Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Timbers Earn Playoff Advantage With Leg 1 Win Over Sounders At Home

Why yes, we are the only club that matters. Why do you ask?
Portland Timbers matches against the Seattle Sounders FC are never easy, nor are they for the casual fan of soccer. Nothing drove this point home more than walking into Providence Park 45 minutes before the scheduled kick in their Leg 1 match of the Western Conference semi-final, and both supporters sections were overflowing with noise and songs. Portland and Seattle were meeting for the 103rd time in their lengthy history, but only for the second time were the sides battling in the MLS postseason. The last time they met in the postseason was 2013, and the Timbers, playing in their first season under then-Coach Caleb Porter, knocked off the veteran laden Sounders by a 5 to 3 aggregate score. Playing in front of another raucous sellout crowd at Providence Park, the Sounders took an early lead playing the first 10 minutes of soccer with solid pace, physical play and precise passing as the Timbers struggled to counter. However, Portland found their footing and played perhaps their best sequence of soccer all year in the remainder of the first half, putting in two goals and effectively silencing the Sounders attack. The score would remain 2 to 1 Portland through a tense second half that saw both sides struggle to capture the same intensity and precision, but the effort was enough for the Timbers to take the early lead in the two match series. Focus now turns to November 8 in Seattle for Leg 2, as the Sounders know they need at least 1 goal to even the series; however, the fact the Sounders have a road goal gives them an advantage should the 2 match series end level on goals. Portland, however, has confidence in having 2 wins against their rival in 2018 including a big win in June at Century Link Field under dramatic circumstances.

In 2018, Seattle again fell into their usual pattern of struggles to start the season, but after losing to the Timbers in Seattle and being 11 points adrift from the playoffs, the Sounders rallied to advance all the way to the second seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Ironically, it was the loss to the Timbers in June that seemed to galvanize the Sounders into a long unbeaten streak through July, August and September. Portland, meanwhile has been relatively consistent outside of a lengthy unbeaten streak from April to August that helped propel them to success under first year Coach Gio Savarese. It hasn't been all fun and games for either side, though, as there have been injuries and player adjustments that have affected the overall attack for each group. The Sounders reeled off five consecutive wins to finish the 2018 regular season, and Coach Brian Schmetzer has been pleased with the attack of Raul Ruidiaz (joined midseason in June), Nicolas Lodiero, Will Bruin, Cristian Roldan and Victor Rodriguez. It's a credit to Schmetzer and his team to find ways to replace injured scorer Jordan Morris and retired striker Clint Dempsey, and Schmetzer was hoping that his team could continue their hot streak.
I didn't think Jeff Attinella touched Cristian Roldan on this play.

Schmetzer decided to keep things relatively simple for his side, starting Stefan Frei in goal with Nouhou Tolo, Kim Kee-Hee, Chad Marshall and Kelvin Leerdam in defense. With Ozzie Alonso and Gustav Svensson manning the defensive midfield, Seattle would rely upon the attacking trio of Roldan, Rodriguez and Lodiero as the midfielders with Ruidiaz as the lone striker. Portland has found success recently by returning to the 4 defender, 2 defensive midfielder, 3 attacking midfielder, and 1 striker formation and Savarese went with virtually the same lineup as was used in the 2 match series with Real Salt Lake in October. Jeff Attinella would again start in goal, having fully recovered from the shoulder injuries that shelved him late in the season, with Jorge Villafana, Liam Ridgewell, Bill Tuiloma and Zarek Valentin on defense with Larrys Mabiala unavailable after being ejected in the knockout round match against FC Dallas. With Diego Chara and David Guzman handling the defensive midfield duties, it would be up to Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Andy Polo as the attacking midfield and Jeremy Ebobisse as the striker to generate pressure on Frei. The recent battles between Chara and Alonso have been the stuff of legend with 2 of the very best defensive midfielders put on quite a show patrolling the middle, but with Chara on a caution from the FC Dallas match and 2 cautions triggering a suspension, a huge key for the Timbers would be to keep Chara from getting into any disciplinary trouble.

With Ted Unkel at the officiating controls, who has a reputation for being confident but unpredictable in his calls, the Sounders ramped up the pressure from the opening whistle as Lodiero and Alonso took turns executing fouls on Chara within the first few minutes. Ruidiaz was especially feisty and active with close misses in the 5th and 9th minute, while Roldan did his level best to cause trouble when he attacked the goal after the Ruidiaz miss in the 5th minute with Attinella charging to catch the spinning ball. There did appear to be light contact as Roldan went down awkwardly as Attinella tried to corrall the ball, but the shot spun out of play for a Seattle corner. VAR Official Allen Chapman contacted Unkel to have him review the contact using video replay, but even on the review, Unkel judged there was no foul on the play and the corner kick call would stand. Roldan would get some revenge in the 10th minute taking a ball from Rodriguez on the left with Tuiloma giving chase as Valentin was pulled in. Roldan was able to drop a cross into the box for Ruidiaz before Ridgewell could find the mark, and by that point, Raul had chipped the shot into the upper left corner of goal for an early 1 to 0 Sounders lead. With road goals being the first tiebreaker in the two match aggregate series should the teams finish the 2 match series tied in goals, this tally was huge for the visitors. It was a product of a very aggressive, deliberate attack plan and it looked to frustrate Portland as they couldn't find anything constructive to work from.

