There are days that stand out in the history of a club. Some of them are great memories, while others are sour. Dec. 6, 2015, is one that still leaves a bad taste in the mouths of Columbus Crew fans.
After finishing second in the Eastern Conference and tied for third overall in the Major League Soccer standings that season, the Crew marched through the MLS Cup playoffs, defeating the Montreal Impact 4-3 on aggregate and the Supporters’ Shield-winning New York Red Bulls 2-1 over two legs. There were early goals and late-game heroics and the Black & Gold felt like a team of destiny on that first Sunday in December.
On the other side was the Portland Timbers who had some destiny of their own. The Timbers defeated Sporting Kansas City in the knockout round thanks to the latest goal in MLS history and a penalty kick that hit both posts and stayed out to keep Portland alive.
When the two teams met in the MLS Cup Final at MAPFRE Stadium, both had reasons to think the championship would be theirs. Unfortunately for Columbus, the game went the way of Portland, 2-1.
Fast forward five years and the head coach responsible for leading the Timbers to their first MLS Cup that day, Caleb Porter, now is in charge of the Crew. On Saturday, Porter will be back in an MLS Cup Final at MAPFRE Stadium against the Seattle Sounders — Portland’s biggest rival — but this time with the Black & Gold.
“It’s amazing to think five years later that now I’m leading the club that I defeated five years earlier on the same pitch with the same referee and I don’t think it happened by accident,” Porter said this week.
While the memories of the 2015 MLS Cup Final are happy for Porter, they are not for the fanbase that now cheers him on. For them, it’s not just that the Crew lost that game, although that is always tough to stomach, but how it happened.
Twenty-seven seconds into the match, the Timbers were gifted a 1-0 lead thanks to a goalkeeping error by Columbus’ Steve Clark. Six minutes later, Portland was up 2-0 after sideline official Corey Parker and center referee Jair Marrufo — both of whom are on duty for Saturday’s Final — missed the ball clearly go out of bounds for a throw-in. Black & Gold midfielder Tony Tchani stopped on the play, thinking the ball was out, and the Timbers did not, scoring nine seconds later.
“Everybody’s going to talk about moments but if you look at the game, people have their opinions, but we were the better team on that day,” Porter said. “When you look at the chances, when you look at the way the game went. Ultimately, yes, the ball was out of bounds. But you can always go back and look at a play and say that was the reason or that was the reason. But at the end of the day, we scored a goal that had nothing to do with that.”
While some Crew fans may never admit it, Porter is correct. The Timbers outshot the Black & Gold 12-9 on the day. Portland put nine shots on goal, while Columbus’ only shot on target was Kei Kamara’s 18th minute goal.
Uncharacteristically, the Crew got away from playing the team’s game in the second half, with players trying to do too much individually to try and get back in the game rather than trusting what got the Black & Gold to that point. Portland stayed calm with a lead and continued to execute Porters’ game plan.
This time around, Porter is on Columbus’ bench and hopes to bring some of his experience to avoid the mistakes of the last MLS Cup appearance so he can celebrate with the Crew fans instead of disappointing them.
“Of course I understand that’s what’s talked about,” Porter said of the controversial no-call on the throw-in. “But I think hopefully winning this Final will help people get over that and quit talking about the what-ifs.”
Porter didn’t have to come to the Crew in January of 2019; the Black & Gold certainly weren’t his only option. But he appreciated the passion in the fanbase, both on that day in 2015 — some of which was not the Nordecke’s finest hour — and as he watched from afar as they helped to save the team. He saw an opportunity to build a winning tradition in a club that has just one MLS Cup in 25 years of existence.
Five years after Crew fans believed Porter and the Timbers stole one from them, the head coach has a chance to deliver that second MLS Cup.
“I think it’s meant to be and it’s for a reason and I just want to get the job done for the fans,” Porter said. “I suppose I owe them one, right?”