was nowhere for Nagbe to hide. Earlier in the season, the shy star had stepped up bravely and uncharacteristically to take a penalty against Vancouver — and sent it off the post. The miss would end up costing the Timbers two points.
Here, though, Nagbe held his nerve. He passed his penalty in to Kempin's left — the Timbers' fifth straight successful penalty to that side — and departed for the refuge of his towel all the while appearing to enjoy the experience as much as having a root canal.
Again, the Timbers needed just a single save from Kwarasey. But Michigan-native Jacob Peterson tucked his penalty away with panache, sending the shootout into a staggering ninth round.
Alvas Powell was next for the Timbers, and due respect to a great kid, but there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell he was scoring in this shootout. Powell made great strides in 2015, but this was a bridge too far. His meek penalty was easily palmed away by Kempin.
Sporting's big chance. They too sent forward a young fullback, rookie and former Akron player Saad Abdul-Salaam. Here's the thing: Abdul-Salaam's penalty should have gone in. It was cleanly and confidently struck and sent Kwarasey the wrong way.
Then, the extraordinary: The penalty hit the inside of the left post, turned, slid along the goal-line, hit the inside of the right post, and, as Kwarasey scrambled out of the way to ensure that the ball didn't hit him in the back and go in, harmlessly away.
This time, the Timbers' goalkeeper didn't celebrate. He just staggered forward in disbelief. Providence Park was deafening. People were screaming at each other from incoherently from mere inches away. Hands everywhere were clasped to heads.
It just went on, and on, and on. By the time George Fochive, the Timbers' tenth taker, put his penalty left — again — to beat Kempin, Kwarasey's hands were still on his head. Moments later, he'd be beaten too, with Sporting's other rookie fullback Amadou Dia keeping his team alive in admirable fashion.
It had come down to the goalkeepers. Kwarasey himself would take first. Always the coolest of customers, the Ghanaian had in him a quiet, flexible swagger that filled the stadium with confidence. Deliberate run-up, powerful penalty. Kempin never moved.
Kwarasey grew ten feet in that moment. Kempin, for all his posturing, and, to his credit, for all his good work in goal, shrunk equally. This time, Kwarasey guessed left — and made the save that finally ended the shootout after 22 spot-kicks.
Utter pandemonium. Kwarasey remained the coolest man in the city. The man who between rounds chatted with Timber Joey barely even cracked a smile. That Kwarasey would miss the first leg of the following Vancouver series with the flu seemed almost fitting. He could have walked off stage forever that night.
Kwarasey was immediately engulfed by the Timbers' bench, and the celebration was on. While the enormity of Portland's accomplishment wouldn't become fully apparent until the team won MLS Cup 38 days later in Columbus, there was no denying the improbability of it.
Not only did Sporting see two potential game-winning penalties hit three posts and each time come out, but of Portland's three best penalty-takers, Valeri and Jewsbury missed, and Adi wasn't on the field to take. Of course, just to get to penalties, the Timbers needed the latest goal in MLS history.
Portland needed divine intervention. They needed Borchers, who literally dragged Valeri back to midfield after his miss. They needed all eleven players, and both of the posts. They needed it all. The Army? Porter credited it after the game with Abdul-Salaam's penalty staying out.
That anyone could breathe three minutes after Kwarasey's final save remains incredible. The emotion inside the old stadium that night was physically overwhelming. After the Timbers won, a banner was raised in the Army that read "We're in, You're out." It didn't tell a fraction of the story, and in many ways, it told the whole thing.
You're lucky if you get one sporting event like that in your lifetime. The Timbers had theirs last October 29, 2015. It's very possible that we'll never see another of its kind.