Had the season ended several weeks ago, we might have written this was the year that Portland fell out of love with the Timbers.
After selling out every single regular season home match for the first nine years of their MLS existence, the Timbers only sold out a single game this season—in part, certainly, due to the ongoing pandemic—and lost that match in humiliating fashion, 6-2 to their arch rival the Seattle Sounders.
In August, after that defeat, the Timbers looked dead in the water on the field. Off the field, the state of the club was, and, in some ways still is, worse. In late September, The Athletic reported that former Portland Thorns manager Paul Riley sexually harassed and coerced players and that the Thorns kept credible allegations against him quiet.
It seemed like the season would end in acrimony and disappointment. But then this incredibly likable group of Timbers, led by their longest-tenured player and captain Diego Chará, started winning and haven’t yet stopped—securing a playoff place, and, improbably, after favorites were upset in both conferences, the chance to host MLS Cup for the first time.
For many, the ethics of supporting the club remain murky. But what has happened over the last two weeks has been a sudden, startlingly powerful reminder of the depth of feeling Portlanders have for their Timbers, and, maybe more importantly, for each other—a feeling that will outlast any general manager or owner.
A number of Providence Park veterans said that last Saturday’s victory in the Western Conference Final over Real Salt Lake was as loud as they’ve ever heard the old stadium. One young fan, the son of former striker Byron Alverez, was moved to tears.
After the final whistle sounded last weekend, Portlanders around the country began scrambling to make it home for the final. When New York City FC beat the Philadelphia Union to book their MLS Cup ticket on Sunday, thousands of New Yorkers prepared to join them.
Tickets sold out within minutes on Tuesday, and the insanity of the resale market—with tickets ranging from $600 to more than $2,000—confirms this as a game on par with events like the Super Bowl and Final Four. If you have a spare ticket, or know of someone with one, contact the 107IST or consult this list of fans who absolutely deserve to be in the building Saturday.
So now we’re here: preparing for the biggest men’s sporting event in Portland since at least 1992, the last time the Trail Blazers were in the NBA Finals, and possibly the biggest ever. It is the first time since their founding in 1975 that the Timbers, very likely this country’s most storied soccer club, have played for a league championship at home.
It should be one of the biggest stages in MLS history, and, fittingly enough, it will be backdropped by some not-for-the-faint-of-heart Portland winter weather: the forecast shows a 100 percent chance of rain and wind gusts of up to 40 miles per hour.
Here’s everything you need to know before the bell tolls just after noon on Saturday (12 pm, TV on ABC and in your local sports bar, streaming on ESPN+, radio on 750 AM).
The Portland Timbers this year have been defined by their resilience. The Timbers had one of the worst defenses in the league through the summer, but closed the regular season on a 10-3-1 tear without making any significant personnel changes, all by getting back to the basics that have always made Savarese’s team competitive: staying compact defensively, working hard for each other off the ball, and pressing forward as a unit.
That the Timbers survived all the adversity they faced this year is a massive testament to manager Savarese and his coaching staff, as well the team’s leaders like Chará, goalkeeper Steve Clark, central defender Larrys Mabiala, and the legendary Diego Valeri.
They’ve been as good and as connected as ever in these playoffs—culminating in the victory over RSL last weekend, which came with Sebastian Blanco on the bench due to a hamstring injury and Dairon Asprilla suspended after being red-carded in the win over Colorado in the previous round.
Blanco’s fitness heading into this game is the biggest question mark around the Timbers, while Asprilla should also return to the lineup despite the outstanding play of Santiago Moreno and Marvin Loría in relief in the semifinal. Valeri has only played 11 minutes so far this postseason, but he too could be a factor in what might be his final match in Portland.
But as Savarese will tell you, the team is the star. Different players have stepped up at different moments during this run, and it is the collective workrate, organization, and attacking tenacity that will lead the way.
New York City FC is in uncharted territory—making their first appearance in a MLS Cup in their seventh year of existence after joining the league as an expansion team the year Portland won its first and, for now, only championship.
They’ve had to overcome plenty of adversity of their own to get here. Like the Timbers, NYCFC experienced a late summer-into-early fall swoon that saw them teeter out of playoff positions in the Eastern Conference and lose two key starters to injury.
Since then, however, Ronny Deila’s team—which entered this season having won just one of its six playoff ties—has buckled down.
They finished the regular season in strong form, beat Atlanta at home, knocked out Supporters’ Shield-winning New England on penalties in a thrilling Eastern Conference semifinal, and then staved off a depleted Philadelphia to reach MLS Cup.
