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Oregon Sports News’ Biggest Sports Stories of 2015

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

 

These 25 biggest stories we saw in Oregon sports in 2015. Events that took place as a direct result of work done in 2014 – like Oregon’s loss in the football national championship game to Ohio State – were not considered. Here’s the list.

1. Timbers Championship

If you watched this Portland Timbers’ run to MLS Cup 2015, there was a moment you knew that they were going to win. Maybe it was when Diego Valeri scored the fastest goal in the history of the final, or maybe it was when Rodney Wallace made the Timbers’ lead over the Columbus Crew 2-0 inside seven minutes.

But maybe it was earlier. Caleb Porter knew after his team’s 3-1 victory over FC Dallas in the first leg of the Western Conference Final. 

Maybe you knew when Portland brushed aside #2 seed Vancouver on the road in the second leg of the Western Conference Semifinal without breaking a sweat, or maybe it was all the way back when Saad Abdul-Salaam’s penalty hit both posts in the Wild Card game shootout against Sporting Kansas City.

Whenever you knew, whenever you started following this extraordinary club – be it 1975, or 2011, or 2015 – you were a part of history. Portland’s first major sports championship in almost four decades.

When they arrived back at PDX on the Monday after the final, they were greeted by thousands of fans. But one fan couldn’t be there. Lynda Rose’s only wish before she died of cancer was to see the Timbers win a championship. Her name was on Nat Borchers’ cleats during the final, and her story was in the team’s thoughts as they won their first title. 

Rose died three days ago, and maybe, in some small way thanks to the Timbers, she passed away in peace. There were a lot of incredible things about this journey, but nothing was more incredible – or important – than that.

2. Timbers Parade and Rally

To the victor went the spoils, and for Portland, Tuesday December 8th was a day to remember forever.

The noon parade down Broadway and nighttime rally in front of the North End at Providence Park was a convergence of the outstanding support that made Portland Soccer City, USA and the on-field success that had eluded both the soccer franchise and the city for almost four decades.

It was a sight to see: pure, unbridled, unreserved joy. Both celebrations came off well on a terrible weather day in Portland that was all too fitting for a Timbers celebration.

Thousands marched in the parade, and at the rally, highlights included multiple appearances from the beloved Timber Jim, a chant from George Fochive, a beautiful, expletive-laden speech from Liam Ridgewell, and several hilariously awful singing performances from assistant coach Sean McAuley.
  
The 2015 Timbers will be celebrated many more times in many years to come, but on this day – their last day together as a team – they were able to celebrate with the entire city. That no one wanted the rally to end was hardly a surprise.

3. Timbers 2, Sporting Kansas City 2

Great championship runs all need a defining moment, but the Timbers won their championship going away. While both Western Conference Final games against Dallas had heroics – mostly from Nat Borchers – and the MLS Cup Final certainly had the same, Portland was never truly on the brink of elimination.

The Timbers’ defining moment? It came on the last Thursday night in October what many believe to be the greatest game in the history of Major League Soccer.  

It was the first hurdle in this championship run – a one-and-done Wild Card game with Sporting Kansas City at Providence Park.

The Timbers took the lead midway through the second half on a scrappy goal from Rodney Wallace, and looked set to go through until a Kevin Ellis header with just minutes to go sent the game into extra time.

Just six minutes into the added thirty, SKC’s Krisztian Nemeth – who scored the goal of the year against the Timbers in October – scored another sensational goal to give the visitors a 2-1 lead.

But then, with two minutes left in the season, Maxi Urruti hammered a Dairon Asprilla cross past Sporting goalkeeper Jon Kempin to set up a penalty shootout that defied all description.

These videos here, here, and here tell the story. All I’ll add is that at Providence Park that night, it was just the die-hards. The bandwagon hadn’t yet formed. And the stadium was so loud that night – so emotional – that it’s almost incredible everyone made it out alive. 

It was that dramatic. Compared to the Wild Card game, the rest of the Timbers’ championship run was easy.

4. Aldridge Bolts

Franchise players don’t come around very often in cities like Portland, and so losing those players hurts. Big time.

But it was clear well before the end of the season that for whatever reason, LaMarcus Aldridge had had enough of Portland. There were rumors about his being unhappy with the marketing department’s adulation of Damian Lillard, and the breakdown in their relationship. There was also the chance for Aldridge, who was never a perfect fit in Portland, to go back home to Texas.

