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Columbus Crew SC rue missed chance and errors in Portland's MLS Cup win

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Columbus Crew SC were crushed after losing Sunday's MLS Cup final to the Portland Timbers. Of course they were but they weren't completely devastated, at least to the degree one might expect after they gifted the guests a lead just 27 seconds into the match and then gave up another six minutes later on the way to a 2-1 defeat on home turf.

Coach Gregg Berhalter began his postmatch comments with a joke about the TV lights in his eyes making the media conference seem more like a police interrogation. Kei Kamara, named in Berhalter's lineup a day after an injury scare, chose to take the big-picture view afterward, declaring 2015 a success despite the bitter ending. Even goalkeeper Steve Clark, whose attempted clearance in the opening moments ricocheted off a sliding Diego Valeri and into the net to put Portland ahead before stunned Crew fans had finished their first chant, answered questions with clear eyes and a steady voice.

In fact, the only Columbus player who seemed inconsolable was captain Michael Parkhurst, but that's understandable: The 31-year-old has now lost each of the four MLS Cups he has appeared in.

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"You can't be so disappointed about the whole thing, because it was an amazing year," said Kamara, who had his foot stepped on in training on Saturday and was listed as a game-time decision by the club. "Everybody just has to appreciate the season and what we've done. A lot of people didn't expect us to get that far, but we've shown that we play the best soccer in America. We just came up short tonight."

It's true that Columbus impressed with an attractive, possession-based game in 2015, Berhalter's second season at the helm. But it's also true that the more deserving team won on Sunday and in their heart of hearts, the Crew seemed to know it.

Columbus couldn't match Portland's intensity in Sunday's MLS Cup final, accepting that the better team won.

It's hard to say how the match could have turned out if not for Clark's early gaffe, of course, or what might have happened had the assistant referee not missed the ball going well over the touchline in the sequence that preceded the visitors' second goal. On the other hand, Columbus' managed just a single shot on target, which Kamara -- the league's overall scoring leader in 2015 -- converted following a mistake by Timbers keeper Adam Larsen Kwarasey. And they were fortunate not to be whistled for a second-half penalty (and perhaps a red card) when Parkhurst's left arm kept the ball from crossing the line following a corner kick.

In the end, the outcome was just.

"We put a lot of effort into the game and pushed the tempo and tried to attack them, but they played a very good game -- they really did," Berhalter said. "And in the end, I think they probably won more of the match-ups. ... Give Portland a lot of credit for the way they played."

Still, it's hard to overlook those first seven minutes.

"It's a dreadful start for us," Parkhurst said. "None of us envisioned us starting the game like that. It's disappointing. At 2-0, we said, 'This is not how our season is going to end, we need to stick together here and move on.' Fortunately, to get the first goal before halftime gave us a chance. But in the end it's too much to overcome in a final."

Steve Clark's early error set the tone for a bad day as Columbus Crew SC couldn't recover from the early 2-0 deficit.

Columbus had been burned playing out of the back before this season but had tightened things up toward the end of the regular season and during their playoff run. Berhalter said he could see "a little bit of nerves" from his side, but midfielder Wil Trapp refused to attribute the early error to the magnitude of the event, or to point fingers. "The last thing we're going to do is single out guys for mistakes because we all make mistakes," he said. "Usually Steve takes a touch and he clears it -- credit them with their pressure. But I wouldn't say the stage got the better of us by any means."

Berhalter stuck up for his backstop, too. "Steve gets hundreds of balls -- thousands of balls --played to him during the course of the season and he rarely makes a mistake like that," the coach said. "You have to live with it."

Berhalter also said that for the most part, his team stuck to its game plan despite digging the early hole. Columbus attacked down the flanks as they had all season. Portland's stout back line held firm, though, and on the rare occasions that the Crew got behind them, they were unable to take advantage.

"Overall, I think we could've moved the ball much quicker to the wing and got the ball in the box or looked to penetrate. We didn't do that effectively," Berhalter said. "That's a strength of Portland -- they had a good defense all year. We knew that it would be difficult."

And now, they have to move on. That doesn't mean it doesn't hurt, of course, or that that they won't sped some sleepless nights wondering what might have been. Berhalter said he was sorry for the fans and the city that his team was unable to deliver them a championship, especially with the decisive game in Columbus. Like his players, he knows that this was a missed opportunity. But he doesn't believe it's one that can't come again.

"I'm proud of these guys and I'm proud of the season they had," Berhalter said. "We're going to learn from this and it's going to make us better.

"This team will be back."

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.

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