On Saturday at Providence Park, in sports bars and living rooms around the city, and in the Portland sports fan diaspora worldwide, the Timbers faithful barely had to hold their breath, bite their nails, or hide their faces behind their scarves as the team struck first against Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference final for the chance to play in the MLS Cup on December 11.
Felipe Mora’s goal in the fifth minute gave the Timbers an early lead, and Santiago Moreno’s long-distance bouncer in the 61st doubled it. When the final whistle blew, people celebrated not just the win but the opportunity to host the final match for the first time in Timbers history.
“The players understood the moment,” coach Gio Savarese said afterward of the “phenomenal night. And now, to be able to host MLS Cup, it is a dream come to reality.”
Portland won the MLS Cup in 2015, besting Columbus Crew in Ohio. Of the 2015 team, only Diego Chara, Dairon Asprilla, George Fochive (after a hiatus), and Diego Valeri (who scored the fastest goal in MLS Cup history 27 seconds in, on his now-teammate Steve Clark) are still on the roster. The Timbers played in the finals three years later, losing in Atlanta.
The team with more points over the season hosts the final, so the Timbers were locked in as hosts for 2021 even before the Eastern Conference champion was decided Sunday, as they were ahead of both higher-seeded Philadelphia Union (which was out half its roster due to COVID) and eventual winner New York City FC.
Even non-Portlanders seem giddy, with commentators during Sunday’s Eastern Conference final in Pennsylvania noting how exciting it will be to have the MLS Cup played in Portland, calling Providence Park “a cathedral” and the city “a mecca” for professional soccer in the US.
That’s a feeling shared by the Rhian Wilkinson, whose hiring as the new coach for the Portland Thorns was officially announced last Monday, November 29, after weeks of rumor.
“This is the job in the women’s game, and to have this opportunity is a dream come true,” Wilkinson said the next day in a press conference alongside Karina LeBlanc, her former Canada national teammate who was hired in October as the first Thorns-specific general manager.
“It was a long process. It wasn’t me hiring a friend,” LeBlanc says, noting the task of replacing six-season coach Mark Parsons, who announced earlier this year he would leave at the end of the season to coach the Netherlands national team, began long before she came on board. When Wilkinson learned LeBlanc had been hired as GM, she says, she worried the Thorns might have their token Canadian on staff and her chances of being hired as head coach were doomed, but Portland doubled down on the maple leaf.
“The relationship we have—what it helps is that we can have those hard conversations,” says LeBlanc. “Trust me, as goalkeeper and defender we didn’t always get along, but I think it’s very easy for us to be connected on something greater than ourselves.”
Wilkinson—whose first name is pronounced REE-un (or according to LaBlanc, “Ian with an r”)—is a Quebec native and the daughter of two English professors. She played in the National Women’s Soccer League for the Boston Breakers, was a Thorn in 2015, and started taking coaching courses then after an injury. She spent most of 2021 as an assistant manager for England’s women’s national team.
Wilkinson is not related to Gavin Wilkinson, who served until this fall as GM of both the Thorns and Timbers until he was separated from the women’s side amid the ongoing investigation into the club’s handling in 2015 of reports of sexual coercion of some players by then-coach Paul Riley. One of those players, Sinead Farrelly, wore no. 24 for the Thorns, and in Saturday’s Timbers game fans set off red smoke in the 24th minute, as they have at every Timbers and Thorns home game since the allegations were made public this fall.
“A lot is happening I think for the good, the transparency, the power dynamics,” Wilkinson says, a reference to the ongoing response to the cavalcade of abuse and harassment accusations that have been behind numerous firings (including Riley, who spent the past six years coaching a different NWSL team) and resignations this season.. “I’ve worked in Canada. I’ve worked in England, and the stuff that’s happening here is happening everywhere, and it’s not good. It needs to be cleaned up, and I love that I get to be a part of an organization that’s going to be a forerunner in that.”
Her excitement, of course, goes beyond just the organization to something that will be on display this weekend as the Timbers try to claim a second MLS championship to match their sibling team—the Thorns won the NWSL championship in 2013 and 2017.
“This is a special city," Wilkinson says. "The fans are the best in the world.”
Portland Timbers vs. New York City FC in the MLS Cup final, noon Saturday, December 11. Tickets on sale now. Watch on ABC, UniMás, TUDN.
The Thorns were quiet in last week’s NWSL trade window, but roster changes are on the way with the expansion draft on December 16 for two new 2022 teams, as well as trades associated with the general draft of college players and others on December 18. “We’re going to lose some good players. It’s impossible not to,” says Wilkinson. Stream on Paramount Plus.