- In a playoff thriller that featured twists, redemption, a massive mental lapse and the cruelty of penalties, the Portland Timbers went to Seattle and eliminated the rival Sounders to keep their hopes of a second MLS Cup alive.
The Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers rarely disappoint when playing one another, and Thursday night was no exception.
The storied rivalry between Pacific Northwest powers added another memorable chapter, with Portland outlasting Seattle 4-2 in penalty kicks after a 4-4 aggregate draw to advance to the MLS Western Conference finals.
Portland had carried a 2-1 edge into the second leg after a win at home last Sunday, and it nursed its aggregate lead until the 68th minute. It was then that Timbers goalkeeper Jeff Attinella failed to catch a cross he had come off his line to grab, resulting in a goal for Raul Ruidiaz–the goal Seattle needed to go ahead by virtue of the away-goal tiebreaker.
The advantage didn't last, though, as Sebastian Blanco scored 10 minutes later to re-take the series lead and put Portland in position to advance. That is, until Ruidiaz struck again, three minutes into stoppage time. His exquisite volley gave the Sounders another lifeline and forced extra time, where the action didn't stop. Dairon Asprilla, who played sparingly during the regular season but has become a playoff star over the years, headed home after Diego Valeri's majestic cross, only for Blanco to commit a handball inside the box four minutes later. Nicolas Lodeiro scored from the penalty spot, evening the series back up at 4-4 on aggregate as the seesaw continued to move.
Ruidiaz thought he had the winner in the second half of extra time, but his goal was rightfully taken off the board after he handled the ball on the final touch that put it in the net (bringing back memories of his 2016 Copa America Centenario goal for Peru that eliminated Brazil in the process). Seattle wound up winning 3-2 on the night, but Portland persevered through penalties–despite multiple players appearing to not understand that the away goals rule didn't carry into extra time–and will play the winner of the Sporting Kansas City-Real Salt Lake series to determine which side makes it to MLS Cup.
Here are three thoughts on a playoff rivalry bout for the ages:
An instant classic unfolds after a physical battle
For the first hour of the match, it didn't seem like a back-and-forth attacking explosion was in the cards. Referee Jair Marrufo let plenty go in a physical first half, brandishing just one yellow card and swallowing the whistle as player after player went down under apparent contact.
There was controversy in the 18th-minute when a ball appeared to clearly hit off Liam Ridgewell's arm while he was on the ground in the box as Alvas Powell blocked a cross behind him, but no penalty was called in Seattle's favor. From there, neither side could break through with the goal that would throw things into chaos until Attinella committed his blunder. That forced Portland to go for it–which it did–and Seattle to counter with everything it had–which it did.
The constant back and forth offered a chance at redemption for Ruidiaz, who had missed an earlier chance before his go-ahead and equalizing strikes, and for Attinella, whose miscue gave Ruidiaz the opportunity to score in the first place. It was his save on Osvaldo Alonso–immediately after Will Bruin had hit the post–in penalties that made it seem like a hill too steep for Seattle to climb in the shootout.
Portland and Seattle have played their share of classics through the years, dating well beyond their MLS days, but this, considering the stakes and multiple twists down the stretch, has to be up there with the best of the bunch.
Somebody get the Timbers a rule book
At the end of extra time, the whistle blew and penalties beckoned. Everyone in CenturyLink Field knew that. Except, apparently, select members of the Timbers.
Thinking that their away goal in extra time was added to the tally in regulation, certain players presumed that they'd won via tiebreaker. Per MLS rules, away goals stop being a factor after regulation ends, though, meaning that not only did those players, who were hugging after the whistle thinking it was over, not have the possibility of PKs on the mind, but they'd gone the final 23 minutes of extra time not realizing they needed to score again to win!
Ultimately, it didn't matter. The Timbers were largely lethal on their penalties, with Blanco, one of the guilty, celebrating parties, converting his kick. Perhaps ignorance really is bliss–but Portland might want to be more prepared for the next round.
The Sounders have proven to be a resilient bunch all season. They spent the offseason thinking they would get valuable contributions in the attack from Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris. Dempsey wound up retiring in August, six months after Morris tore his ACL. They won three of their first 15 games, then wound up with a first-round bye.
They lost center back rock Chad Marshall and midfield cog Cristian Roldan to injury in the first leg, yet didn't appear to be too unsettled with Roman Torres and Harry Shipp starting in their place.
They also dealt with a massive missed opportunity when they were down a goal on aggregate, back when the second leg remained at 0-0. The moment Ruidiaz, who cut a frustrated figure all night before his heroics later, was waiting for finally came in the 54th minute. Torres had headed a ball across the box, to where an unmarked Ruidiaz was running. The Peruvian extended his leg and went into a sliding volley, but he hooked it, missing the target completely.
At the time, it seemed like the one that got away. Of course, the match unfolded in a way less straightforward manner, and Ruidiaz managed to get the goal that sent the match into a tailspin.
Seattle was dealt another setback three minutes into extra time, when Asprilla scored, but yet again, the courageous bunch found a way to pull even, with Lodeiro notching the equalizer from the penalty spot. Even in the PK shootout, down 3-1, the Sounders scored and got the save necessary to push things to the fifth round before finally wilting–and even then, Stefan Frei got a hand to Asprilla's clinching penalty.
Seattle's two-season reign in the Western Conference may be over, but what an effort it took to make it so.