SEATTLE – It was a game the Sounders refused to let die in a season in which they’d spent the four previous months staving off their demise on a weekly basis.
Two second-half goals Thursday night by Raul Ruidiaz to twice avoid playoff elimination at the hands of the visiting Portland Timbers, then another overtime marker by Nicolas Lodeiro to keep the dream alive. But finally, more than 120 minutes of regulation and overtime after it began, the Sounders couldn’t get it done once more, with misses by Will Bruin and Osvaldo Alonso helping seal their elimination on penalty kicks.
Dairon Asprilla converted Portland’s final attempt try to give them a 4-2 win in that penalty round following a 3-2 victory by the Sounders that had left the series tied 4-4 on aggregate. The Timbers streamed on to the field in celebration, having denied the Sounders their third trip to the Western Conference final in as many years.
The crowd of 39,542 stayed glued to their seats throughout an instant Cascadia classic neither team would allow to end in the other’s favor. The Sounders had entered Thursday’s second leg of the conference semifinal needing to score at least once, having dropped the opener 2-1 in Portland last Sunday.
But for much of the night before things got truly interesting, it seemed the Sounders’ magic might finally run out. They’d already erased a 3-9-3 start to their season by going an unthinkable 15-2-2 afterward to reach the playoffs a record 10th straight year.
Not only that, they’d won 14 of their final 16, including five straight to end the season and secure a first-round bye.
But that all seemed destined to end Thursday as the Timbers, playing their third playoff match in eight days and fourth game in 11 days, fought valiantly to hold the Sounders off the scoreboard. A scoreless draw would be enough and for the increasingly-antsy crowd, that result loomed evermore as a possibility.
Then, it all changed in a split-second. Timbers goalkeeper Jeff Attinella went up for a ball in the 68th minute, then dropped it – straight into the path of an onrushing Ruidiaz, who calmly deposited it into the back of the net.
Ruidiaz’s reaction was anything but calm as he charged into a far corner of the field, where he was mobbed by ecstatic teammates. The frenzied crowd exploded as if the home team had won the MLS Cup final.
Instead, it was only the start of events that will long remain etched in their collective memories.
For only 10 minutes after that goal, the Timbers seemingly down and out, Sebastian Blanco launched a rocket from 20 yards away that beat Stefan Frei to the far post to tie the score. The equalizer stunned the crowd, the away goal meaning the Sounders needed to score again just to force overtime.
They desperately pressed forward the final 12 minutes of regulation but couldn’t do it. Nor could they nearly halfway through six minutes of added stoppage time.
Portland nearly put things away for good when Lucas Melano raced down the left side and fired a shot toward the far corner that Frei only barely got his outstretched hand on to knock out of harm’s way.
The Sounders pushed back up the field and – just when fans might have started to lose hope – Ruidiaz jumped on a loose ball in the box and rocketed a shot past Attinella to make it 2-1 and again tie the series on aggregate.
Extra time began the same way, with the Sounders allowing a goal on an Asprilla header just three minutes in. But then, just three minutes later, a handball call in the box led to a Lodeiro penalty kick that he easily converted to draw the aggregate score equal yet again.
On and on it went. Two longtime rivals bare-knuckling it to the end while their fans in the stadium and watching on television white-knuckled it along with them.
In penalty kicks to settle it once and for all, Bruin rang his penalty attempt off the post, followed by Alonso firing his try straight in to Attinella. Frei managed to make one stop to keep things alive but not a second against Asprilla.
Just like that, this magical Sounders ride was over.
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