No fairy-tale ending for Valeri and the Timbers


PORTLAND, Ore. — When fans started lining up outside Providence Park on Monday, five days before the Timbers were set to host their first MLS Cup, their rationale boiled down to something simple: They wanted to experience history. Portland has billed itself as Soccer City USA for decades and the opportunities to show why — on an elevated stage — have been few and far between. Here was their chance.

It was bigger than soccer, too. For a city that has seen its reputation take a beating at times over the past two years, MLS Cup was a chance to show pride in the community and in the club. Through rain, wind and cold Saturday afternoon, Timbers fans mostly made good on that. They created an atmosphere fitting for a championship game that only few places in the country can hope to replicate in the sport. When Felipe Mora equalized, 1-1, in the waning moments of stoppage time, pandemonium ensued with the sense a storybook ending was soon to follow.

It did not.

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The Timbers remained the aggressor in extra time, having worn down the high-intensity pressing visitors from New York City, but the winning goal eluded them and the match went to penalties in front of the Timbers Army. With Mora set to lead off and Diego Valeri, the heart and soul of the club for most of its time in Major League Soccer, to follow, the Timbers had reason to be confident. Both had their shots stopped and the Timbers fell, 4-2. Such is soccer.

“Soccer can be cruel because only one can win and when it’s in PKs, it’s even worse,” Portland head coach Gio Saverese said. “So we’ll have to just make sure that we don’t forget the most important part is that this group today showed why it’s in the final.

“It’s difficult not to lift the trophy at home.”

It was particularly cruel for Valeri. He has accomplished nearly everything there is no accomplish in MLS since arriving from his native Argentina in 2013. He won MLS Cup in 2015 and was the game’s MVP. He was the league MVP in 2017 and a four-time all-star, but his future with the club isn’t clear. Over the course of the season his role diminished and it’s possible, if not likely, MLS Cup will be his final appearance for the Timbers. To have scored in penalties to help secure the championship in front of the home fans would have been the ultimate send off.

Earlier in the week, Valeri had seen the fans lining up around the stadium and understood lasting impact that would come from lifting the trophy inside Providence Park.

“For us, it’s unbelievable. We know we have to give everything for those that love the club and the team,” he told ESPN on Thursday. “To have it happen here would be totally different [than winning on the road].”

If MLS Cup was, in fact, Valeri’s final game with the club, the legacy he leaves behind is unmatched.

“This guy helped grow the culture and the team to a different level for the club, for the community,” said Timbers midfielder Diego Chara. “It’s been [a great] experience to play with Valeri for eight years. He’s amazing.”

Had the Timbers found a late winner or came out on top in penalties, Chara might have been named the game’s MVP. At 35 years old, he looked as fresh in extra time as he did when the game began and was able to snuff out anything that resembled a chance for NYCFC in the game’s later stages.

It wasn’t unexpected when Portland mostly sat back and tried to play on the counter during the first half, but the Timbers’ weren’t able to generate any real threatening sequences for roughly the game’s first 60 minutes. Attacking midfielder Sebastian Blanco, the team’s best player through the season, returned to the starting XI following a hamstring injury two weeks ago and failed to make much of a positive influence. Santiago Moreno replaced Blanco in the 62nd minute and from there, Portland gradually tilted the field to its advantage.

Even as Portland played more in its attacking third, good chances were limited and when it was announced there would be four minutes of stoppage time, the idea of a late winner seemed remote. Then, nearly the full four minutes past 90, Yimmi Chara headed the ball into a sea of bodies in front of NYCFC’s goal, it pinballed around before landing at the feet of Mora, who calmly slotted it past Johnson.

“That was an indescribable moment for us since we fought throughout the match to earn that goal,” Moreno said. “We felt we deserved it.”

Portland had been chasing a goal since falling behind in the 41st minute on a free header from Golden Boot award winner Taty Castellanos. He remained unmarked on a free kick cross from Maxi Moralez and goalkeeper Steve Clark didn’t react well enough to keep it from dribbling softly over the line near his far post.

The goal celebration was marred by an ugly incident in which two beer cans were thrown onto the field toward the celebrating visitors. One can struck NYCFC forward Jesus Medina, who was slow to get back to his feet, but remained in the game.

Portland quickly announced the fan, later identified as Ivan Carrillo, had been kicked out of the game and banned from Providence Park. Portland police arrested both Carrillo, 24, and Eduardo Ramos, 31, in the wake of the incident, the Oregonian reported.

After Alex Callens converted the game-winning penalty, NYCFC’s celebration was met with a wholly different response. Though there were fans who immediately cleared out, that wasn’t the case behind the goal where the thousands of people who make up the Timbers Army remained standing, chanting in unison, “P-T … F-C.”

It wasn’t the result they were looking for, but the pride they felt for their team and their city remained strong.

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