Saturday, October 31, 2015
On Sunday, the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps FC will kick off the opening leg of their Western Conference Semifinal in the 2015 Audi MLS Playoffs (5 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Providence Park.
While this year marks the first season the Cascadia rivals will meet in the MLS postseason, though, it won’t be the first time a big playoff series has been contested by the two sides. The teams met three times in the USL Playoffs before making the move to MLS, with the 2009 meeting between the sides arguably the most memorable of the three.
The Timbers entered having earned a 3-1 aggregate victory two years earlier, as goals by Justin Thompson, Andrew Gregor and Jaime Ambriz overturned a one-goal deficit from the first leg at the then PGE Park. Portland had also claimed the USL regular season championship and a bye to the semifinals, as it lost just four times in 30 contests, and conceded only 19 goals.
On the other hand, the Whitecaps had finished in the final playoff place after going 11-10-9 in the regular season. But after winning their final two games of the regular season to reach the playoffs, they eked out a 1-0 aggregated win in their opening round contest behind a goal from Randy Edwini-Bonsu.
That momentum carried over into the first leg of their clash with the Timbers, as USL Golden Boot winner Charles Gbeke opened the scoring in the 25th minute with a diving header. Portland got back on level terms just before the break, as Ryan Pore converted a penalty kick after a handball.
Things seemed to get worse for the Whitecaps when Marco Reda was sent off a minute later, but Vancouver retook the lead four minutes into the second half when Marcus Haber headed home powerfully from Mbeka’s cross to make it 2-1. A late chance for Nizar Khalfan almost made it three late on for the Whitecaps, only for Sam Cronin to deny his 25-yard blast with the save, and keep the Timbers’ deficit to one goal as they returned home.
On the road, in front of a crowd of more than 14,000 fans, the Whitecaps struck early to get a two-goal lead at PGE Park when Haber’s second headed goal of the series put his side ahead in the second leg. Portland quickly responded, though, as Daniel Farber struck in the 10th minute from close range, and again two minutes before halftime with a header to swing momentum the Timbers way, as they made it 3-3 on aggregate with 45 minutes to play.
After going 10-3-2 on home turf in the regular season, the game appeared to be Portland’s for the taking, but the Whitecaps had other ideas. After being awarded a free kick on the top-left side of the penalty area, Vancouver captain Martin Nash lashed home a free kick into the top-right corner of the net on the hour-mark to put his side back ahead.
The Whitecaps almost added to their 4-3 aggregate lead 10 minutes later, when Takashi Hirano hit the post with a free kick of his own. From the ensuing corner kick, though, Marlon James bundled home a close-range finish to put Vancouver up by two goals with 19 minutes to go.
Portland fought back again, and with seven minutes to go cut its deficit in half when Alex Nimo drove home a finish from the top of the penalty area. Takayuki Suzuki almost found a dramatic equalizer for the Timbers in the 88th minute as well, but in the end the Whitecaps held on for a 5-4 aggregate win, and a place in the USL Championship.
The 2015 edition of the rivalry between the Timbers and Whitecaps has been as heated as ever, with Vancouver taking a 2-1 win in their first meeting this season, and a pair of draws in the subsequent two encounters. With any luck, this year’s playoff series between the sides will give fans just as many thrills as their encounter six years ago did.