The Timbers youth showed very well in this match, especially Jeremy Ebobisse.
I'm not sure what flipped the switch for the Timbers, however, but since they are an extremely good club at the counter attack, they can put themselves back on track relatively quickly. In the 17th minute, Ridgewell corralled a 50/50 ball near midpitch and put a short pass over to Chara, who saw Valeri off to his left. The Maestro didn't keep the ball very long after receiving the pass, as Diego put a perfectly weighted ball to Ebobisse, who had made an expert run between Marshall and Kee-Hee in space and the offside flag stayed down as the youngster was first to the ball. Frei left his line to try and cover more space, but Ebobisse's shot was already away and tucked just inside the right post to level the score. On replay, the call was extremely close, but Unkel and his crew didn't make the call although VAR reviews every goal for accuracy and Chapman let the goal stand. After Ridgy missed with a header off a corner in the 23rd minute, Portland would take the lead in the 29th minute when Valeri broke down the middle off a turnover from Alonzo. With Kee-Hee and Marshall doing their best to stop Diego, the ball was deflected to Blanco, running on the left with Leerdam giving chase. Blanco settled it from right to left after a deflection, but created enough space and an angle to chip it past Frei into the same right corner for goal to put the Timbers up 2 to 1. The celebration within the stadium was so huge that the press box was shaking. The Timbers added more pressure with quality misses from Ebobisse in the 32nd, Guzman in the 33rd and 34th and a shot late by Polo in stoppage time, but the pressure kept Seattle slightly on their heels for the remainder of the half.

Another situation that added some hesistancy to the Seattle attack was the injury bug, as Roldan was unable to continue in the match after a few other bumps and was replaced in the 30th minute by Waylon Francis due to a groin injury. Seattle's issues grew bigger in the 40th minute when Marshall injured his knee taking a clearance, and he had to be stretchered off the pitch and replaced by Roman Torres. The Sounders nearly burned through all of their subs in the first half when during the seven minutes of stoppage time. Svensson and Guzman collided heads during a corner kick and both players spent several minutes on the pitch getting treatment. While they were able to return to their feet and finish the half, Guzman complained of dizziness after returning for the second half, and was eventually replaced by Lawrence Olum in the 50th minute. I thought Chara, Valeri and Blanco were the keys to the first half success for the Timbers, but it was Guzman and his 85 percent passing rate, stellar defense and good orgnaization that were the engine that fueled the 40 minutes plus of great soccer. I did wonder after the halftime break if the Timbers would be able to sustain the intensity and tempo they kept up in the first half, and Olum's entry unfortunately slowed down the entire attack. Thankfully for the Timbers, the Sounders were having their own issues on the offensive side.

With Larrys Mabiala unavailable, Bill Tuiloma stepped in and did very well.
Rodriguez got a gift in the 54th minute when an Olum backpass to Attinella with Ruidiaz chasing back went right to Lodiero instead of a Timber, but Victor's shot from the right off a pass was deflected away by Attienella for a corner. Lodiero and Ruidiaz had blocked shots in the 56th and 73rd minutes as the Timbers defense started to stiffen up for the stretch run, while Savarese made the call to replace Ebobisse with Lucas Melano in the final 15 minutes to see if his side could add a third to their scoreline. Valeri certainly gave it a run in the 76th minute from midpitch when Svensson gave him a bit of space, and the shot forced Frei to push it over the goal line for a corner kick. Portland thought they had added the magic third goal when Valeri played a pass to Villafana making a run, but the offside flag came up to stop the play despite Frei blocking Jorge's shot but missing out on Melano's rebound goal that was a thing of beauty. Blanco and Valeri executed a lovely one - two run that put Diego in the box with the ball, but he rushed his shot over the net and out of play. Rodriguez forced a save from Attinella in second half stoppage off a give and go of their own, but Jeff was up to the task to match the catch and keep the scoreline at 2 to 1 Timbers. Moments later, the final whistle blew and the fans could celebrate a hard fought victory.

The Timbers might be kicking themselves for not getting a third goal on the afternoon, but for stretches of the match, they simply dominated the pace and movement and Seattle couldn't match it. In a relatively baffling bit of news as well, the Timbers weren't cautioned at any point in the match so everyone is available; consider that the Sounders had targeted Chara with some early physical play, and Diego not only kept his composure and played his usual style for the entire match, he wasn't whistled for a foul at all. Portland effectively can advance to the conference finals with a win or draw in Seattle, and there are some scenarios where even a loss could advance them provided the Timbers score at least 1 goal on the road. Seattle has to feel good about the series not being too out of hand with just being down a goal and having a road goal to their credit for the series tiebreaker, but losing Roldan and Marshall to injury are key blows to an offense that needed some creativity at points. Roldan was the most effective winger for Seattle in his short stint, and there are questions if he can't go about who replaces this key playmaker for them. Suffice to say, the series is far from over and while both teams have positives to fall back on, there's enough question marks for each group to discourage a conservative approach to Thursday.

Liam Ridgewell shows frustration after the Sounders got their first goal.
For me, the first goal on Thursday changes the complexion for either side - Portland evens up the road tiebreaker for goals if they score first, forcing Seattle to play more aggresively, while a Seattle first goal gives them a serious advantage and reason to draw the game out. It would be difficult enough for injuries to heal given a week between the legs as originally scheduled, but due to a stadium conflict with a car show, Leg 2 is bumped up by 3 days to November 8 from November 11. The compression squeezes both sides greatly, but considering the key injuries for the Sounders, it will be intersting to see how they lineup. The winner will get an extended break (thank you MLS and your draconian playoff schedule) as they await the winner of Sporting Kansas City (1 seed) vs Real Salt Lake (6 seed) playing leg 2 on November 11. The lowest seed of the winners will host leg 1 on Sunday, November 25 with the return on Thursday, November 29; Real Salt Lake would host either Portland or Seattle if they advanced in leg 1, while Portland or Seattle would host leg 1 if it's Sporting that wins. The fact that it would potentially be 2 and a half weeks between competive soccer matches doesn't help anybody in this situation.

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