Aldridge disappeared in Portland’s playoff loss to Memphis, and his body language left plenty to be desired. Aldridge’s free agency was a whirlwind, but it was unsurprising when he decided to sign with San Antonio. There he walks into the league’s strongest culture – one where he doesn’t have to be the main man, and he can compete for championships.

Aldridge received a mixed reception upon his return to Portland, and while there’s no doubt that Blazer fans are appreciative of all he did here, there’s also no doubt that the nature of his departure left a bad taste in the mouths of plenty of people.

5. And So Does Everyone Else

Aldridge’s departure was the one that mattered – Wesley Matthews leaving hurt too, but for different reasons – but it was remarkable to see a playoff team dismantled in such a swift, unceremonious fashion.

In just a few short days, all the work the Blazers had done to build a contender over the last three years was blown away. Nicolas Batum was traded to Charlotte, Robin Lopez signed the Knicks, and Matthews – without a valid offer made by the Blazers – signed with Dallas.

Sports fans, especially good ones, pour a ton of time and energy into their teams. That means strong connections, for better or worse, with the players. This was a likable Blazers group, and until a few months before it was disbanded, it looked like it could compete for a title.

Reinvesting with a new group of players without a chance to compete is draining. Blazers fans have seen plenty of excitement, absolutely, but they’ve also seen plenty of rebuilds. This one commenced in stomach-churning fashion.

The question is whether Neil Olshey was right to embark upon this new path – or whether he had any choice.

6. Ducks Football: What If?

When you look at the second half of the Oregon Ducks’ season, you find a football team that you’d expect to be – at a very minimum – in a New Year’s Six bowl game.

Oregon went 6-0 in the second half of the season, notching an upset of Stanford on The Farm that knocked the Cardinal out of the College Football Player. They tore through USC, won at Arizona State, and smashed Cal at Autzen Stadium.

For all their defensive deficiencies, this was a damn good Ducks team. And had quarterback Vernon Adams been healthy all the way through the season, there might have made some serious national noise in the playoff conversation.

Oregon’s problems this year started when Adams got hurt against Eastern Washington. He wasn’t himself against eventual Playoff finalist Michigan State – in a game the Ducks almost won anyways – and then had to be removed from a humiliating home loss to Utah. He didn’t play a single snap in the loss to Washington State.

Adams led the nation in quarterback efficiency. He was that important, and his hand injury cost Oregon Football dearly.

7. Wes Matthews' Injury (Achilles tendon)

It’s easy to forget now, in the doldrums of a lost season of rebuilding, but the Blazers were firing on all cylinders last year – rising as high as second in the Western Conference and gearing up for a potentially franchise-defining playoff run last season.

Then Wesley Matthews, the team’s heart and soul, tore his left achilles tendon in a March game against the Dallas Mavericks and nothing would be the same.

That was the beginning of the end for this Blazers era, finished off for good just a few months later when Aldridge singed with San Antonio. Without Matthews, that Blazers team went from very good – maybe great – to distinctly average.

The team couldn’t replace his production at shooting guard, and was meekly eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Memphis Grizzlies. We’ll never how far that Blazers team could have gone, or if a deep playoff run could have changed the direction of the franchise. 

8. Jerome Kersey’s Death

There is no proper place to rate someone’s death on a list like this, but Jerome Kersey’s death from a pulmonary embolism at age 52 in February certainly warrants recognition.

Kersey was one of the most gregarious links to the Blazers’ glory days of the 90s, someone who had remained active in the community through media and his work with the Blazers.   

He was the rare athlete – beloved as much for what he did off the court as what he did on it. He left behind his a family that included wife Terri, his daughter, granddaughter, and three stepchildren. Gone far too soon, Jerome Kersey will never be forgotten in Rip City.

9. Thorns Sellouts

Three years after their expansion season, the Portland Thorns appear to be getting more and more popular. The club set the NWSL attendance record for a single season in 2015, selling out the full capacity of Providence Park two times and averaging around 16,000 fans per game – more than a handful of MLS clubs average.

After a game against Boston, several Breakers players rode the elevator up from the basement of Providence Park with beloved Thorns goalkeeper Nadine Angerer. The Boston players were speaking with reverence about the atmosphere in the stadium when Angerer smiled and said, “I know. It’s like this every game.”

The Thorns’ fanbase could cut it in MLS. It’s that good – and one of those full stadium sellouts of over 21,000 fans happened during the World Cup, when the team was without all their star players. 

