For Major League Soccer players, reaching an MLS Cup Final is the peak their season, possibly their career, and definitely their emotions.
Winners will feel exhilaration unmatched in their season. Losers will feel unparalleled devastation. And before the 20th MLS Cup Final between Columbus Crew SC and Portland Timbers in Columbus even began, the players were well aware.
Crew SC forward Kei Kamara had never been to an MLS Cup Final in his 11 MLS seasons.
He said before the match that he had been thinking about the approaching final “every minute since the final whistle” of the Eastern Conference Championship in New York, and shared his own technique of managing the stress.
“When I’m nervous, even in the locker room before games, I just dance,” he said with a laugh. “The more I dance, the less I get to worry about it. So that’s why you guys always see me dancing. But it’s a big game. And it’s the game you want to play in. It doesn’t matter how nervous you’re going to get.”
Portland defender Liam Ridgewell won an English second-division title, but admitted that MLS Cup brings with it a special feeling.
However, that doesn’t get into his head.
“You start to think, ‘It’s a big final,’ and you’ll let yourself get away from yourself, and suddenly it will pass you by in the blink of an eye,” he said.
While both sets of players were full of nervous excitement before the game, their moods went in separate directions after the Timbers’ 2-1 win for their first title in franchise history.
Midfielder Diego Valeri scored the opening goal in the match, and despite winning titles in Argentina and Portugal, the MLS Cup now holds an important place in his career.
“This is special for me,” he said after the win. “I know this is special for our club because it’s the first one. And for me, it was a long, long year. … I knew that this could happen, because when you work hard and (the team) sacrifices, you can see it in every training and every game. It’s special. I’ll keep this in my heart.”
For Kamara, the loss was a missed opportunity.
After the match, he sat quietly on the field and watched the visitors hoist the Cup.
“I wanted to sit out there,” he said. “I wanted to see what it feels like to lift that trophy. That’s why I was sitting out there. Those are the things that keep you going, working harder and harder.”
He said, days later, that he had considered retiring – going out on top – if Columbus had won.
Meanwhile, Portland celebrated.
“It’s a dream,” Rodney Wallace said in a post-victory interview. “It’s a dream come true. Words can’t describe right now, how I’m feeling. We’ve worked so hard for this…and finally, we’re here.”
For Columbus’s captain Michael Parkhurst, it was yet another missed opportunity. The defender lost three MLS Cup Finals with the New England Revolution to begin his career, and added a fourth in Columbus.
And while he says it’s harder to be close to a title than to not compete for one, he wouldn’t trade his experiences.
“Of course the pain is worse to make it and lose than it is to lose in the first round,” he said. “That being said, you always want to get the experience of playing in a final. … That experience is really valuable.”