The Portland Timbers are out, and the MLS Playoffs are as random as ever

Houston Dynamo forward Mauro Manotas (19) battles with Portland Timbers players Larrys Mabiala (33) and Lawrence Olum (13) for possession of the ball during the MLS Western Conference semifinal soccer match Monday, Oct. 30, 2017, in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

The Portland Timbers know all about the randomness of the MLS playoffs. Because they lived it, and benefitted from it, two years ago.

In 2015, Portland emerged from a Western Conference jumble to win MLS Cup. It won an epic knockout-round penalty shootout, upset the league’s best team in the conference finals, and pipped Columbus in the final.

Two years later, though, the Timbers find themselves on the other side of the randomness. They feel the frustration and the emptiness. After a win on the regular season’s final day to clinch the top seed in the West, they found out just how meaningless that achievement was. Portland met fourth-seeded Houston in the conference semifinals. It did not trail until the 78th minute of the second leg. And its season is over.

The Timbers scrapped to a 0-0 draw in Houston on Monday, then took a lead at Providence Park on Sunday night. A Cascadia derby in the conference finals beckoned. But a goal from former Seattle Sounder Dylan Remick stunned Timbers Army.


As Portland pushed for an equalizer, Mauro Manotas stung a dipping shot that bounded past Timbers keeper Jeff Attinella.


And just like that, eight months were all for naught. Injuries to Fanendo Adi, Diego Chara, Sebastian Blanco, Roy Miller and Darren Mattocks ravaged the Timbers, and doomed them over two legs.

On the other side of the coin, just like that, Houston – MLS’s 10th best team during the regular season, and one of its worst away from home – is two legs against the Sounders away from MLS Cup. Of the 20 knockout-round winners since the round was instituted in 2011, Houston became the 10th to upset its higher-seeded opponent. It further proved the relative irrelevance of the regular season, and provided more ammo for arguments in favor of playoff reform.

But it also proved it belonged. To be clear, the playoff format’s flaws in no way invalidate the Dynamo or diminish the merit of their accomplishment. After all, they were only three points worse than the Timbers over 34 games. They are unbeaten in nine, regular season and playoffs combined, and appear to be a very legitimate threat to the Sounders’ throne.

They’re especially a threat given that seven of 10 lower seeds that have contested conference finals since MLS moved to a two-leg format in 2012 have won.

That Columbus and Houston are two of four teams still alive say a lot about their individual stories. They are stories of a city banding together, and an unheralded team overcoming its road woes to win at one of the league’s fortresses.

But they’re enabled by the league’s structure, which allows mediocre teams to become champions. Houston won’t care, nor should it. It will do everything it can to replicate Seattle’s achievements from a year ago.

But Portland will throw its hands up. The Sounders might have to after the conference finals as well. They have both experienced the joy of the randomness. Perhaps 2017 just might be Houston’s turn.

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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.