NYCFC has a strong spine, including US international James Sands and talismanic playmaker Maxi Moralez, and they like to play proactive, attacking soccer. They dominated the possession battle on the road in each of their last two games and have given up limited chances as a result. They have game-changing players on the bench, too.
So are New York City likely to be the pick of neutrals on Saturday? Not exactly. The team is owned by City Football Group, which also owns Manchester City in England and is bankrolled by the United Arab Emirates’ royal family. It plays its home matches in a baseball stadium. And its fanbase has included alt-right elements. In almost no way are they the model US soccer club.
The Timbers and New York City are not frequent opponents and have not played since the closed-door "MLS is Back" tournament in 2020.
What small history these teams do have shouldn’t have a big bearing on Saturday’s game, but, for whatever it’s worth, that history is heavily slanted towards Portland. The Timbers are 3-1-0 in competitive games against NYCFC, beating them the last three times they’ve played by a combined score of 7-1.
Savarese spent much of his adult life in New York, first as a student and soccer player at Long Island University, then as a player with the Long Island Rough Riders and MetroStars, and then as the highly successful coach of the New York Cosmos.
This is NYCFC’s first appearance in MLS Cup. No one on their roster has played in the game before. The Timbers, meanwhile, have played in this game twice before—once in 2015, when they won in Columbus, and again in 2018, when they lost to Atlanta.
Chará, Valeri, Asprilla, and George Fochive were all on the roster for the 2015 victory, and the former three all played in that game. The Timbers’ Steve Clark was Columbus’ goalkeeper that night, and it was his first minute gaffe that allowed Valeri to score the opening goal. That he has a chance to win his first MLS Cup six years later in Portland is remarkable.
Along with Chará, Valeri, and Asprilla, Blanco and Mabiala both played in the 2018 loss at Atlanta. Bill Tuiloma was on the bench.
12 – Clark
2 – Van Rankin
33 – Mabiala
13 – Zuparic
5 – Bravo
21 – D. Chará (C)
22 – Paredes
23 – Y. Chará
10 – Blanco
27 – Asprilla
9 – Mora
New York City FC
1 – Johnson (C)
24 – Gray
4 – Chanot
6 – Callens
12 – Amundsen
16 – Sands
7 – Morales
42 – Rodriguez
10 – Moralez
19 – Medina
11 – Castellanos
These are two exciting teams capable of producing very good soccer, but their approaches are quite different. New York is comfortable playing with the ball, while the Timbers are more comfortable playing without it.
That means, if all goes as expected, NYCFC will control possession for much of the game while the Timbers stay compact defensively and look to counter. Whichever team scores first will have a significant edge, but the truth is that if Portland is firing offensively, New York will struggle to hang with them.
There are a few areas of particular importance to watch. One is where and how often NYCFC gets the ball wide. In the first half of the Western Conference Final last weekend, Real Salt Lake funneled nearly two thirds of their attacks down the Timbers’ left side—targeting the Timbers’ Argentinian left back Claudio Bravo—and had little success.
NYCFC might have better luck trying the right side and Jose Carlos Van Rankin, but it’ll be a better sign for them if they can pull apart the Timbers’ central midfield tandem of Chará and Cristhian Paredes and attack up the gut. That’s easier said than done.
The Timbers’ center backs will also have to be as alert and careful in the box and in possession as they’ve had to be all year with the Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos, who was suspended for the Eastern Conference Final, lining up against them for NYCFC.
Meanwhile, RSL’s fullbacks and defensive midfielders struggled with the pace and fluidity of the Timbers’ front three last weekend—and their movement could present similar problems in this game with overloads, traffic in the box, and pace.
NYCFC also may be susceptible wide. Their standout right back Anton Tinnerholm ruptured his Achilles tendon in October, and his replacement is 19-year-old Bronx-born Tayvon Gray.
Of course, games of this magnitude often come down to individual brilliance and individual errors. The player likeliest to make the difference for Portland is Blanco if he’s fit, though Asprilla, who has scored in all of his previous postseasons, is also due a goal.
To their great credit, the Timbers ensured that all general admission Timbers Army tickets were available to supporters even as MLS took a sizable number of tickets for corporate sponsors elsewhere in the stadium.
That should guarantee a wild atmosphere. The weather also might be a significant factor. Rain can be difficult for defenders to deal with, especially on the Providence Park turf, but the wind might have a greater impact on the quality of play. Both teams are going to have to dig deep.
The Timbers have, common sense be damned, been the best team in MLS since the end of August. New York City is the best team they will have faced on this playoff run, but the Timbers are together, they’re confident, and they’re going to send us parading down Broadway in the rain next week. Prediction: Portland wins MLS Cup 2-1.