PORTLAND, Oregon — As the pregame tifo from the Timbers Army unfurled, it was clear that the home fans at Providence Park were trying to channel the energy from Portland’s run to the 2015 MLS Cup. The message read “We’re Back, You’re Welcome” — a reference to the television show “Eastbound & Down,” which was the inspiration for many tifo from that magical season.
Sporting Kansas City certainly didn’t need any reminders of that campaign. SKC was one of Portland’s victims during that year’s playoffs, falling in the knockout round via a penalty shootout that was immortalized for, among other things, Saad Abdul-Salaam’s attempt at a game-winner that hit both posts and bounced out.
It was fitting then that not only did Sporting KC deliver a bit of karmic payback with a 0-0 draw in the first leg of the Western Conference finals against the Timbers, but it managed to set the Wayback Machine to its own MLS Cup run in 2013.
The similarities to the current campaign and that year’s playoffs are borderline spooky for Kansas City. Five years ago, SKC opened the conference finals with a similar 0-0 road draw against the Houston Dynamo, surviving an apparent goal from the Dynamo’s Kofi Sarkodie that was waived off by the referee. Kansas City then relied on some gritty defending to head back home level, eventually prevailing in the second leg 2-1.
History repeated itself on this night on multiple fronts. An apparent second-half goal from the Timbers’ David Guzman was disallowed, and there was plenty of stout defending from SKC to secure the scoreless draw.
“It was a frantic game and it never settled down,” SKC defender Matt Besler said. “We expected it to be that way, at least to start, because it’s a playoff game and we’re away from home and it’s a difficult place to play. But at the same time, we expected the game to settle down at some point with a spell of possession here or there, for both sides. I don’t think we had a spell or they had a spell. It was just up and down, up and down.”
There were some critical differences as well. Most notably the posts that were unkind to Kansas City three years ago came to its rescue this time, as Jorge Villafana’s sixth-minute strike hit the post and bounced harmlessly away.
“Same goal, right?” asked SKC manager Peter Vermes. Indeed it was.
“It’s the way this game is. It doesn’t always work out for you, but there are times when you get something on the other end, so that’s a good thing.”
Vermes has always been one to look forward and resist comparing different editions of his teams to one another. Every season, the players, the circumstances and the luck are all different. Just five players are still with SKC from the title-winning 2013 campaign.
So the reason why Vermes is optimistic about his team’s chances of progressing to the MLS Cup final have nothing to do with what happened a few years ago, but rather a few weeks ago. To hear Vermes tell it, the second leg against Real Salt Lake, one in which SKC was pushed to the limit in a 4-2 victory that was closer than the score indicated, gave his side the kind of playoff experience needed to ride out some of Sunday’s tougher moments.
“That game was intense,” Vermes said about the second leg against RSL. “It was just everything you would expect in a playoff game. I think that really helped us tonight, just feeling that environment, that intensity of the game, it was good for us.”
That experience enabled Kansas City to survive a first half that Portland dominated. Kansas City then played more on level terms after the interval. Vermes wouldn’t disclose what he changed at halftime, but goalkeeper Tim Melia noted that the SKC midfield started the match playing a little bit deeper than they normally do.
SKC looked more aggressive in the second half, and the normally reliable Johnny Russell had one opportunity from 11 yards that he somehow put high. He later got to the end line only to see his centering pass force an awkward clearance from the Timbers’ Zarek Valentin.
“The one in the box, that’s like [Russell’s] bread and butter,” Vermes said. “And the one across the box, I don’t know how we don’t tap it in. We made some good chances.”
Granted, the karmic pendulum hasn’t swung completely back in SKC’s direction. While the scoreline is level, the away goals tiebreaker means Kansas City’s advantage isn’t as big as it might look. Portland’s ability on the break also poses a threat that might be more of a factor on the road when the onus to carry the game will be on Kansas City.
“We’re not celebrating,” Besler said. “There’s a lot of work to be done. Portland’s a great team and more than capable of going on the road and getting a result.”
Yet Kansas City has already done just that, and now it remains on course to duplicate its feat from 2013.