Portland, Seattle Clashed In Yet Another Classic Cascadia Derby
By Philip Mitchell
Los Angeles has the Super Classico. It is one of the real true derbys of MLS. Sharing a stadium and being from the same city has advantages for the LA Galaxy and Chivas USA to show American fans a taste of what can be seen in London, Madrid, Manchester and Glasgow. However, one thing that I have to say is there is nothing like a soccer match in America like when the Portland Timbers face off against the Seattle Sounders.
The passion of the fans or hate towards each other, depending on your point of view can be seen for the full 90 minutes of the match. Away fans have to be escorted to their section when they come and go. Those sitting outside of that section are at risk for unsavory things such as verbal harassment and even the possible threat of violence.
On the pitch, it is no different. Regardless of who is in the starting lineup, fans get to see players give it their all. You can tell that every event that takes place by the players are closely watched by the reaction in the stands and by those on the bench or field. When a goal happens, even in Portland, the eruption of sound is deafening. No slight is meant to be offered towards their fellow Cascadian rival, the Vancouver Whitecaps. When either of the two (Seattle or Portland) faces the Caps, it just does not have the same luster or well sheer hatred towards each other. This was totally the fact Sunday evening in Seattle.
Billed as Clint Dempsey’s first home game and a major accomplishment for American Soccer, over 67 thousand fans were given a display that overshadowed the match that took place in Seattle earlier in the season. It was to be a rare situation for Portland. They have been the better team this season, based on their placement in the standings, which set a bit of a change of role for them if you will. Seattle fans may reject this but Portland was Goliath and Seattle was David. It is fine if you disagree but if one was to see some of the results this season, Portland has built up a reputation as a team tough to beat regardless of where they play. But as history has told many Portland fans, this club has never really been able to step it up when they are not the underdogs. Yes, it may be hard for some to accept this. Seattle is a very good team. Look at their roster. For goodness sake they have Obafemi Martins, Clint Dempsey, Ozzie Alonso, Brad Evans and others that are top flight players. Portland has their class as well however this game that took place on the 25th could be a game changer for the rest of the season.
Hindered by injuries and suspensions, Portland really showed on paper that their midfield was going to be given one heck of a challenge. They met it and fought hard. Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe should be commended for their efforts. Despite what they tried to do on the pitch that evening, it was evident that missing Diego Chara and Will Johnson was just too much for them to carry. One could argue that by the end of the first half there was hope for Portland. Indeed that is true and much could also be said the same about Seattle.
Both teams played rough. It was sloppy at times. Dempsey really did not show to be much of a factor. He did draw the defense in his direction, which opened opportunities for his team mates. There was a few shots but his closest one was off frame. When it came to the scoreline his name was not the one that saved the day. The hero for Seattle would be Eddie Johnson whether his contact on his goal was intended to go in that direction or not. Some may say it was Seattle’s goalie, Michael Gspurning but we will get to that later and why I think that EJ was man of the match.
Donovan Ricketts did not really have to show some of his skills that he has shown off for most of the season. The same could have been said of Seattle’s goaltender. Both seemed to do the job they were asked to do. But in the end, it was one moment of brilliance that gave Seattle the win and into playoff contention.
So what really happened in this game? Was it really the loss of certain players for Portland? Could have it been a bigger loss? Seattle fans may point to the fact that Martins did not play. This was true if you believe he would have scored (he has scored a pile this year when compared to his actual appearances). Could it have been the size of the crowd? That is unlikely but there were players that were on the pitch for Portland that have never played in this type of game before. Yes, it may seem somewhat arrogant to declare that this game is something special or unlike any other games in MLS rivalry history. I just feel, deep in my core that my upbringing in Seattle and my adulthood in Portland has allowed me to see a bit of a different perspective of how each community really feels about each other. But let me ask again. Could the magnitude of this rivalry really have gotten to the heads of players such as Alvas Powell or Pa Modou Kah? It is hard for me to believe this but Kah for sure showed signs of composure that has brought some concern. For Powell, who is still a teenager, he was a rock and did a fine job until later on in the game when his inexperience showed. So what could it have been? Was it really that bad of a loss?
