|Pandemonium struck in the 34th minutes, and it was awesome
Timbers Coach Gio Savarese has been lamenting the team's struggles with focus and composure since nearly coughing up the lead against Chicago despite scoring two early goals and being up a man due to an ejection in the 30th minute. Portland fell behind against Atlanta off a deflected goal in the first half, but the strike by Martinez right after the break seemed to pull the energy out of the team for any sort of comeback. With Larrys Mabiala still out due to injury and Jorge Moreira not available due to accumulation suspension, Savarese had to make some adjustments to a backline that has been struggling at moments in the past few weeks. Zarek Valentin received the call to start as the right fullback alongside center backs Julio Cascante and Bill Tuiloma, with Jorge Villafana manning the left side with Steve Clark again between the posts in goal once again. Savarese employed Diego Chara and Cristhian Paredes as the defensive midfielders, both having played some of their best soccer over the past few weeks, with the attacking trio of Marvin Loria, Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco manning the midfield attackers. Savarese chose to stay with Brian Fernandez as the lone striker despite his struggles against Atlanta, including a disallowed goal in the first half, but Gio could bring on Jeremy Ebobisse as another scoring option if needed. While the Timbers have enjoyed decent bouts of possession and chances over the past few matches, the ability to break down goal scoring opportunities has been the big issue; whether it's a lack of creativity, patience, composure or whatever, the Timbers simply haven't been able to make things very easy for themselves in the past couple of matches.
|Special Olympics celebrated their Timbers & Sounders teams at the half.
Seattle, on the other hand, has been trying to figure out what kind of team they are as they've been consistently inconsistent for most of the season. It's probably hard to think that with the Sounders being in the top of the Western Conference, but outside of LAFC who has been taking victory laps around most of MLS this season, everybody else in the West either looks amazing one minute and horrible the next. Seattle hasn't been very good on the road either, but any team that has Raul Ruidiaz, Cristian Roldan, Nicolas Lodiero and Jordan Morris in their attacking arsenal can't be overlooked. The Sounders were also excited at the recent play of Xavier Arreaga at center back, especially with Roman Torres suspended for several months for a drug offense. Sounders FC goalkeeper Stefan Frei remains one of the best in the league in terms of saves and distribution, so the Timbers would have to find some true quality to score in this match. Savarese told his team this match was very important because of the stakes involved including the fate of the Cascadia Cup, but for Seattle Coach Brian Schmetzer, his goals were much simpler for his side - establish some consistency to gain some confidence going into the final weeks of the year. Seattle has just 7 matches left in 2019 while Portland has just 8 after this fixture, so there aren't many matches left in the year to establish anything solid before this year's new playoff format. The top seed avoids the play in round altogether, and each leg is just one match hosted by the higher seeded team, so being in the top 4 guarantees at least one home date.
As important as the match was for the teams playing, the event took on even more significance because of escalating tensions between the Timbers and their staunch supporters, the Timbers Army. Since the introduction of certain language in the MLS Fan Code of Conduct prohibiting political actions back in March, there have been rising actions between the team and the Timbers Army surrounding the use of the Iron Front symbol. Actions have escalated since the Vancouver match with supporters boycotting stadium purchases and creating several displays and clothing with the Iron Front logo, but as we covered in our last entry, the team took extraordinary measures to post a press release doubling down on the policy and indicating the Iron Front logo would be prohibited on any large displays. It could, however, be used on clothing and small individual banners. Knowing this match would be on national television with a large viewing audience, the TA made a decision to protest the team's action once again. They would not put forth a pre-match display or sing the National Anthem, while they would also remain silent for the first 33 minutes of the match in solidarity. Where this action took on a different track was that the Sounders' visiting supporters from the Emerald City Supporters and Gorilla FC agreed to the same terms as well, so both groups would go silent for the majority of the first half. The history between the groups has experienced several bumpy chapters over the years, but the fact that these groups of supporters all agreed to this action shows the seriousness and conviction behind this approach. The Seattle supporters haven't experienced anything as serious in actions taken by the Sounders organization that I could find, but the fact that they were willing to go all in with the Timbers Army was enough to show me that they considered the league actions objectionable.
|Diego Chara was his very active self for all of the match per usual
The teams traded back and forth runs for the next several minutes to no avail as the defenses were able to cover the threats, but the complexion of the match changed dramatically in the 34th minute when as agreed upon, the supporters groups' both broke into song and displays at the agreed upon time of 33:01 on the clock. The song Bella Ciao was an Italian anti-fascist song originated in 1933 at the height of World War II, and it bellowed through the entire park as flags, signs, streamers, banners and noise returned to the stadium. Several Iron Front flags were flying about within both sections, and it appeared that both teams fed off the renewed energy from the supporters. Valeri had a blocked shot in the 38th minute while Fernandez pushed a shot just off frame in first half stoppage as the score held to the 1 to 0 mark. Although Loria was having a decent match in terms of getting wide and creating chances, Savarese decided to sacrifice him at the half to bring on Ebobisse to give the Timbers a two forward attack with Ebo playing out wide while Fernandez would concentrate within the central area of the box. The change nearly paid dividends in the early moments of the half when Blanco found Ebobisse in the box on the right clear, but Frei was able to push the shot away at the last minute. Considering this was seconds into the second half, it appeared that the Timbers might be in good shape to make the match interesting.
