Timbers’ MLS Cup Appearance 40 Years In The Making

Some highs, many lows since the appearance in the 1975 Soccer Bowl
by Ray Marcham   |   Friday, December 04, 2015

US Soccer Federation (USSF)

For longtime supporters of the Portland Timbers, it feels like numerous lifetimes since August 24, 1975.

It was on that sunny day in San Jose’s Spartan Stadium that the Timbers made their only appearance in a league championship game. Portland lost 2-0 to the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the NASL Soccer Bowl, ending the improbable dream of a championship in the Timbers’ first season.

That was 40 years ago. And now, here we are again.

That the Timbers would be in the MLS Cup Final this season seemed like an impossible task even 10 weeks ago. The club was just trying to get in the playoffs, and there were moments when that didn’t even seem likely.

But the incredible happened. Two posts happened. A nervous draw happened. A confident night in Vancouver happened. A vital third goal at home happened. A rainy night in the Dallas suburbs happened. And, now, Columbus will be seeing a lot of green, gold and white over the weekend.

The Timbers Army will be there. Timber Joey, and the famous scarf-covered log, will be there. Many supporters will be there with no tickets, but want…no, need…to be in Columbus, just in case.

It may be the night when 40 years of frustration finally goes away. A night where all that has happened between that August day in San Jose and a fall afternoon in Columbus may become history.

It would also be a chance to finally get the hardware that’s been long missing. That Western Conference Championship trophy is already one that the Timbers can say they have but their Cascadia rivals don’t. But the Sounders can point to their A-League/USL First Division titles and US Open Cups. The Whitecaps can bring up their NASL Soccer Bowl title and USL First Division crowns. The Timbers can point to…well, a few Cascadia Cups and a couple of Commissioner’s Cups (best regular season record in the A-League/USL First Division), but that’s pretty much it.

The history of these past 40 years has been one of much frustration for Timbers supporters. There was the hammering by the Cosmos in the 1978 conference final. There was the false dawn of the FC Portland/Timbers years of the mid-and late-80s. There was the endless ownership changes, squabbles and chaos for most of the A-League/USL First Division years (including a time when the Timbers were owned by a baseball league, the Pacific Coast League). There was the John Spencer era, the humiliating USOC losses to Hollywood United and Cal FC, the infamous 48 Seconds, the Chris Agnello era…it’s been interesting at times at the stadium known as Civic Stadium, PGE Park, Jeld-Wen Field and Providence Park.

Of course, there are also the Dark Ages, when there were no Timbers. The longest of those times were from 1991-2000, and there were times that it was beginning to look like the club would never come back. But after the US Men’s National Team came to Portland in 1997 and the city sold out Civic Stadium for the match against Costa Rica, the wheels started turning and the Timbers returned with a flourish in 2001.

So there have been many ups and downs in the last 40 years, and there have been many ups and downs this season. The seemingly usual slow start, the frustrations boiling over at midseason, the waiting for Will Johnson and Diego Valeri to return from injury…and that’s just the beginning. There were high moments (the US Open Cup win over Seattle), but it was looking like another trudge toward a season’s end where getting into the playoffs might be out of Portland’s hands. That the team seemed to play better on the road than at home also added to the frustration. There was even talk at one point that Caleb Porter was in the coaching hot seat.

But then something happened. After a 2-0 loss at home to New York on September 20 where the effort of the club was questioned by many in the stands, the Timbers went to Columbus and got a 2-1 win. Then came a home loss to Sporting Kansas City that was less about effort and more about SKC goalkeeper Tim Melia having a spectacular match. After that were the two matches that turned the season, both on the road.

On October 14, Portland won 2-1 at Real Salt Lake. Four days later, the Timbers stunned MLS with a 5-2 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy at the StubHub Center. Portland then got their badly needed home win, 4-1 over Colorado, and suddenly the Timbers went from scraping to make the playoffs to finishing third in the West.

What’s happened since is well documented. The amazing match with SKC that included late goals in regulation and extra time, an 11-round shootout, Saad Abdul-Salaam’s double-post miss and Adam Kwarasey’s heroics. The series win over Vancouver. The needed third goal by Nat Borchers in the late game chaos in Portland. A steady, solid 2-2 draw with FC Dallas that put the Timbers in the MLS Cup, highlighted by Lucas Melano’s amazing extra time goal. It’s a run no one in Portland expected, but are enjoying while it lasts.

And it ends, one way or another, on Sunday. That it’s in Columbus, where the late season turnaround began, is somewhat fitting. If it ends in a loss, then the disappointment will come along with the amazement of even getting to this point, and it will go down in Timbers lore as a most unexpected run.

But, if the Timbers leave Columbus with the MLS Cup, it would be the most unexpected finale to a crazy season. The thousands who will have traveled to Columbus for the game, with and without tickets, along with most of the state of Oregon and southwest Washington, will have a party not seen in a long time. And they will, at long last, have something that the Sounders nor Whitecaps can claim.

Quite a fantasy that is. By Sunday night, we’ll know if it becomes reality.

And we’ll know if 40 years of frustration, from that sunny day in San Jose to the late autumn night in Columbus, comes to a glorious end. 


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.