In yet another odd year, everything is coming up green and gold.
A day after the Portland Thorns returned the NWSL championship to the Rose City, the Portland Timbers clinched their return to the MLS Cup Playoffs with a fabulous 4-0 victory over hapless DC United on a lovely fall Sunday evening at Providence Park.
The Timbers entered the day looking to lock up their playoff spot. They left it knowing that, with a win in next weekend's regular season finale against the Vancouver Whitecaps, they'll take the Western Conference's top seed into the postseason.
In a year that saw the Timbers win just two of thirteen matches across two long summer months, that's no small feat. Along the way, the Timbers have poured in a club record 58 goals and sent the Diego Valeri to join Sebastian Giovinco in MLS's most exclusive 20 goals-10 assists club.
It's been a season to remember — and its biggest games and best moments are just around the corner.
This game served as an appetizer of sorts with DC — one of the country's proud clubs — mired in the midst of historically bad season. Ben Olsen's team leads the league in losses, has its worst goal differential, and, after tonight, has tied its all-time record for most times shutout in a single season.
The Timbers were expected to come out and put away the league's worst team, and, after a rather sluggish start, that's exactly what they did.
The turning point in the game came deep in first half stoppage time, when Darren Mattocks — making his seventh straight start in place of Fanendo Adi — went racing onto a misplayed back pass from Chris Korb and was cleaned out by DC goalkeeper Steve Clark for a penalty.
Valeri — a player with whom Clark is uniquely familiar — stepped up and ripped the penalty into the left corner to make it 1-0.
From there, DC's resistance — effective enough through the first 45 minutes — fell away. Five minutes after halftime, the Timbers got a second goal from a most unlikely source: Alvas Powell, making his first start in more than two months.
It was a sublime goal too. Powell received a long switch from Valeri all the way out on the right touchline, squared up to DC's Hungarian import Zoltán Steiber, beat him to the edge of the box, and swept a low shot past Clark into the far corner.
That Powell was in the lineup at all after a season of lapses and letdowns spoke to Caleb Porter's tremendous faith in his young right back. He certainly didn't earn the spot, though he took full advantage of it. It also, in conjunction with Vytas' return at left back, spoke to a small change in thinking from Porter tactically.
When the Timbers faced Orlando at home three weeks ago, Porter started Zarek Valentin and Roy Miller as his fullbacks — the thinking being that the team's front six could generate enough offense so that those positions wouldn't need to contribute a significant amount to the attack.
On that day, Porter was right. The Timbers won 3-0. He was right again here. Powell torched DC all afternoon, creating Portland's best first half chance, scoring after halftime, and coming tantalizingly close to getting a second goal shortly thereafter.
Whether Powell can be trusted next weekend and beyond, against better opposition in tighter games is an open question. But it looks like Porter, swayed as he's always been by Powell's upside, is about to bet big on him.
With Powell's goal, the game started to come easy — and despite the quality of Powell's finish, the Timbers' third goal would be the jewel of their evening's work.
It came on the hour mark, when Valeri brought the ball out of the air by juggling it three times and dropped it into the path of Blanco, who gave it back to Valeri on the side of the box, and continued his run. Valeri got it back to him, and Blanco needed just one touch to send a scorcher flying past Clark into the top left corner.
It was a strike so clean, Valeri stood with his hands on his head in a look of amazement, and, before too long, Blanco would be on the scoresheet again.
His second goal — the Timbers' fourth — came five minutes from time, when DC captain Steve Birnbaum was caught on the ball by Portland substitute Jeremey Ebobisse. Blanco raced onto it, dribbled into the penalty area, went around two players with the benefit of a kind deflection, skipped Clark, and fired home.
But while Blanco netted his first MLS brace, the real star of the night was — once again — his compatriot Valeri. The Maestro's first assist put him in rarified air, and it's no stretch to say that he's having one of the greatest seasons in league history.
There were other bright spots for the Timbers. Liam Ridgewell, having missed so much time this year, looks damn near sprightly in central defense. Jeff Attinella, who made a handful of very fine saves, is giving the team its best goalkeeping of the year.
Having forced the moribund trio of Colorado, Orlando, and DC, it's important not to get overly enamored with the style of the Timbers' recent home performances.
But those victories aren't totally deceiving. The Timbers can blow you away. They're the only Western Conference team that can say that — and they are one win away from entering the playoffs with a Cup, a regular season Western Conference championship, and all the momentum they could ask for.
It's an odd year, after all. We wouldn't expect anything different.