COLUMBUS, Ohio — In a vacuum, the MLS postseason functions as a five- or six-match sprint. In reality, the path to a title is a long and winding one.
As much as the Portland Timbers' run to the 2015 MLS Cup crown may seem like a talented team getting hot at the right time, the seeds were sown long ago — and no one understands that better than Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace. For the two Timbers on the score sheet Sunday, the 2-1 victory over the Columbus Crew marked the culmination of particularly trying journeys.
Valeri and Wallace have been with Portland for the entirety of Caleb Porter's three-year reign. They've seen the Timbers finish atop the Western Conference and then miss the playoffs entirely. And they had to battle back from major knee injuries to stand on the championship stage at Mapfre Stadium.
"They're two unbelievable guys in the locker room," Timbers veteran Jack Jewsbury told Goal USA. "They're good people — even more so than good players."
It was just 13 months ago that Valeri went down with a torn ACL in the 2014 season finale as the Timbers fell one point short of a playoff berth. Portland certainly was happy to have him on the field Sunday: As Columbus' Steve Clark took a touch across goal less than 30 seconds into the MLS Cup final, Valeri identified the poor decision, applied pressure and blocked the goalkeeper's clearance into the back of the net for a shock 1-0 lead.
The strike got Portland off to a dream start, and ultimately earned MLS Cup MVP honors for Valeri.
"This is special," Valeri said. "For me, it was a long, long year. I worked hard. I got my second [torn] ACL in my life, and that's not fun. I knew that this could happen because when you work hard and sacrifice — my sacrifice and the sacrifice of the team — you can see it in every training and every game."
While the Argentine playmaker returned from injury in May, he didn't hit his stride until August. Once Valeri got going, he was a creative force to be reckoned with — to the tune of nine assists over his final 14 matches of 2015.
Although Darlington Nagbe got plenty of publicity for his play once Portland shifted from a defensive-minded 4-2-3-1 to a more proactive 4-3-3, Valeri quietly took his game to another level as well.
"We were maybe putting the reins a little bit on a guy like Valeri," Porter said. "Me and Diego, we like to have a lot of soccer chats. This guy is a genius in terms of the game and tactics, and I remember having a conversation just talking about how we can still be good defensively but push our lines a little higher."
Wallace, like Valeri, suffered a torn ACL in a season finale — his injury coming in the second leg of the 2013 Western Conference final as the Timbers fell to Real Salt Lake. The blow was a sour end to a stellar year for Wallace, who had notched career highs with seven goals and six assists.
The Costa Rica international came back to log 17 matches in 2014 and was a solid role player for Portland this campaign, swapping in and out of the starting lineup. But Wallace started five straight matches to end the regular season — providing three assists — to lock down a place in the first XI for the playoffs.
"Everybody has their own journeys," Wallace said. "Me personally, going through the injury, it was just another reason for me to get hungry and to keep fighting. It never slowed me down. Since I came here to this club, the mission was to win championships, and today I can see that we are the best team in MLS."
Wallace's seventh-minute strike came after a bit of confusion. Columbus midfielder Tony Tchani thought the ball had gone out for a throw-in and promptly found himself stripped by Nagbe, who played Lucas Melano down the right flank. As the winger whipped in a cross, Wallace slipped away from Crew right back Harrison Afful and nodded home his second goal of the playoffs.
"I'm especially proud of Rodney," defender Nat Borchers said. "He was kind of in and out of the lineup a good three-quarters of the year, and Caleb decided to go with him toward the end. A guy like that, he's a champion. I love playing with a guy like that: He fights, he battles, he's good on the ball and he scores goals, he gets the game-winner — it's incredible."
In late October, the Timbers were inches from early elimination as a Sporting Kansas City penalty kick rattled both posts before ricocheting out. Now they're MLS Cup champions.
Some have called Portland a team of destiny. As Valeri and Wallace exemplified, this also is a team of mental fortitude.
"These guys are humble guys," Porter said. "They're not weak — they're confident. Can we find guys that are confident and have humility? Those are the type of guys that I want in my locker room."