MLS is down to its final two: just a couple of No. 4 seeds fighting for the league championship.
The Portland Timbers and NYCFC booked their tickets to the title match over the weekend, with the Western Conference champions due to host at Providence Park by virtue of having the better regular-season finish (55 points to NYCFC's 51).
On the surface, these clubs have little to do with each other. Whereas Portland is playing for the MLS title for a third time in seven seasons, NYCFC is embarking on new territory, having reached the final for the first time in club history. The two didn't even play against each other in the 2021 regular season due to the league's scheduling imbalance, and they haven't seen one another on the field since the MLS Is Back tournament quarterfinals in August 2020, a match the Timbers won 3–1.
But beyond their respective conference seeds, Portland and NYCFC do have plenty in common. Both overcame red cards to key attacking players en route to Saturday's title bout in the Pacific Northwest, with Portland dispatching Real Salt Lake in the conference final without Dairon Asprilla, a 10-goal scorer who has a history of coming through in the playoffs for the Timbers. NYCFC, meanwhile, eked by a severely depleted Philadelphia Union side without Taty Castellanos, the MLS Golden Boot winner and 19-goal scorer whose foolish second yellow card in the conference semifinals against top-seeded New England threatened to derail the club's best playoff run.
Both have also dealt with devastating injuries to key players. NYCFC’s Anton Tinnerholm, one of the best right backs in the league, ruptured his Achilles in October. Stalwart midfielder Keaton Parks was also lost for the season due to a blood clot in his leg. Their absences have served as rallying and motivational points for the club throughout the fall. Portland lost winger Andy Polo after he was on the wrong end of a nasty challenge in May, and then integral midfielder and U.S. international Eryk Williamson had his season ended due to a torn ACL in late August, forcing manager Giovanni Savarese to compensate for what had become foundational pieces of the clubs lineup.
Both also lost key cogs late last season and have had to move forward either without them or with them at a significantly reduced capacity. Portland maestro Sebastián Blanco and NYCFC forward Héber both tore ACLs within two weeks of each other in September 2020. Blanco was back by June and had seven goals and seven assists in 24 appearances in the regular season, though a subsequent hamstring injury kept him out of the Western Conference final (he was available as a sub) and may keep him from being at full throttle for Saturday's final. Héber, meanwhile, was out for nearly a full year and was limited to seven substitute appearances before being pushed into a starter’s role in the Eastern Conference final.
Both also effectively punched their tickets on bizarre goals due to defensive gaffes and friendly bounces. Portland’s opener on Saturday was a case of Felipe Mora being in the right place to benefit from an ill-conceived clearance attempt from RSL’s Aaron Herrera, with the ricochet going off the Chilean forward and in. The Timbers’ second came off the foot of Santiago Moreno, whose long-range blast hit off the post, off goalkeeper David Ochoa and in.
NYCFC went through thanks to 19-year-old Talles Magno, who scored only after Philadelphia's Olivier Mbaizo badly judged a long diagonal over the top that Gudmundur Thórarinsson won and crossed into the danger zone.
More importantly, they both have cleared every hurdle thus far in the playoff gantlet to earn the right to play for the league title. New England was by far and away the best team in MLS this season, but the Revs won’t go down as its 2021 champion. That’ll be sorted in Portland at what is sure to be a raucous stadium that has already witnessed one Portland–New York final this year (Thorns vs. Gotham FC in the NWSL Challenge Cup) and will relish another with MLS's biggest trophy of all at stake.
“To be able to host MLS Cup, it is a dream come to reality,” Savarese said.
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