KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It was the kind of goal that would have stunned even those watching after the fact, already knowing how it would end.
Down 1-0 against Sporting Kansas City in the Western Conference Finals, the Portland Timbers found life with a stunning portrait of a creative attacker in action. In the 52nd minute, and nearly 35 feet out, Sebastian Blanco saw open grass. He dribbled right, maneuvered into even more open space, and launched a bullet that beautifully curled into the top corner of the net. SKC goalkeeper Tim Melia had virtually no chance at reaching it.
“Guy makes a good move, hits an unbelievable shot out of nowhere, and that was the first real opportunity they had in the game, and from there they got a little life, a little confidence,” Kansas City defender Ike Opara said.
Blanco’s dagger, which tied the match at 1-1, was the beginning of the end for Kansas City.
Portland scored twice in 10 minutes to cement its place in the MLS Cup, taking Sporting Kansas City down 3-2. Diego Valeri added another goal in stoppage time to pile on.
Portland will travel to Mercedes-Benz Stadium to face Atlanta United — who beat the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference final — for the title on Dec 8.
Up 1-0 in the early minutes of the second half Thursday, Kansas City was solidly in control. It dominated possession the majority of the first half, with 10 shots (five on goal) to the Timbers’ five total shots (none on target). Daniel Salloi got Kansas City on the books early, with his 20th minute goal. Johnny Russell nutmegged a defender on the far flank and got the ball inside to Diego Rubio. Rubio fired a cross past Portland goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, and Salloi was there for the easy tap-in past his defender.
But it was a drastically different flow of action in the second half, with Portland taking control early. Blanco found his chance in the 52nd minute. On that alone (a score-draw), the Timbers could have advanced, but they piled on.
Valeri added to SKC’s misery in the 61st minute. He looped in his own goal after Melia came off his line, and Opara couldn’t get between Valeri’s shot and the back of the net to put Portland up 2-1.
“Unfortunately we had a spell there for 10 or 15 minutes where we were a bit spread out and a few of Portland’s attacking players were able to find those spaces, and their most creative guys out on the ball, and they made plays during that 10- or 15-minute spell,” Kansas City defender Matt Besler said.
At that point, things quickly devolved at Children’s Mercy Park. At least two objects were thrown onto the field, prompting the public address announcer to implore fans not to throw anything on the pitch. Play was stopped, and players congregated on the sidelines, as Kansas City manager Peter Vermes marched halfway across the field, bellowing at fans to stop.
“There’s a level of professionalism you have to have in your stadium and I think usually we are incredible,” Vermes said. “But that was a low moment.”
Kansas City briefly got its breath back after Portland’s goals with a Gerso Fernandes shot in the 81st minute. Fernandes had just subbed in for Daniel Salloi and found himself on the end of a Graham Zusi cross. That goal tied it all up at 2-2, but Kansas City still needed another goal to go through to the MLS Cup. Instead, it was the Timbers who would nail in another score, with Valeri getting his second in stoppage time.
The 3-2 loss spoiled an otherwise historical SKC season. It was the first time since the team won the MLS Cup in 2013 that it did not lose in the knockout rounds of the playoffs. They scored the most goals in team history.
“My gut right now is disappointment because we took a really big step as a team this year in the way we played,” Besler said. “Hopefully I expect a similar group to be back and hopefully we can take something out of this feeling that we have right now and use it as motivation.”
Vermes’ assessment of the season was a bit more succinct:
“We always want to win trophies,” Vermes said. “So we didn’t win a trophy this year, so I think we came up short.”