Bottom line is this. My father used to say after tough losses, “Son, that is the way the ball bounces.” No more could be true about this match. It was anyone’s game. I had a gut feeling that the first team to score would win. The defensive efforts were stellar. Kah had his moments and so did Shalrie Joseph that led me to be asking myself what was going on. Both teams were fairly stagnant when it came to finishing in the final third. There were moments that required quick thinking by either goaltender but all in all they were nothing like what was seen in Vancouver’s loss to LA the night before.
Possession of the ball did not really matter. Seattle barely edged out Portland 52% to 48%, a stat that Portland fans may point out where they tend to lead in almost any game. The same could be said about the passing game. Both teams were near 80% where Seattle had 83 to Portland’s 78. On a side note, both teams combined had a total over 700 passes attempted.
The counter seemed to be the strategy that either team hedged on. Portland and Seattle for that matter have scored quite often off of the break this season. But neither could really penetrate. Offsides was rarely called. Only three times it was called all game. So what was it? I have provided some stats that simplify how close it really was. How about shots? I did mention that neither goalie was really tested but they did do their job. The answer would be not really, besides Seattle’s loan goal. Only 7 of the combined 25 shots both teams attempted were on frame.
Since I was present for the match, I had no idea what the talking heads on the television was saying. However I have seen Alexi Lalas on a number of occasions emphasize set plays on prior broadcasts as being crucial for victory. For this match, this is where the battle was won or lost, depending on which team you support. What set it up was a foul by Portland and the free kick that followed it taken my Mauro Rosales.
Near the 60th minute, Seattle was awarded a free kick along their left side of the pitch about 5 yards away from the corner of the penalty box. Mauro Rosales, who was subbed in and had fresh legs used his magic to curl the ball in towards the spot and Johnson got free from his mark. Ball watching would be the cancer for Portland’s defense on this set play and Johnson did what good strikers do. He got a head on the ball and it was just enough to make it impossible for Ricketts to save. Questions should be asked whether Alvas Powell was the right man to mark Johnson on the play. It appears that he let up at the last second. That last second has been hard for me to understand. Was it because he felt he got beat? Did he give up? Did he lose Johnson and lost sight of the ball? Did he think it was too high for Johnson to make contact? I don’t know and only he could answer these questions. In addition, could have Kah made a play or was it too far in front moving too quick for him to try? Who really knows? But one thing is for sure, the set up was perfect and the touch by Johnson was the killer instinct required for the victory.
Portland did not give up. They pushed on. Darlington Nagbe, in the 88th minute, forced Michael Gspurning to make his only really tough save on a hard shot piercing the air from distance to his right hand side. Defender Andrew Jean Baptiste happened to get a deflection in the air come his way which he attempted on goal with his head in stoppage time but it was not troubling to Gspurning. But that was it. Time ran out on Portland and the three points was awarded to Seattle.
In the end, this will go down as one of those classic nail biters where one team was able to beat their rival by the sheerest of deficits. Was it the best game of the season? No, but it kept fans at the edge of their seats either at home or at Century Link Field. It was everything desired in a rivalry except for one thing. There really was not any controversy. Yes there was rough play but nothing like there was in Dallas the night before where three red cards were issued. It appeared that both teams held mutual respect for each other despite what the fans may have wanted to see. I loved every minute of it despite the fact that my team lost. My fellow Portland fans should not feel afraid to be upset or angry about the result. That is normal in a rivalry of this magnitude. But what fans from both sides should agree about is it could have been a bloodbath and thank god it wasn’t.
This chapter of the Cascadia Cup is over for now but the story isn’t over. These two teams get a chance at another go later this fall, in Portland. I’ll be there. You can count on that and if I was someone reading this now, please watch it. It is going to be yet again one heck of a match to watch; one that should make the fans of Cascadia and MLS proud to consider a classic derby like no other in the league.