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by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson pumps his fists after Thursday's playoff victory at home over the Seattle Sounders.There was no Gatorade shower for coach Caleb Porter after the Timbers' first playoff series victory in their three-year Major League Soccer history Thursday night at Jeld-Wen Field.

No dogpile on the middle of the pitch for Porter's players. No champagne in the victors' locker room.

Smiles were all around, but it was a subdued celebration by the local lads after their 3-2 win and 5-3 aggregate-goal Western Conference semifinal victory over the Seattle Sounders. As if there is more to come.

"This means we're three games away (from a championship), and we have two teams in our way," said Porter, who seems a lock for MLS coach of the year in his rookie season at the Timber helm. The guys are happy, but they won't be totally happy unless we win it all.

"But we're getting closer. This team genuinely believes we have a realistic chance at this."

The Timbers genuinely do.

"It's been a good season, but we know the ultimate goal is to win the MLS Cup," forward Darlington Nagbe said. "We'll get happy then."

"We're happy," said midfielder Diego Valero, who scored the goal that gave Portland a 2-0 halftime lead. "This is historic for the club. But we want to be champions. We'll work for that."

"We want to go all the way and win the MLS Cup," said defender Mamadou "Futty" Danso, whose header in the first minute of the second half effectively ended the Sounders' season. "We don't want to celebrate just beating Seattle for the West semifinals. We don't want to be too happy, like it's the end of the season."

It's not. Heck, it's only November. The Timbers could be playing all the way until the Dec. 7 MLS Cup, culminating what would be a nine-month season that began back on March 3. There is no offseason in the MLS, you see.

But who's complaining? Certainly not the Timber fans, who packed Jeld-Wen for the 52nd straight time. Many of those partisans sat through plenty of dull, lousy soccer during their team's first two MLS campaigns, when the Timbers went a collective 19-30-19 and missed out on the postseason both years.

Thursday's smackdown of the hated archrivals to the north was just reward for the Timber faithful, who chanted "Ohhh, ohhh, ohhh, onward Rose City!" ad nauseum until the Emerald City Supporters on hand were ready to barf.

"This means a lot," said Danso, 30, who is in his fifth season with the Timbers dating to their USL days in 2009. "Looking at the fans tonight ... they've been giving us everything they got. This season, we've been paying them back. We've been giving them what they've deserved the past two years.

"You see joy on their faces. That pushes you want to play harder the next game. You can't wait for the next game. We do what we can to get them happy."

After winning the first leg of the two-game series 2-1 in Seattle last Saturday, the Timbers needed only a draw Thursday night to advance. In the first half, though, they were the ones playing with aggression, not the Sounders. Portland outshot Seattle 8-4 -- 5-1 in shots on goal -- and came away with a 2-0 lead at intermission.

"We expected to win this game," Nagbe said. "We proved that with our play from the start."

"The first half was perfect," Valero said. "We could have had more goals. We had a lot of chances, we scored two goals, and (the Sounders) didn't really have any chances.

"We needed to leave everything -- our soul -- out there. We have a style, and we want to do that every game."

"We came out to win," Danso said. "We came out with the same game as in Seattle. We want to win every game going forward."

With a 3-0 lead and all the momentum, it appeared the Timbers had broken the Sounders' will as the minutes ticked off in the second half. Then, in the space of two minutes, the visitors had a pair of goals, and were suddenly trailing 3-2 with still 15 minutes remaining in regulation play.

Seattle kept coming, taking the final seven shots of the match. The Timbers survived, to the relief of their coach.

"It's a reminder you can't let your guard down in this sport, or you'll get punched in the nose," Porter said. "A soccer game can turn on a moment. It was a wakeup call. It will keep us grounded."

Porter does a pretty good job of that himself. If you need evidence that a coach can make plenty of difference in pro sports, he's exhibit A. The Timbers were passive and boring to watch too often during their first two seasons under John Spencer and interim successor Gavin Wilkinson. Porter has changed the mindset of his players and the direction of the franchise.

Now the Timbers, unbeaten in their last 16 matches on the home pitch, head to Real Salt Lake Sunday with at least a draw in mind, knowing they'll return to the home pitch on Nov. 24 with a chance to write themselves a ticket to the MLS Cup.

Check that. The Timbers will be playing to win Sunday at Salt Lake City.

They've done it all season. They did it Thursday night at Jeld-Wen. No reason to change things now.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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