With a win against Vancouver on Sunday afternoon at Providence Park, the Portland Timbers would lift the Cascadia Cup and win the Western Conference on the final day of the MLS regular season. It was a mouthwatering proposition.
The payoff wasn't bad either.
Goals from Liam Ridgewell and Darren Mattocks on either side of halftime overturned an early deficit and gave the Timbers a memorable final day victory that launches them into the postseason with a number one seed and a trophy gained both at the expense of their Northwestern rivals.
It hasn't always been pretty. But from opening night against Minnesota nearly eight full months ago, the potential of the 2017 Timbers has been boundless. Since the start of August, we've seen that potential in leaps and bounds. It's going, to say the least, to be a fun playoff ride.
The game to decide the West started somewhat slowly, with the Whitecaps — needing only a draw to hold onto first place — collapsed into their defensive half, and the Timbers struggling to build rhythm.
It was, in many ways, Vancouver's ideal opening period — and it became that much more ideal when, just before the hour mark, Kendall Waston got on the end of a Yordy Reyna free kick and planted a twisting header into the corner to give them the lead.
It wouldn't last long. Just three minutes later, Portland's captain center back would match Vancouver's.
David Guzman floated a corner to the far top corner of the penalty area, where Darlington Nagbe took the ball down and sent a shot bending towards the goal. Vancouver goalkeeper Stefan Meronvic palmed it wide, but Ridgewell beat Tim Parker to the rebound and stabbed it across and in to tie the game.
The goal — no more than the revitalized Ridgewell deserved for a top-class performance — put a charge into the Timbers, who had the Whitecaps on the ropes for the last ten minutes of the first half. Sebastian Blanco had a hatful of chances, several of them set up by Nagbe, but he couldn't finish one.
Vancouver made it into the locker room at 1-1, but the intermission do nothing to blunt Portland's momentum. Not three minutes after the restart, it was their former number two overall pick who would put the Timbers on top for good.
Nagbe and Guzman exchanged passes in midfield, Nagbe played Blanco on the top of the box, Blanco slipped Vytas inside with a lovely reverse ball, Vytas squared it back, and Mattocks squeezed the ball through Parker and Waston converging on the goal-line to sting his former club again.
Vancouver, was, at this point, in a world of hurt — lacking attacking quality, and forced to chase the game. Carl Robinson threw on Fredy Montero and Christian Techera in the space of ten minutes, followed by Erik Hurtado, but the Whitecaps still couldn't generate any pressure from open play.
They got one more set piece chance when another Reyna free kick found Waston, but Ridgewell hooked the big center back's header off the line and into the air before the Waston headed the followup chance over and was left pounding the turf in frustration.
Waston has scored a number of big goals in his career — one to take the Whitecaps into the playoffs on the final day of the 2014 season, one earlier this month to clinch Costa Rica's place at the World Cup — and there were times on Sunday afternoon where he was Vancouver's most threatening attacker.
The rest of the 'Caps, however, didn't look equal to the occasion. That included Montero, who has plenty of big game experience under his belt. His decision to shoot from twenty-five yards while leading a four-against-four break in stoppage time all but finished the game.
In the end, it was a familiar result: Timbers 2, Whitecaps 1 — just as it was when the two teams played at Providence Park in April, and just as it was when they met at BC Place in July.
This final meeting ended with Vancouver supporters marching across the stadium to the North End and handing the Cascadia Cup off to a jubilant Timbers Army. It's the first time the Timbers have won the Cup since 2012, and the fact that they kept it out of Seattle's hands makes the achievement all the sweeter.
In truth, the game that preceded it wasn't long in doubt. The Timbers might have finished just one point ahead of the Whitecaps, but the gulf in quality between the two teams in this game was enormous. Vancouver created nada from the run of play. They were outshot 18-7. Out-possessed by twenty points.
No matter what the standings say, Vancouver carries itself like a small club. Until it wins a playoff series, that probably won't change.
Portland, on the other hand, carries itself like a title contender — and they play the soccer to back it up. This team, much as it did at the beginning of the season, is oozing quality and confidence. Maybe most importantly, it's healthy everywhere but at forward — where Mattocks has, in the last month, made his mark.
Besides the difference in talent on the two teams, which wasn't at all insignificant, the difference in attitude was clear all week and clear on Sunday. Carl Robinson said that his team was the underdog before the game. The Whitecaps played like it, and — even spotted the opening goal — Portland ate them up.
The Timbers are heading to the playoffs with a number one seed, a coveted piece of hardware, and the knowledge that, so long as they play their game, no team in this weak Western Conference can hang with them over two legs.
Doesn't mean it'll be an easy road to MLS Cup. But the road is wide open.