NYCFC borrow from Portland Timbers’ playbook and meet MLS’ model club in Cup final

Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein once said, in Portland, you work half as much and live twice as good. Portland Timbers fans hope that’s especially true this Saturday, when Rose City hosts an MLS Cup for the first time in the soccer haven’s history (3 p.m. ET, stream live on ABC).

For the Timbers Army and the like, it’s been a long time coming. Historically, the Seattle Sounders — with two MLS Cups and two runners-up finishes in the previous five seasons — have dominated Cascadia and the Western Conference, but this is Portland’s third final since 2015. On the other side of the bracket waits New York City FC, an organization that has evolved beyond the league’s era it helped define — the aging-European-star-as-Designated-Player — by, arguably, taking a page out of Portland’s book.

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NYCFC have some of the deepest pockets in Major League Soccer as part of the sprawling City Football Group. The Timbers are owned by Merritt Paulson — son of a former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and once-Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson — who purchased the Timbers in 2007 and took them from the United Soccer League (USL) to MLS poster club.

NYCFC, not unlike the New York Red Bulls, operate a bit like a Double-A affiliate for their European big brothers. Veteran stars enjoying a late-career victory lap like Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard and David Villa flanked Angelino, Jack Harrison and Yangel Herrera before the youngsters absconded (as multiple-time loanees) to greener European pastures. (Both Angelino and Harrison were transferred from City after being loaned; Herrera has been loaned to four different clubs, including NYCFC, since City signed him in 2017.) The Timbers aren’t a stress test for better football, and their roster still boasts club legends Diego Valeri and Diego Chara, both of whom have more than 250 appearances for Portland.

NYCFC’s stadium negotiations are more on again, off again than Ross and Rachel ever were, and they’re seemingly poised to continue squatting at Yankee Stadium on the Bronx Bombers’ off days. However you feel about The House that Jeter Built and its suitability for soccer, it’s at least a unique viewing experience. Portland’s soccer-specific Providence Park, which boasted a recently concluded sellout streak of 163 games that was all but nixed because of the coronavirus pandemic, is arguably the most fervent environment for a match in the country — but let’s not forget that it began life as a baseball stadium and hosted the 2009 Triple-A All-Star game. With more than 75% of MLS teams playing in soccer-specific stadiums, the Timbers are a more sustainable representation of what the next iteration of MLS needs to be.

It’s been nearly 15 years since David Beckham came to the United States and the Designated Player Rule was established. MLS has served as a fitting coda to some of soccer’s all-time best (Thierry Henry, Kaka), it’s kick-started stalled careers for internationals (Carlos Vela, Sebastian Giovinco, Zlatan Ibrahimovic) and Americans (Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey) alike and it’s been a lucrative pit stop for many more (Steven Gerrard, Rafa Marquez).

For the league to truly thrive and leave behind its status as a victory lap or starter league for young luminaries, clubs like Portland must be the standard. MLS can’t be just a place where talented players start or finish their careers.

The days of DPs as off-field ambassadors are, by and large, in the past, while wunderkinds like Alphonso Davies or Tyler Adams or Gianluca Busio showed they weren’t long for the league. Ricardo Pepi, Caden Clark (who will leave New York for Red Bull affiliates RB Leipzig in the new year), Daryl Dike and Cole Bassett (who turned down a multimillion-dollar transfer to Benfica this summer) will be next. See them while they’re a jaunt away and be happy you did, because soon they’ll be careening down the flanks for Bayern Munich, Leipzig or Venezia as their predecessors are.

But there’s something notable about that inaugural, star-studded NYCFC team from the 2015 season. It did boast Villa, Lampard and Pirlo, but also … Ned Grabavoy. The longtime Real Salt Lake midfielder only spent one season in the Bronx before heading west to Portland, where he’d retire and move into the front office as the Timbers’ director of scouting and recruitment under GM Gavin Wilkinson. Since, the Timbers have made MLS Cup twice in five seasons.

The Timbers, although there’s still room for improvement in pulling from the USL side, they at least have one and make sensible transfers. Of Felipe Mora, Dairon Asprilla and Sebastian Blanco (Portland’s three top scorers), Blanco was the costliest transfer with a fee of $5 million.

NYCFC, with the emergence of young, high-potential dynamic DPs like Jesus Medina and Valentin Castellanos — and the recent signing of Brazilian Talles Magno, who vaulted NYCFC to the title game after a Castellanos red card in the semifinal — are well on their way into their next chapter. Since signing James Sands to the first Homegrown contract in NYCFC history in July 2017, they’ve signed five more, including, most recently, 14-year-old English-born Christian McFarlane in September.

But, more than two decades in, if we’re talking about which club best represents the best of what Major League Soccer is and what it could be? It is, and has long been, Portland.