The Thorns should be even better next season, and there’s no reason to think that attendance won’t keep rising. Portland just can’t get enough soccer. 

10. Thorns Trade Alex Morgan

She’s been the face of US women’s soccer for the better part of the last four years, and there’s an argument to be made that there is no American soccer player in the world more famous than Alex Morgan.

Morgan was the headline player for the Portland Thorns when the franchise started play in 2013 – a volatile year that was eventually capped off with a championship. 

But from there, things slowly turned sour. Morgan was rarely on the field for long stretches with the Thorns due to injuries and national team commitments, and when she did play, she was often underwhelming.

There were murmurs of Morgan being a negative locker-room presence as well. With Christine Sinclair and Jodie Taylor in the fold, Morgan was expendable. The perfect opportunity to trade Morgan arose after the 2015 season. 

Morgan’s husband Servando Carrasco plays for Orlando City in MLS, Orlando’s NWSL expansion team – the Orlando Pride – was looking to make a splash with a big acquisition. 

It was a fantastic move for the Thorns, who got the number one pick in the draft, USWNT fullback Meghan Klingenberg, and, eventually, national team forward Lindsey Horan among other considerations. The deal has been compared to the one that sent Herschel Walker from Dallas to Minnesota in the NFL. 

The Thorns are much, much bigger than Alex Morgan. They’ll be better for trading her next year. 

11. 2015 Women's World Cup

Between the eight members of the Portland Thorns and three Portland Pilots alums, the Women’s World Cup Finals in Canada had Rose City footprints all over it. And for most everyone with Portland connections, it was a fantastic tournament. 

Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath, Thorns players, won the title for the United States with teammates Megan Rapinoe of UP. Abby Wambach and Shannon Boxx, two of the team’s most senior players, live in Portland as well. With the final in Vancouver, many Portlanders got to travel up to BC Place and watch the US win the championship.

Christine Sinclair, of both the Thorns and UP, led the host nation Canada to the quarterfinal; while Thorns goalkeeper – and now goalkeeper coach – Nadine Angerer captained Germany to the semifinal.

Jodie Taylor scored for England against Canada, while Steph Catley started every game for Australia. When they returned, the Thorns players were greeted with a fantastic ceremony and sellout crowd for a match against Seattle. It was another indicator that as big as Portland is for soccer in the men’s game, it’s even bigger in the women’s game.

12. Beavers Football Collapses

There were plenty of reasons for Mike Riley to bolt Oregon State last year, but he must have known better than anyone else that 2015 was going to be one tough year. 

Certainly Gary Andersen didn’t know how bare the cupboard was in Corvallis when he left Wisconsin to take the Beavers job, and he was in for a rude awakening all season as the Beavers went 2-10 and barely looked like a division one team after September.

Andersen’s straight-talking style ruffled some feathers, and he’s embarked on a total teardown and rebuild of the OSU football program. In a Pac 12 conference where schools are committing more and more money to football all year, he’s going to need and should get plenty of administrative support.

Next year could be rough as well – but even if Andersen wasn’t fully aware of the scale of the project he was taking it on, he’s as good a man as any to trust right now. In football, the Beavers are a long way from relevance. Basketball, on the other hand, is a different story.

13. OSU Basketball Revival

Gary Andersen might have been a glamorous hire, but Wayne Tinkle sure wasn’t. The Milwaukie native arrived in Corvallis last year to run the moribund Beavers basketball program with little national profile after more than a decade coaching at Montana.

But immediately, Tinkle did all the things new coaches need to do. He injected energy and willpower into the team, getting Oregon State wins by leaning on the likes of Gary Payton II and getting everyone else to chip in with grit what they lacked in talent.

The Beavs finished 17-14 (8-10 in the conference), and finished 7th a Pac 12 they were projected to finish last in. Tinkle also came damn close to a signature win over Oregon at a sold-out Gill Coliseum – losing by three points on senior night.

Tinkle started that game by putting all five of his seniors – mostly walk-ons – on the floor. It was an extremely cool gesture, and one that spoke volumes about Tinkle’s priorities.

It’s important to remember that Craig Robinson also started out hot at OSU, but Tinkle looks like a keeper. The Beavers are competitive again this year, and this program seems to be solidly on the ascent.

14. Marcus Mariota's NFL Debut

Few athletes have made the state of Oregon as proud as Marcus Mariota did when he led the Ducks to the national championship game and won the Heisman trophy in 2014.

