On the road, the Portland Timbers 2012 season has been a ghastly ghoul of a mess, chasing away players, coaches, formations, and ignominious records, not to mention any semblance of hope and progress. Road woes got John Spencer fired, Gavin Wilkinson to an inch of being chased onto the Willamette River by the more ardent Timbers Army members who carry lashes, and the inability to win away from Jeld-Wen Field has seen players and formations dropped and forgotten too many times to remember. But at home, even for a last place team, this season has been a different story, filled with goals, victories, big-game success, and brilliant memories.
There was the second-half masterpiece in the driving Portland rain against Philadelphia on opening day, the buck-stops-here performance against a Sporting Kansas City team riding a league-leading unbeaten streak, the smashing, rushing performance and triumph against Seattle, a thorough beating of league-leading San Jose, and the recent impressive performances in wins over Vancouver and Colorado, among other memorable victories and goals. Home is where the heart is, more so in Portland’s case than any other team in MLS, and if the boys in green hadn’t been so homesick on the road, it would have been a different season all together. But road performance, the nitty-gritty, usually dictates the fate of a season, and the Timbers fate slipped away from them a long time ago. Now, coming down the stretch of their sophomore year, the Timbers have only one thing to play for: The Cascadia Cup.
The Cascadia Cup, the round-robin Northwest rivalry between the Timbers, Seattle Sounders, and Vancouver Whitecaps, has seen some of the Timbers finest performances of the year, perhaps not coincidentally, all at home. With five games played in the competition, and four remaining, the Timbers lead the Sounders by three points, and the Whitecaps by five. Portland plays in three of the remaining four games, an October 20th game at BC Place in Vancouver, an October 7th game in the Emerald City, and of course, the massive home game against the Sounders, this Saturday on NBC. With a win, the Timbers will clinch the Cascadia Cup – and save some sliver of their 2012 season.
A game of this magnitude for this bad a team could only take place in soccer. The temperature of the Seattle-Portland rivalry can only match up to a traditional soccer derby in Europe, and thus, Portland can play the kind of game that sees people arriving at the stadium at 5:00AM, see the game be shown on broadcast national TV, and see a victory wash away some of the aggravation of a season that has flopped the way Portland’s season has.
We cannot understate the fact that this game is being shown on regular NBC. Portland and Seattle’s rivalry has been breaking down barriers in the American sporting world since the Timbers joined the Sounders in MLS, garnishing prominent articles in the New York Times and Sports Illustrated, while gaining exposure from being anointed teams whose fanbases give them appeal outside the soccer world. Getting this game, where the fans are as much an attraction for the mainstream audience as the players on the field, on NBC is massive for the league and the sport in America. For the Timbers, it’s an opportunity to expand the team brand, and, like it or not, players will be judged more on their performances on the big stages, a nationally televised derby, than a dreary Wednesday night game in Columbus. The players know it, and responding, in front of a new coach who will have no trouble watching from Akron, and playing well will help secure one of the Timbers open rosters spots for 2013.
Here’s the thing: If the Portland Timbers don’t win the Cascadia Cup, and preferably win it at home against Seattle, then this season is an untainted, unblemished, complete and total failure. This 2012 Timbers team must deliver Saturday. Gavin Wilkinson better lead them there. Because there is a big difference between being looked back on as the team that finished in last place and set the franchise back at least a year – but won the Cascadia Cup for the first time in the club’s MLS history – and the team that finished in last place and set the franchise back at least a year. The Timbers have a fantastic opportunity on their hands to cover themselves in glory in the midst of this terrible season, an opportunity that they don’t deserve in a way, but an opportunity they must take full advantage of.
Yes, winning the Cascadia Cup is certainly a consolation prize for the Timbers disgrace of an MLS season, but doing the double over Seattle and the word consolation will never be associated with each other. The Timbers and their famous fans know that, and the Sounders know it as well. So far in MLS, there is only one difference between the two sides, who both have awe-inspiring fans: Seattle succeeds on the field. Portland doesn’t. By winning on NBC Saturday, that can begin to change. If that can be this Portland team’s legacy, the Cascadia Cup champs who tipped the balances in the northwest, that’s fine. Really, that’s not bad. But if that doesn’t happen, this team is just the most disappointing in franchise history. It’s a lot easier to dump players from the worst team in franchise history than the team that finished the year holding up a trophy at Jeld-Wen Field after beating Seattle. It’s a big game. For a last place team. For any team. The Timbers can make 2012 count. For once, they need to take advantage.