|Julio Cascante left the match due to injury
The optimism took a shot in the arm in the 47th minute when Morris beat Valentin in the 47th minute on a run very similar to his 22nd minute effort that yielded a goal. This time, Ruidiaz was the benefactor and he converted the cross to a goal as Cascante was late to cover him off the cross while Valentin again missed keeping Morris away from attacking with slow reactions. Suddenly, a one goal deficit was doubled, and the Timbers faithful were starting to see a familiar pattern. Unlike the Atlanta match, however, the Timbers were able to make it interested when Ebobisse was fouled just outside the box in the 53rd minute by Sounders midfielder Jordy Delem. Off the free kick, Valeri decided to put the effort on frame going to the right, but his shot hit Ruidiaz on the wall, and deflected the ball to the left of the goal. Frei was already heading to the right, and he was unable to adjust back to catch the shot before it struck the next, and just like that, Portland was able to pull back within a goal at 2 to 1. Two minutes later, the Timbers thought they might have the equalizer when Valeri challenged Frei from 20 yards out with a shot from distance, but Frei pushed it away to the left. Ebobisse found the rebound, and put a chip shot into the box where Paredes was able to put a shot on goal with a header but he pushed the shot wide.
Savarese continued to tinker in adding Tomas Conechny for Paredes to give more attacking options, but he added more fuel in the 79th minute when Cascante went down awkwardly trying to make a play and had to leave the match due to injury. Saverese chose to go with three defenders in the back and bring on Andy Polo to effectively put all of the Timbers' attackers out there to get a leveling goal, but the Cascante situation bears some concern here as it's another center back injury to the Timbers in an already thin area. Tuiloma is just coming back from injury while Mabiala is still recovering from his injury; with Modou Jadama out with a leg injury, the Timbers are effectively with 2 functioning center backs on the roster with Tuiloma and Claude Dielna. Portland thought they had leveled in the 81st minute when Valeri put a cross from right to left for Fernandez, and he easily slotted the ball past Frei to set off a crazed celebration in the North End, but replays show that Fernandez was slightly ahead of Seattle defender Saad Abdul-Salaam, but it was really, really, really close. Marrufo did consult with VAR official Edvin Jurisevic about the play, but the call on the pitch stood. While Blanco just missed on a header in the depths of stoppage time by mere inches and Polo put a wicked shot on Frei that caused some concern, the Timbers weren't able to get the equalizer when the final whistle blew.
|Brian Fernandez thought he had pulled the Timbers even in the 81st minute.
Some talk has been made that an easy adjustment could be to move Fernandez out to the wing, his more natural position, and move Ebobisse to the center to be more of the focal and distribution point. Fernandez was a huge success early as the lone striker in poaching for goals, but over the last few matches, he's struggled to find space to work in the middle and his best creativity from what we've seen in his previous stops was movement wide. That would put a ton of pressure on Ebobisse to be the true distributor and threat in the middle, but considering he's a taller, more physical forward, I'm actually thinking this is a needed adjustment. This should then allow Blanco and Valeri to do what they do best in wandering about on the pitch with the support of another winger if needed or just work within the four of them. Savarese will certainly have a lot of ponder before the team's next match when they host Real Salt Lake on August 31st in what could likely be RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando's last appearance in Portland, as he announced his retirement before the start of the 2019 season. Like Seattle, RSL has been lurking in the middle of the table in the West and while they don't have many of the dynamic options we've seen from them in previous seasons, they are not a team to overlook.
|Portland wants this place as a fortress, but it's been tough this year.
Perhaps the more disturbing angle of the negative comments though came from several who indicated how frustrated they were at the lack of atmosphere within the park, and it's expected for the stadium to be loud and boisterous for our team. Maybe those comments came from Russian bots, or the commenters don't realize that the capos leading songs and the drummers are volunteer positions; they pay for a game ticket just like everyone else and give their time freely to help organize the displays and songs. As a group, they all agreed to the protest action because as has been stated, the actions of the league go against everything the Iron Front symbol stands for. The three arrows are a response to messages of hatred in any form, and banning this symbol as political speech is incorrect. I'm not sure what will happen over the coming weeks, but with neither side seeming to want to budge, it seems the drama surrounding the Timbers will be ratcheted up as the calendar moves closer to the opening days of Fall. As I stated in my last post, I have always hoped the sides could find some common ground, but instead it appears there is some bunkering down on their respective positions. For me, the Timbers Army are doing the right thing and I applaud them for standing up against hate in any form.