Portland Hopes to Chase Away Ghosts of Playoffs Past

Legacy of brief highs, devastating lows mark Timbers’ postseason history
by Ray Marcham   |   Friday, November 01, 2013

Green Logs – column on Portland Timbers (PTFC) & the Portland, Oregon area soccer scene.

As the Portland Timbers get ready for their first run in the MLS playoffs, there is hope that 2013 can erase some bad memories.

So, it’s only appropriate that their biggest rivals are their first postseason opponent, just like in the beginning nearly 40 years ago.

The postseason history of the Timbers is littered with disappointment, from heart-wrenching losses to brief, uneventful appearances. There are also moments of brilliance, few and fleeting. The hope is that starting on Saturday night, when they play the Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Field, and continuing on the following Thursday at JELD-WEN Field, this next playoff chapter will be better than those previously written.

There have been moments of brilliance, of course. There is always Tony Betts’ overtime winner in 1975 that allowed the Timbers to beat the Sounders 2-1, advancing Portland into the NASL semifinals and sending over 31,000 fans at Portland Civic Stadium into happy chaos. That was followed up by a win over St. Louis in the semis and Portland’s only appearance in a title game, losing to Tampa Bay in the Soccer Bowl in San Jose.

The 1978 run was also notable, as the Timbers, seeded at No. 4 in the NASL National Conference, beat Washington and Vancouver to make the conference finals. Alas, it was the buzzsaw that was the New York Cosmos that ended that run, and it would be decades before Portland would get that close again.

There was one more playoff appearance for the Timbers, in 1981, but they lost to San Diego in the opening round. The Western Soccer League version of the Timbers, led by Kasey Keller, Scott Benedetti and original Timber John Bain, lost to San Diego in the 1989 playoffs in the only postseason appearance in the FC Portland/Timbers amateur era (1985-90), marking a high point in an otherwise uneventful time.

The A-League/USL era would bring a few highs, and some extreme lows, for the Timbers. Portland had the best record in the A-League in 2004 and was the #1 seed in the Western Conference. But a Welton Melo goal in extra time led to a heartbreaking loss to Seattle in the conference semis, ending the season earlier than expected. Portland also had the best record in the 2009 USL 1st Division (which had a single table that season) earning a 1st round bye in the process. That included a 24-match unbeaten run, still a USL record. But it was another Cascadia side, Vancouver, who knocked them out of the playoffs in the league semifinals, losing 5-4 on aggregate.

Portland had one other USL 1st Division semifinal appearance, when they lost to Atlanta on penalties in 2007 after beating Vancouver in the quarterfinals. Their one other USL playoff success came in their first A-League season in 2001, when the Timbers defeated Charlotte in the 1st round in before losing to Hershey in the quarterfinals.

More often than not, it was the Cascadian rivals that would ensure the Timbers would not make it far in the playoffs in the 2nd division. Besides 2004, The Sounders knocked Portland out of the USL 1st Division playoffs in the 2005 quarterfinals, while the Whitecaps, along with the 2009 win, ended the Timbers’ season in 2002 (A-League 1st round) and 2010 (USSF Division 2 quarterfinals).

Current days

That brings us to this season. Much like 2004 and 2009, Portland heads into the playoffs as a #1 seed, though, this time around, they do not have the best record in the league (New York being the top overall seed, and the Supporters’ Shield winner, for 2013).

But while this new territory for the MLS Timbers, there is significant postseason experience on the roster. Will Johnson lifted the MLS Cup in 2009 while with Real Salt Lake. Donovan Ricketts helped lead the Los Angeles Galaxy to the 2011 MLS Cup title and to the cup final in 2009. Michael Harrington and Jack Jewsbury were part of Kansas City sides that went deep into the playoffs. That experience could be crucial as the playoffs move on.

With this new territory comes an old rival. Seattle’s 2-0 win over Colorado on Wednesday night means a trip to CenturyLink Field on Saturday for the Timbers to start their playoff run. The format is a two-match, aggregate goals format, so a draw with the Sounders would be crucial for Portland, leading to the second leg on Nov. 7 at JELD-WEN Field. History has shown that when these two clubs meet in the playoffs, the winner ends up playing for a league title (Portland in 1975, Seattle in 2004-05). That’s a goal either side would love to repeat this year. The season series is 1-1-1, with each club winning at home and a draw in Seattle in March. It makes for an opportunity to create more Cascadia legends, either for Seattle or Portland.

For many who have followed the Timbers over the years, whether they started in the USL era or go all the way back to the NASL side, the playoffs always bring excitement, tinged with a bit of worry. The past shows the worry is justified. The present can supersede that, and a new, successful playoff era for Portland can begin.

We’ll know more in a week whether it’s agony or elation for the Timbers and its Army.

NEXT UP: November 2 – Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders, CenturyLink Field, Seattle. 10 p.m. EST, NBCSN.


Washington State
Club Domestic:
Portland Timbers
Club Foreign:
Cascadia native and a fan for as long as he can remember, Ray was brought up on the old NASL. Learned to love MLS. Wanted to play like Clive Charles. Then like Tony Adams. Only dreams, of course.