Mariota then went number two overall in the NFL Draft to the Tennessee Titans, and, in his first professional game, was absolutely tremendous. Throwing four touchdowns in a rout of Jameis Winston’s Tampa Bay Bucaneers, Mariota had a perfect passer rating of 158.3. 

It was the best game for a rookie quarterback in the history of the league. The Titans may be terrible now, but they won’t be for long. Mariota is too good. If he stays healthy, there is nothing in professional football that he can’t accomplish.

15. Portland State Football Revival

When Portland State fired Nigel Burton as head coach on the week of Thanksgiving in 2014, some quietly questioned whether the Viking football program was viable at all going forward.

The team had an unsteady stadium situation, virtually zero fan or booster support, and, it seemed, little will to keep going.

Burton was replaced with his own offensive coordinator Bruce Barnum on an interim basis – a hire that was seen as lacking vision and ambition – and no one paid much attention to the team in the buildup to the 2015 season.

But then Barnum’s boys started winning. They beat a very good Washington State team on the first Saturday of the season, drubbed D1 school North Texas in the biggest FCS over FBS massacres ever, and went on to win nine games.

BarnyBall caught the attention of the city, and the coach himself was rewarded with a five-year contract. For the first time in a very long time, Portland State football appears to have a future.

16. Same As It Ever Was

It was the true low-point of the Portland Timbers’ season. Languishing in last place in the Western Conference, scoring less than a goal per game, and returning home after two nearly unwatchable losses in Toronto and Houston, the Timbers Army had seen enough.

The Army unfurled a banner before a Wednesday night game with DC United at Providence Park on May 27th that read, “Same As It Ever Was.” The text appeared beneath a red line.

Along with the banner on the main capo stand, there were signs in the crowd protesting all the authority figures at the club – including owner Merritt Paulson, who got into an unflattering Twitter spat about whether he had the sign confiscated.

It was an ugly time, and, in retrospect, that protest is a black eye. The Timbers beat DC 1-0 that night, and would reel off a five more wins before the end of June. They’d be in the playoff conversation the rest of the season.

17. Vernon Adams Transfer

It was the move that defined Oregon’s season: Vernon Adam’s decision to transfer to the University from Eastern Washington for his last season of college football.

Adams got off to a slow start. He had to finish a math class and didn’t arrive in Eugene until August, well after the start of fall camp, and he wasn’t healthy in a tough first half of the season.

But once Adams was healthy and comfortable, he shined – putting together a fantastic second half of the campaign and salvaging the Ducks’ season. He wasn’t here for long, and his long-term impact will be negligible, but the Vernon Adams Era sure was memorable.

18. Oregon’s Changing Fanbase

Huge football success has changed the fanbase at the University of Oregon in immeasurable ways. Two years ago, there was plenty of chatter from former Ducks football players about the decline of the game-day atmosphere at Autzen Stadium, and while the chatter has died down somewhat, the complaints remain.

Ducks fans have a reputation as spoiled, insufferable, and, increasingly, quiet. When the team started slow this year, there were calls for Mark Helfrich and especially Don Pellum to be fired that irked former players, longtime fans, and media alike.

The Ducks’ home-field advantage isn’t what it was in the last decade, and there remains a feeling that a segment of the fanbase is ready to turn on the team at any moment. Basketball – more on that in a moment – isn’t being supported very well either. Is this the new normal?

19. Oregon Basketball: Success?

Here’s the upshot: The Oregon Ducks had another solid season in 2014-15, making the NCAA Tournament and winning their first (second) round game before falling to eventual finalist Wisconsin in close second (third) round game.

It was a good campaign. Dana Altman has had a winning record in eighteen straight college basketball seasons. Oregon has been in the rankings again at the beginning of this year, and, in a weak Pac 12, looks set for another tournament trip.

But night after night of empty seats and dead atmospheres at Matthew Knight Arena and a general lack of buzz around the program would seem to suggest that no one is too excited.

Why? Could be that Oregon doesn’t care much about basketball in light football right now, but that argument seems too simplistic. Altman’s poor handling of a sexual assault case involving his team last year, plus his reliance on bringing in transfer players for one season and one season only may have contributed to the breakdown of the relationship between team and fans.

It could also be prices that are keeping people away. Matt Knight is a fairly expensive place to watch a game, and the building lacks the spirit of Mac Court. Oregon basketball doing fine, but in a way, it’s just treading water.

