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Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers
When the Portland Timbers won MLS Cup in 2015, you could feel it coming for weeks. They were the best team in two countries. It was clear.

This year, the Timbers were never that. They finished in fifth place in the Western Conference in the regular season, in eighth place overall, and then proceeded to go on one of the most thrilling, unafraid playoff runs in recent MLS history: going on the road and beating Dallas, beating Seattle, beating Kansas City, and arriving again at MLS Cup with a championship in sight.

On Saturday night, though, in front of more than 73,000 rabid supporters at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, on one of the biggest stages in league history, the Timbers finally met their match.

In the final game of the 2018 season, Atlanta United beat Portland 2-0. It was the right result — the culmination, for Atlanta, of meteoric two-year ascent that has done nothing less than change the face of American soccer.

For the Timbers, it is a painfully empty end to a journey that captured so much of what makes soccer so wonderfully compelling.

For a postseason filled with so much drama, this was a relatively straightforward affair. Atlanta had an early penalty shout when Josef Martinez went down under a challenge in the box from Larrys Mabiala, but referee Alan Kelly, lenient throughout the night, waved the MVP's appeals away.

It took until the 23rd minute for either side to register a shot. The Timbers, though generating very little going forward, were hanging tough.

But as the game progressed, Atlanta began to take control of the game in midfield — and, just before the half hour mark, a giveaway from Sebastian Blanco and a fabulous, twisting outlet pass from Julien Gressel set Greg Garza up with time and space righthand side. His cross found Miguel Almiron, but the Paraguayan's side volley was beaten away by a diving Jeff Attinella.

Then, just more than five minutes before halftime, Atlanta broke through.

Jeremy Ebobisse took a heavy touch in midfield, and Atlanta center back and captain Michael Parkhurst pounced — slide-tackling the ball away from the Timbers forward straight into the path of Martinez, who, held on by the far-side of Mabiala, gathered it, dribbled Attinella, and slipped Atlanta into the lead.

It was a bad break for the Timbers, but it was chiefly an exceptional read and tackle from Parkhurst, the all-class 34-year-old four-time MLS Cup runner-up, who was the losing captain in 2015 when the Timbers raised the trophy in Columbus.

The goal looked certain to hand Atlanta momentum heading into the break, but Ebobisse had a chance to make amends less than four minutes later — shaking himself free to get on the end of a floated cross from Blanco just inside of the six yard box, only to see his header palmed clear by a diving Brad Guzan.

It was, in many ways, the Timbers first and last real chance.

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Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers
Ebobisse would exit devastated after less than a quarter hour second half — barely picking up his head to acknowledge Giovani Savarese after walking off the field.

By then, the Timbers were down 2-0. After a promising start to the second half, Atlanta doubled their lead when Martinez flicked an Almiron free kick on to the back post where left back Franco Escobar ran in unmarked to redirect the ball past Attinella.

Savarese was furious with the call that set up the chance, a high kick against Mabiala, but nothing about the call could excuse the lack of effective marking on the free kick. The Timbers had to dominate on set pieces to have a chance, as they'd done all postseason, and absolutely could not afford to concede on one.

Facing a multiple-goal deficit for the first time in the postseason, Portland went on to generate several half chances as Atlanta began to play exclusively on the counter in the middle portion of the second half, but couldn't get the goal needed to set up a meaningful last push.

The final fifteen minutes, then, were more coronation than competition. Atlanta withdrew Martinez first, then Almiron, to foundation-shaking ovations. A third such ovation greeted the final whistle, which sounded after five minutes of stoppage time.

The Timbers needed a moment of genius to unbalance Atlanta, just as Blanco's goals in Seattle and Kansas City had unbalanced the Sounders and Sporting, but they didn't get it. Atlanta was exceptionally organized and alert defensively, and neither Blanco nor Diego Valeri were sharp enough to break them down.

Of the Timbers' titans, the players drove them to this final, only Diego Chara truly showed his quality. His defensive work on Almiron, especially in the first half, was nothing short of sensational. But he couldn't affect either goalscoring play, and his final major contribution would be a customarily well-earned yellow card.

The Timbers didn't look overwhelmed. They weren't out-coached. They were just outplayed. Valeri, earnest as always, called it a "horrible feeling." But it was Atlanta's night, and they deserved every bit of it.

The wait for MLS Cup number two will go on. The memories from this run and the moxie of this team, however, will continue to burn bright.

Savarese's relentlessness paid off. He's been energy itself from the moment he stepped off the plane in Portland all the way back in January, and he had his players better and more closely knit by the end of the season than most anyone thought was possible for much of it.

It's trite, after championship losses, to say that the future is bright. It may or may not be. Soccer is a fickle business, and it's hard to know just when the next run will spark as this one did with, familiarly, a formation change and accompanying late-season victory in Salt Lake. Losing games like these should hurt badly.

But it's never trite to say that the journey was special. It most surely was. And it will never be trite in Portland to reiterate that what this club is, and how this city rallies around it, is a sporting gift that no trophy can ever be. Head to the airport this afternoon, and you'll get a feel for why.

There will be more games soon. Until then, it's time to rest.

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Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers