Portland Timbers advance to MLS Cup


Tierney Griffiths

Fireworks go off on the field following the Portland Timbers’ win against Real Salt Lake on Saturday, December 4.

This past Saturday, the Portland Timbers won the Western Conference final, 2-0, against Real Salt Lake (RSL), earning the title “Best in the West” and advancing to the Major League Soccer (MLS) Cup final against the New York City Football Club (NYC FC). This will be the third time that the club has gone so far and the first time with home-field advantage, and what an advantage it is. Timbers fans are infamous for their creative demonstrations and volume, intimidating referees and opposing teams alike. They were especially raucous on Saturday as the stadium at Providence Park had sold out for the first time this season—unusual as the Timbers usually sell out every game, but these have been unusual circumstances. 

The Game

The first goal was scored in the fifth minute by Felipe Mora, the team’s leading scorer (11 goals) and one of the newer players, who’s stepped into the gap left by Sebastian Blanco’s ACL tear last season. RSL’s defense failed to clear a cross, passing directly to Mora, creating an easy opportunity. It was largely a game in the Timbers’ favor, with seven shots on goal to RSL’s three. Only one notable moment occurred in the 32nd minute when RSL pressured the Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clarke to make a fantastic instinctive save. In the 61st minute, the game-winning goal was scored by Santiago Moreno, bouncing off the post and then the goalkeeper to end up in the back of the net. Moreno was acquired mid-season, and this was his first goal for the Timbers, earning him the title “Man of the Match” by the MLS. 

Following the national anthem, the Timbers Army revealed a tifo reading “Hold Your Ground, Take the Crown” to encourage the team.

Though they lead by two goals, Timbers fans were nervous as the game came upon its 70th minute. The momentum of a game can shift at any time and RSL is known for scoring most of its goals in the latter minutes of the game; the Timbers tend to concede. 

These worries were put to rest as, at the 79th minute, RSL player Aaron Herrera earned a second yellow card after a late foul on Marvin Loria. RSL played a man down for the rest of the night, making a comeback highly unlikely. The Timbers rode out the remaining ten minutes to take the Western Conference title. 


The Timbers are a primarily counter-attacking team, winning the ball in their defensive half and transitioning into blindingly fast passing runs down the center of the field. Real Salt Lake, however, made it to the playoffs against stiff competition based primarily on the strength of their defense. They played the Seattle Sounders—the second-ranked team in the Western Conference—to a shutout until the 120th minute, leading the final result to be decided by penalty kicks. Against the Timbers, the early goal forced them on the attack and allowed the home team to sit back and play the way they wanted, leading to the winning scoreline. 

Looking ahead

The Cup final on Saturday will be NYC FC’s first and Portland’s third; they won in 2015 and lost in 2018. The Timbers also won the one-off MLS is Back Tournament in the summer of 2020 since the regular season had been disrupted due to Covid-19. As such, the Timbers have tournament experience, making them favorites to win the cup this year. 

Players gather on the field after the game. (Tierney Griffiths)

Additionally, NYC FC put on a poor showing in the Eastern Conference final against the Philadelphia Union—a team that had 11 players out with COVID-19, nine of whom were starters. Philadelphia looked like the better team for the majority of the match, scoring the first goal. Their team of young and old substitute players with little experience working together shouldn’t have beat NYC FC’s team of consistent starters, leading to low confidence in NYC’s chances.

Wrapping it up

The Timbers were the fourth-ranked team on the table and RSL the seventh. It was a tournament of underdogs as the Timbers defeated the 5th and 1st ranked team and RSL the second and third. It is a testament to the unpredictable nature of the game and to the virtue of perseverance that Portland made it through.

The MLS Cup will air this Saturday at 12:00 PM PST on ABC.