The Major League Soccer playoff game on Thursday night had all the ingredients to be a memorable one. The Seattle Sounders-Portland Timbers rivalry is one of the fiercest in the league, and after a one-goal home victory by the Timbers in the first leg, both teams were feeling good about advancing.
And the game was memorable all right, just for a wholly unexpected reason.
Minutes from elimination, Seattle scored a late goal to forge a 2-1 victory in regulation time. Since that was the same score as in the first leg, tying the teams in the series aggregate, that sent the game into extra time. Both teams scored again in the extra period, making it 3-2 in the game, but 4-4 over the two legs.
When the whistle blew, several Timbers players immediately celebrated. Sebastián Blanco fell to his knees in ecstasy. A small knot of Timbers gathered in a group hug, smiling in the apparent belief that Portland had won by scoring more away goals.
In many competitions, including Europe’s Champions League, they would have been right. There, away goals are the first tiebreaker. But in M.L.S., away goals scored in extra time are not considered — a point made explicitly in the league’s playoff rules.
The referee and the television commentators knew that. Many fans probably did, too. It seems certain a handful of the Timbers did not.
The celebrating players were quickly informed by their teammates, including Zarek Valentin, who seemed especially well informed, that the game was not over, and was in fact headed to a penalty shootout.
As the M.L.S. rule book for the conference playoffs notes (in capital letters): “If at the end of the 180 minutes the teams are tied on both total goals and away goals, the teams will play two 15-minute extra time periods in which away goals DO NOT count, followed by, if necessary, penalty kicks to determine a winner.”
After the game, the Timbers seemed reluctant to admit that they had not quite understood the rules.
“No, I think we were excited,” Coach Giovanni Savarese said of the players’ premature celebration.
“We celebrated because we had a good effort,” Blanco said, straining credulity. “We celebrated because we knew we could win.”
The good news for Portland came a few minutes later: It won the penalty shootout, 4-2, and got to celebrate for real.