20. T2's Debut Season

Merritt Paulson’s third professional soccer club in Portland played its debut season in 2015. Timbers 2, or T2, plays in USL and serves as the Timbers’ developmental or reserve team.

With home matches taking place at Merlo Field, T2 was an intimate and friendly – if distinctly small-time, minor-league – option to watch cheap soccer all year. 

The Timbers got plenty out of the setup. George Fochive, Taylor Peay, and Jake Gleeson started all year for T2 and went on to play – and play very well – for the first team. Kharlton Belmar, the team’s leading scorer, has a bright future ahead of him as well.

As a whole, the team wasn’t all that competitive. They lost in the US Open Cup to Sounders 2, and missed the USL playoffs. Coaching disconnects and frustrations were present all season, but T2 is clearly a valuable tool for the Timbers to keep their player development in-house. As the club gets more familiar with how to make the second team successful, it should be even more effective.

21. Thorns Coaching Change

After the Thorns’ failed 2015 campaign, one in which the league’s most talented team never quite hit its stride, manager Paul Riley was replaced with Mark Parsons.

Riley was a truly likable person – who absolutely appreciated what a phenomenal opportunity he had in Portland – but there was too much roster turnover, too many prolonged absences, and too many tactical blunders to make his regime successful.

Couple that with some candid moments in front of microphones, and Riley made himself expendable.

Parsons arrives after a successful spell coaching Washington’s NWSL team. He’s also a Brit, but he’s younger than Riley, and, possibly in the mold of Caleb Porter, he’s seen as something of a rising star in women’s soccer management. We’ll see if he can get what will be a largely changed but equally talented Thorns team back to its best in 2016.

22. Scott Frost Takes UCF Job

Scott Frost’s last year at the University of Oregon was a trying one. The offensive coordinator came under sustained fire for his play-calling, and it didn’t come as much of a surprise when he bolted for the open Central Florida job at the end of the season.

Only time will tell whether Frost is ready to be a head man, but for a first stop, UCF isn’t a bad spot. The program was in the Fiesta Bowl just two years ago, and in the American Athletic Conference, they aren’t too far removed from the college football spotlight.

One has to assume that Frost’s preferred final destination is Nebraska, his alma mater, where former Oregon State coach Mike Riley was hired last year. 

The Ducks will miss Frost, but not terribly. Frost is a talented coach, but he wasn’t necessarily a crucial part of the machinery in Eugene. He’s already begun his duties with UCF – rebranding the program as UCFast – and will not be with Oregon for the Alamo Bowl. 

23. Hillsboro Hops Championship

Oregon’s baseball team is something of a juggernaut. The Hillsboro Hops, who play in the Class A Northwest League, won their second consecutive league championship in 2015. They also broke their attendance record for the second straight season, averaging almost 4,000 fans at Ron Tonkin Stadium.

The Hops have defied expectations. They have smart owners and smart management, and the community has responded. Portland is no baseball town, but against Class A competition, the metro area is going to look pretty good.

It remains to be seen if, at some point, the sport gets another look a bigger stage here. For now, the Hops will continue to succeed on the field and at the box office. Don’t expect any drop-off in 2016.

24. Jay Vidovich Leaves T2

On paper, Jay Vidovich looked like a solid and safe choice to lead T2. He’d had a terrific run coaching Wake Forest, and had – like Caleb Porter – developed plenty of professionals during his time in the college game. 

Vidovich was also supposed to assist the first team. But it became increasingly clear as the season progressed that neither side was particularly happy with how things stood – so it was no surprise when Vidovich bolted after the USL season finished, returning to college to become the head coach of the University of Pittsburgh.

The Timbers have already hired a new youth technical director in Larry Sutherland – poached from the Chicago Fire – and a new coach for T2 will follow shortly. It’s all part of the learning curve with the Timbers’ development program, which should be improved next season.

25. Bill Irwin Leaves UP

Bill Irwin was Clive Charles’ right hand. They were teammates at Cardiff City, and then coached together at the University of Portland for sixteen years. When Charles died in 2003, Irwin took over as UP’s Director of Soccer and head coach of the men’s program.

This year, just a few months ago, Irwin – one of the strongest remaining links to Portland’s soccer godfather – retired. Approaching his 65th birthday, and with the Pilots men’s team mired in last place in the West Coast Conference, the timing makes sense.

Irwin developed several of the US’ top goalkeepers, including Kasey Keller and Luis Robles, and his impact on Portland soccer won’t soon be forgotten. 

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.

 

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