Portland Timbers midfielder Santiago Moreno settled the ball with his chest and turned centrally. He had received the pass near midfield and suddenly found himself in acres of space with teammates flanking him on both sides. He drove toward the penalty box and when the defenders didn’t close out, he released a shot from just beyond the penalty arc.
Real Salt Lake goalkeeper David Ochoa has his post covered, but Moreno’s shot ricocheted off the post, into Ochoa and back into the net.
“What a perfect moment to score his first goal,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said.
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The strike put Portland up 2-0 in the 61st minute and, with the way Savarese’s side had been playing, it might as well have been lights out. The Timbers still had to see out the match, but it was at that moment when the raucous crowd at Providence Park could start to taste it: The Timbers were going to MLS Cup. Half an hour later it was official.
And not only that, by virtue of their regular season points total, the Timbers will host whoever comes out of the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia Union or New York City FC.
Reaching MLS Cup isn’t new territory for the Timbers — they won it in 2015 and were runners up in 2018 — but Saturday’s return trip will be the first time they will play host to Major League Soccer’s grandest stage.
For Savarese, that has been the dream since he started managing the team in 2017.
“The dream became a reality,” he said. “And the only way this became a reality is because of the hard work everyone has put in this year and all these years that have been here. To be able to win this game tonight and host MLS Cup is something that we feel very proud and excited about.”
It also provides the Timbers with plenty of reason to be confident headed Saturday’s game. During the regular season, only the New England Revolution — which set the league’s single-season points record — won more games (12) than Portland did at home (11). The combination of one of the league’s most enthusiastic fan bases with a turf playing surface has turned Providence Park into a fortress.
“It’s definitely very important for us to be home,” said Timbers forward Felipe Mora. “Just being with our fans here, they make us feel great at home. So that’s going to be really important to play in the final.”
As the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference, Portland took an unlikely path to get here. It opened its playoff run with a 3-1 win against Minnesota United before beating top-seeded Colorado Rapids 1-0 on the road to earn another home game in Saturday’s conference final. Both Philadelphia and New York City went into the playoffs with better seeds, but were just off the Timbers’ regular-season points total (55).
Sloppy defending from Salt Lake in the fifth minute gave Portland the cushion it was looking for. A poor effort to clear the ball from seven yards in front of goal by Aaron Herrera put the ball at Mora’s feet and his quick reaction sent the ball back toward goal beyond Ochoa’s reach.
Portland got the win despite its best attacking player, Sebastian Blanco, watching from the bench. With another week to recover from a hamstring injury that was initially thought to have kept him completely out of the lineup against RSL, he figures to have a good shot at being back in the starting XI.
The loss spells the end of the line for RSL, but what a magical run it was. The team was moments from being eliminated on Decision Day only for Damir Kreilach’s last-minute goal to keep the season alive. Then came the historic win-without-a-shot game to advance through Seattle and a strong showing to knock off Sporting Kansas City.
“I couldn’t be more proud of being a part of this group,” RSL interim head coach Pablo Mastroeni said. “Nobody gave us a shot when the season started and no one gave us a shot when the playoffs started either. And so to have the mental toughness to overcome the perception of who we are is fantastic. You can always look at things from either perspective, but I couldn’t be more proud of the effort and commitment of this group that I was able to lead.”
As usual, MLS Cup will run through a team from the Pacific Northwest. No team other than Portland or Seattle has represented the Western Conference since 2014.