• Portland will play for a second MLS Cup in four seasons after getting clutch performances from Sebastian Blanco and Diego Valeri and withstanding an onslaught from Sporting KC in the second leg of the Western Conference finals.
By Avi Creditor
November 30, 2018

Sporting Kansas City pressured early and late, but a nine-minute second-half span and a stoppage-time strike sent the Portland Timbers back to MLS Cup for the second time in four seasons.

Sebastian Blanco's 52nd-minute stunner tilted the scales, and Diego Valeri wound up scoring an ultimately decisive goal in the 61st and a series icer in the 99th, as the Timbers went to Children's Mercy Park and escaped with a 3-2 win both on the night and on aggregate, advancing from the Western Conference finals. As a result, Portland will head to Atlanta on Dec. 8 for an MLS Cup showdown, after the latter's 3-1 series win over the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference.

Daniel Salloi scored in the 20th minute, and Gerso Fernandes came off the bench to score in the 81st for Sporting KC, which largely dominated the match aside from the second-half lapse, but that's all it took to cement its playoff ouster, while Portland seeks a second title to go along with its 2015 trophy. 

Here are three thoughts on an action-packed conference final:

Portland's Argentine maestros come through

Portland was on its heels for much of the opening 50 minutes, some by design, some by sheer force of Sporting KC's relentless attack. The Timbers are an excellent defend-and-counter side, and, according to TruMedia and OptaPro, only one other team started its possessions from a deeper position than Portland (Montreal) in MLS this season.

That said, Portland was rather fortunate to have only conceded once in the first half. That gave the Timbers the luxury of knowing that all it would take is one moment, one simple away goal, to completely turn the tide in their favor. The moment came, but it was anything but simple. Blanco's sensational strike from almost 30 yards put Portland in the driver's seat and drew a classic look of disbelief from his countryman, Valeri, in reaction. 

With Sporting KC still reeling from the strike, Valeri followed up soon after with a header after Jeremy Ebobisse's flick that really ramped up the heat on the hosts. 

Plenty saw the 0-0 first-leg draw in Portland as advantage SKC, but Portland's penchant for coming up with clutch moments always meant the Timbers could seize the series, especially considering the power of its away goals. Even though it wound up conceding the second, it had that tiebreaker safety net to fall into and a margin for error that Sporting KC never possessed.

As if he hadn't already done enough, Valeri appropriately iced the series deep in to stoppage time–over 10 minutes were required as a result of a delay for fans throwing beer cans onto the field–on a typical Portland counterattack off a SKC corner kick. After the clearance, Diego Chara deftly played it to Blanco, who then played it long for Chara in return. The Colombian dynamo raced to track it down before curling a perfect ball across for Valeri. The 2017 MLS MVP ran onto it, beat Tim Melia on the break–the Timbers' third goal on three shots on target–and that was that. The crafty, opportunistic, ruthless Timbers will play for another championship.

Sporting KC will wonder how this got away

Sporting KC came out on fire, perhaps spurred by Patrick Mahomes and members of the Kansas City Chiefs whooping up the crowd during pregame festivities (or, more likely, through Peter Vermes's tactical approach and the return of the previously suspended Diego Rubio to the lineup).

After a series of close calls and peppering Portland goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, SKC got its breakthrough from Salloi, who fired home after Rubio's cross from the endline in the 20th minute.

Sporting KC couldn't pad its lead, though, and it had two subsequent goals rightly disallowed for offsides. That wastefulness and inability to turn up the heat even more left the door open for Portland to pounce, thanks to the away goal situation. 

Vermes threw everything forward down the stretch, and SKC certainly has a fair claim to make that it should've been up a man for the final 20-plus minutes. Portland defender Zarek Valentin got away with a hard tackle on Gerso in the 70th minute that could've easily resulted in a second yellow card and a sending off, but referee Mark Geiger, who otherwise had a strong hold on an intense match, left the card in the pocket and issued just a free kick.

SKC threatened to score the go-ahead goal but ultimately left itself exposed in the back for Valeri's 99th-minute strike. When it looks back on this match, it'll see a series of missed opportunities and a trip to MLS Cup that simply slipped away.

CREDITOR: Atlanta Eases By Red Bulls to Reach, Host MLS Cup

Savarese returns to the final stage

Giovanni Savarese had big shoes to fill, stepping in for Caleb Porter on Portland's sideline this season, and his hire was met with some skepticism. That skepticism surely has subsided now. 

In four of his five seasons coaching the New York Cosmos in NASL, his side reached the final (won three, lost one). Now in his first season in MLS, he's done the same. He's inherited the squad that Porter took to 2015 MLS Cup heights and molded it into his own. His debut season as an MLS coach surely had its ups and downs. Portland started winless in its first five games, then followed that with a 15-match unbeaten run. It dropped its next four and then endured an inconsistent run down the stretch. Savarese gambled by resting starters for the regular-season finale even though it resulted in a road game for the knockout round, but the risk paid off. 

He's instilled a belief in a Timbers team that features plenty of game-changers and has found his core group, upon whom he can rely in playoff atmospheres. Beating Atlanta at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where United has gone 13-2-4 in the regular season and playoffs combined this season, won't be easy, but he's already set up his side to get a draw there once this season, and all pressure will be on the hosts to deliver at home. As far as early returns go, Portland couldn't have asked for more from Savarese.

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