IN THE END, the Portland Timbers were the best.
And it wasn't all that close.
A run that started with a simple formation change on a sleepy Wednesday night in October ended in ecstasy on a bitterly cold Sunday night in Ohio. It was a victory in an MLS championship game that was every bit as wacky, tense, jaw-dropping, and life-affirming as a golden occasion should be.
The Timbers beat the Columbus Crew 2-1 on December 6. Nothing could halt what became an unstoppable march to the top of the American soccer mountain.
Portland, for the first time since 1977, has a major men's sports championship. It's the Timbers' first-ever title, in any division—an even four decades after they were founded as an NASL franchise in 1975. The team arrived back at Portland International Airport on Monday. On Tuesday, they paraded down Broadway, and hosted a packed celebration at Providence Park. There will also be a White House visit, with rings and banners on the way as well.
This team deserves every moment. So do you. This is our sport, and, euphorically and unreservedly, this is our finest hour.
The buildup to this championship game was fantastic in itself. It was a beautiful week for and from the Timbers Army: First, they managed to scramble some 2,000 fans to central Ohio for the game, and then, on gameday, they out-sung the Crew's support section, the Nordecke (where Columbus fans, disgracefully, threw beer cans onto the field during the game). For the players and coaches, meanwhile, it was a week of painstaking preparation.
But in championship games, things often go haywire. This one got wacky. Quick.
Just 30 seconds into the game, gaffe-prone Columbus goalkeeper Steve Clark inexplicably dawdled on a back-pass and was charged down by Portland's great Diego Valeri, who slide-tackled the ball into the net for the fastest goal in MLS Cup history.
Six minutes later, it was two—and under dubious circumstances. Crew midfielder Tony Tchani thought the ball was out of play near the midfield stripe—it was, by a good two yards—but the assistant referee missed the call. The Timbers' Darlington Nagbe stole the ball and fed Lucas Melano, whose cross was gorgeously headed in at the back post by the indefatigable Rodney Wallace.
Then, with Portland up 2-0, Adam Kwarasey matched Clark's mistake. The Timbers' Ghanian goalkeeper flapped at a ballooning header from the Crew's Justin Meram and then failed to corral the rebound, opening a goalmouth scramble. Columbus' Kei Kamara eventually brought the ball down, and slung his shot through Alvas Powell's legs to make it 2-1.
Proceedings slowed and tensed as the first half settled, but Portland's defense was immovable. It became increasingly clear as the second half progressed that the Crew held the ball, but not the cards.
Timbers defender Jorge Villafaña was scrappy, tenacious, and sensational, all but disappearing the Crew's MLS Best XI selection, Ethan Finlay. Alvas Powell also stood tall—and one can't say enough about Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell, neither of whom put a foot wrong all game.
Afterward, Timbers coach Caleb Porter praised midfielder Diego Chara as a "machine"—and the machine, as usual, covered an outrageous amount of ground. Defensively, it was a team effort; even Valeri pitched in, though his most important tackle came 110 yards from the Timbers' goal.
With some terrific goalkeeping down the stretch, Clark did his best to make up for his early howler. Kwarasey, meanwhile, never had the chance to make up for his: He wasn't forced into a save all game long.
Clearly, the best team won. But Ridgewell said on Friday that he believed in hard work rather than destiny, and he had a fair point. The Timbers hit the post three times in the second half—with a handball on the line from Columbus captain Michael Parkhurst, and an incredible save from Clark on Borchers to boot.
Columbus was extremely hard done by the missed call on Wallace's goal, but the luck more than evened itself out over the course of the game. As those goalposts can tell you, it usually does.
In the end, the Timbers didn't need the third goal. Four weeks ago, after Portland played Vancouver at BC Place, Vancouver coach Carl Robinson said his team could have played for another 90 minutes and not scored. The same was true on Sunday. Columbus wasn't getting a second.
That was thanks in large part to Borchers, who went from just wanting to retire as a beloved member of Real Salt Lake to leading the Timbers to the Cup, in what might be the greatest trade in the history of the city.
The incredible scenes from the post-game celebration—the giddiness of Hank Paulson, father of Timbers owner Merritt Paulson; a crying Porter; the team's Argentinian contingent FaceTiming former Timbers player Gastón Fernández; Ridgewell and Timbers captain Will Johnson lifting the trophy—will live forever. Nothing in sports lasts like a title does.
It's an incredible feeling. Most of all, though, this is vindication for Paulson, Porter, and Timbers technical director Gavin Wilkinson. It's vindication for everyone who bought in, everyone who has ever cared. We've known for a long time how extraordinary this club and everything that goes into it is. Now the world knows, too.
It took almost eight months for this group to figure itself out on the field, but once they did, it wasn't tough to see that there wasn't a side in the country they couldn't handle. The Timbers just got better and better.
What a special team. What a special ride.
Champions. For Portland. Forever.