SEATTLE — It was a tale of two matches, depending upon your point-of-view as a Seattle or Portland partisan.
Saturday night’s MLS Western Conference Semifinal match between Cascadia rivals Sounders FC and Timbers went the way of the visitors, a 2-1 win for Portland, at CenturyLink Field.
The Timbers rocked the match’s first two goals and held control over a match that saw the Sounders dominate in pace-of-play, possession, set-piece plays and corner kicks.
In other words, if you are a Timbers coach or fan, you saw the West’s No. 1 team weather the storm and come away with the win. If you are a Sounders coach or fan, you saw the West’s No. 4 teams do everything to win this match — except score until very late.
“I thought from the run of play we did enough to deserve a result,” Seattle Sounders FC manager Sigi Schmid said. “Obviously our finish wasn’t as sharp as Portland’s — they finished far less opportunities than we had. Our finishing needed to be a little bit better.”
“You can put your hand up the puppet of stats and make them say whatever you want to say, so at the end of the day, we got the win, deserved the win, took our chances well, thought we defended well,” Portland FC manager Caleb Porter said.
You get a feeling that the two coaches — one a grizzled veteran in blue and another an upstart first-year MLS coach in a three-piece suit — were bickering at each other through the press.
“The goal at the end of the game was very important for us, it gives us an opportunity to go down there and win,” Schmid said. “I think when you look at possession and where the ball was on the field and who created more chances —whether it’s corner kicks or things like that —we showed that we can carry the game, too. We just have to go down there and carry the game to them and score.”
“They had a little bit more of the ball, but that was a little bit of the game plan we had,” Porter said. “We wanted them to have a bit of the ball so we could roast them on counter-attacks and I thought we were very dangerous on the counter all day long and I thought we were organized. They didn’t have very many clear looks outside of balls dumped in, long throw-ins. Obviously they got the goal on the long throw-in at the end, but for us to stop that team on the road with the talent they have and the freedom they’re given to float around, they didn’t get a goal from the run of play, so I think that’s a real positive that we defended well against them.”
You can certainly take both sides of the argument. Seattle came out firing on all cylinders and put a ton of pressure on Portland. The Timbers responded with a counter-attack goal that gave them a 1-0 lead in the 15th minute.
Veteran midfielder Jack Jewsbury made a blistered run down the right side and crossed the ball in. Forward Ryan Johnson, in the match after seeing substitute duty in the final regular-season days, got a glancing header onto the ball.
Seattle goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann, in for starter Michael Gspurning (red-card suspension), couldn’t do much as the ball rocketed just inside the near right post for the marker. It was a clinical “against-the-run-of-play” goal that visitors want to quiet the pace of play and the fans in the stands.
“First goal is always important,” Porter said. “We’ve been emphasizing that recently. It’s an important thing to do. If you can get the first goal, usually at the very least you tie or win. Most of the time, you don’t lose, so I think that was crucial and it made them now have to open up.”
“I thought they tried to counter and play very direct and just try to spring counters and try to take advantage of their fresh legs over ours,” Schmid said. “I think at certain times in the game, and on the field, we looked a little more fatigued, obviously, because it was our third game. Like I said to the guys just now, when we go to Portland, we’re going to be sharp, we’re going to be rested, and we’re not going to have heavy legs.”
The Sounders dominated the pace in the first half in possession (56 percent), but shots on-goal were just two out of nine total shots. Those two, however, were very good — Clint Dempsey nearly brought Seattle back when his free kick was taken away by the fingertips of Portland goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts in the 19th minute; Dempsey repeated the quality with another free kick that Ricketts pushed over the crossbar minutes later.
At halftime, the scoreboard read 1-0 Portland and all of Seattle’s possession and domination went for naught.
In the second half, Portland did more with the ball. However, even with Seattle wearing down, it still gathered in corner kicks and set-piece plays to threaten.
The Timbers showed what possession and passing can do against a defense when Darlington Nagbe made it 2-0 Portland in the 67th minute. Several passes from the midfield allowed Nagbe a chance to turn and shoot from 12 yards out on a defenseless Hahnemann. Kalif Aihassan got the assist, but the entire team should share in that glory.
Down by two goals, Seattle fired back up for the final 30 minutes (plus extra time) of the match. Dempsey, again, nearly snapped the shutout when his turn on goal from 16 yards out went just wide left of Ricketts.
Midfielder Osvaldo Alonso gave Sounders fans something to cheer about — and give hope for Thursday’s second leg of the series — when he blasted Shalrie Joseph’s back header past Ricketts in the 90th minute. The play started on a Brad Evans long throw-in.
Fortunately for the Sounders, there is no “away goal” rule — where away goals count twice in a tiebreaker scenario — in the MLS Playoffs. A one-goal win on Thursday sends the series into extra time. A two-goal win advances it to the conference finals.
Thus, depending upon your point-of-view, Thursday night offers a chance to party or a chance to hope and dream.
Rob Burns is a Daily World sports writer. He can be reached at (360) 537-3926 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow Rob on Twitter at @RobRVR.