IT WAS an insignificant goal in an inconsequential match.
Moments away from ending their inaugural Major League Soccer season with a road loss, and days after officially being eliminated from playoff contention, on October 22 at MLS elite Real Salt Lake the Timbers had nothing to play for but contractual obligation. But just as the head referee started counting off the final four minutes of Portland's season, Brian Umony booted a cross in front that ricocheted off Bright Dike and found Futty Danso for a game-tying goal.
On paper, the season-ending strike was meaningless—win, lose, or draw, Salt Lake was heading to the playoffs, Portland to an early vacation—but as the music blared in the Timbers' locker room post-match, feelings of futility were few and far between.
Seven months, 11 victories, 14 losses, nine ties—and in the end, a team that fought 'til the bitter end.
"We would have lost [this] game 3-0 or 4-0 earlier in the season," said Timbers Coach John Spencer, holding court with reporters post-match for the last time this season. "If we'd had that mental toughness earlier in the season—who knows?"
It's hard to be disappointed in the 2011 Portland Timbers. A club that refused to take refuge behind the "expansion" label, they played more like contenders for much of the season, taking their devoted fans on a seesaw ride that raised expectations in the Rose City. Portland sold out every MLS home game and beat up some of the top teams in the league. They scored electrifying goals and treated the Timbers Army to a number of unforgettable nights at the House of Pane. They tied for fourth-most wins among expansion teams in MLS history, and at one point early on, rose to #4 in the MLS' power rankings.
But the Timbers also stumbled on the road, missed massive opportunities in late-season matches, and when their best was needed, wilted under the pressure while being pushed around by less talented teams.
And while "it could've been worse," isn't the strongest of rallying cries, Portland fans need only look to Cascadia rival Vancouver to begin counting their good fortune. The Whitecaps were out of playoff contention for much of the second half of the season, and they'll open next year with their third head coach and just as many questions as they faced in their MLS debut. Vancouver will start next season back at square one, but it's a far different story here: Portland battled for a postseason berth right up until the final week of the regular season, and along the way were showcased nationally and hailed as a model for North American soccer.
Flanked by passionate fans and led by a fiery coach, the Timbers' last match may not have been a win, but in a way, it was the realization of Spencer's vision for a team that's been together less than a year.
"They had to play that way because I demanded before the game that they play that way," Spencer said. "I never take the foot off the gas, that's what I'm like as an individual, and I've always been like that."
Timbers fans have embraced that mentality, and the trust fans feel toward the coaching staff, Technical Director Gavin Wilkinson, and team owner Merritt Paulson has been cemented by savvy off-field decision-making. The signing of designated player Diego Chara, the addition of defenders Mike Chabala and Lovel Palmer, and the non-rushed development of Darlington Nagbe each led to success, and more big decisions loom.
Will the Timbers give the boot to their Golden Boot-winner Kenny Cooper, who led the team in goals but disappeared from the offense for a 14-match scoreless stretch? How will they address needs up front and on defense? And perhaps the question looming largest over Timberland last week: Who will Portland leave exposed in the November 23 expansion draft, when Montreal will get its shot to poach their roster from around the league?
A Generation Adidas player, Nagbe is protected, while Chara, standout goalkeeper Troy Perkins and future stars Sal Zizzo, Jorge Perlaza, Kalif Alhassan, Dike, Danso, and Jake Gleeson will likely be deemed untouchable. But what about Cap'n Jack Jewsbury, whose set-piece deliveries paced the offense early and made him the Timbers' first-ever All-Star? And how about unsung hero Eric Brunner, the most consistent defender in green this season?
Paulson and Wilkinson have spoken publicly about targeting additional starters, and though the core will be familiar, the 2012 Timbers are likely to have a different look. But they'd do well to keep the same mentality—expecting to win, making no excuses, and fighting to the final whistle.
Of course, close won't be good enough next year, and if late-season matches are made meaningless, Timbers Army will be up in arms.
It'd be disappointing if they weren't.