As Oregon’s poet laureate Anis Mojgani said in a video preceding Saturday’s MLS Cup between the Portland Timbers and New York City FC at Providence Park, this town shows up.
It has showed up where it has mattered most, in the streets for 100 consecutive days last year after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, despite a federal occupation of its downtown, despite unrelenting police violence and outcries from wealthy business owners.
It has, famously, like nowhere else in this country, also long showed up for soccer.
Outside Providence Park in the week leading up to this game of games, hundreds of fans slept out on the street to get wristbands that would allow them early entrance to the stadium and their choice of standing position in the north end.
Portland also showed up as the thousands of fellow supporters who pulled on their rain jackets and pulled up their hoods, standing in the gusting wind and the pouring rain for hours to get into the match, the line for entry snaking down Burnside.
It showed up in the Timbers Army’s 24th minute protest in support of justice for the Portland Thorns players abused by former Thorns manager Paul Riley, letting off red smoke and chanting “You Knew” in the direction of the owner’s box.
After two acrimonious, upsetting, draining years, it showed up as the best of the core of Portland, beneath all the headlines both positive and negative: a group of people willing to stand in the rain, answerable to no authority but our own.
It took our team, the Timbers 1,010 games over 46 years to play for a championship at home, and for 94 minutes, it looked for all their industry and fight like they weren’t going to make a dent in it.
But with their final attack of the game, trailing New York City 1-0, having created no significant chances, struggling to break the visitors’ press, struggling to find a moment of quality going forward, they dug deep. They showed up too.
In the final seconds, Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark held the ball in the attacking half. Claudio Bravo hooked a ball into the box. Yimmi Chará sent a looping header towards the penalty spot. Larrys Mabiala chested it down. Jarosław Niezgoda’s shot was blocked. And then, rather slowly, the ball rolled into the path of Felipe Mora, who stepped up to it, and smashed it into the corner.
Salvation hit the stadium like a lightning bolt. Mora raced to the corner flag, hands over his face, in tears. Timbers players piled on top of him. Around them was chaos, 50,000 hands in the air. Down to their final kick of the ball, the final kick of the season, the Timbers were still alive.
The Timbers played plenty of beautiful, free-flowing soccer on their journey to this first home MLS Cup. But this was a classic, last-gasp, "The Magic is Real," scrappy, ugly, beautiful goal.
The scene in Providence Park in the half hour following that equalizer was fully in another dimension. People were dancing and jumping and screaming in not just the Timbers Army, but every corner of the ground.
As extra time began with the score knotted at one apiece, Diego Valeri was pulling the strings, Diego Chará was still running, and it felt for all the world like having done the absolutely impossible—the impossible!—and stepped back from the edge of the plank, the Timbers would go on and lift the trophy.
Sure enough, for the first time all afternoon, they had a shaken NYCFC team on the ropes. But the second goal didn’t come. Valeri sent an open look from the top of the box over the bar, then Cristhian Paredes had another good chance saved by New York goalkeeper Sean Johnson.
Not scoring when you’re in the ascendancy in a soccer match against a good team is always dangerous, and as the minutes ticked away, it became clear that NYCFC had weathered the storm and regained its composure.
That, plus Johnson’s length and New York shooting first, made the impending penalty shootout a dicey proposition. Sure enough, Johnson skillfully stopped Mora first, and then Valeri, and in just three-and-a-half short minutes, it was over.
Alexander Callens smashed the final spotkick past Clark, who, seeking redemption for the error in MLS Cup 2015 that almost cost him his career, couldn’t match the heroics of his counterpart.
The NYCFC players sprung off the midfield stripe where they stood watching the shootout arm-in-arm. Many of the Timbers players sank to the ground, several, including Mora, in tears of a much different sort. Valeri sat disconsolate on the turf, unmoving, perhaps unseeing, for several minutes.
The Timbers Army, typically, responded by lifting its collective voice in one more rousing P-T-F-C chant. It was only in the following hours that the weight of the opportunity not seized set in for many exhausted and proud supporters, hearts breaking not at once, but slowly.
Instead of a Timbers parade down Broadway, New York City’s players celebrated with the trophy in Pioneer Square. No redemption for Clark. No first title for Mabiala, or ever-classy manager Giovanni Savarese. No second title for Chará, the best player on the field. And no just sendoff for El Maestro, El Rey, Valeri, the greatest soccer player to ever call this town his.
But Saturday was also a reminder of what makes this game and this club irreplaceable in the souls of so many. No one who was in that stadium will forget where they were when Mora scored—who they embraced, what they saw, or what it sounds like in a cathedral when a prayer is answered.
Soccer is a microcosm of life. It reaches into your heart and extracts emotion you didn’t know you had. It is thrilling and devastating, it is exhilarating and draining, and then it just is. You pick up the pieces, as best you can, and march on.