Monday, August 26, 2019

Timbers Losing Streak Extended On A Very Emotional Night At The Park

Pandemonium struck in the 34th minutes, and it was awesome
Derby matches are always emotional and draining because there are always stakes involved, even if there isn't anything official to play for. It's part of what makes the rivalries so important, especially one like the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders FC enjoy. Sure, there is plenty of animosity over various results and situations over the years, but every once in a while, there are the occasional signs of mutual respect. The August 23rd date between the Timbers and the Sounders FC had plenty of actual stakes involved with the result - the fate of the Cascadia Cup would be determined to see if Seattle, the current holders, could continue their stewardship of the cup with a victory in the Rose City while also firming up their position within the top of the Western Conference standings. Portland, meanwhile, has struggled mightily at their home grounds after posting an emphatic win over their other Cascadian Rival, Vancouver, just two weeks previously in a driving rainstorm. While Portland did defeat Chicago days later, but the Timbers lost their focus and composure as the Fire nearly pulled even in stoppage time after Portland jumped to a big lead. Atlanta came in days later as the Timbers continued to try and find themselves, but a Josef Martinez goal seconds into the second half effectively squashed any chance for a rally as the Timbers absorbed a difficult loss at home. This match itself followed a similar pattern to the previous match in terms of play, but the Timbers were able to make it interesting and keep it close until the final moments. Unfortunately, the team lost their second match in a row at home by a 2 to 1 score, but this match had plenty of other implications happening off the pitch that added to the raw emotion of the night.

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
I have to admit that I was slightly concerned when 30 minutes before the kickoff, the Sounders end was in full voice with drums and flags making a wall of noise, while the Timbers Army were just settling into their seats getting ready for the match. But after a very quiet anthem and no display to speak of, when Center Official Jair Marrufo blew the whistle, the Sounders end went quiet to match the Timbers section of supporters. For those that might be familiar with the crowds at a Portland Beavers baseball game or other events at the park, the noise level was definitely similar to that. For 33 minutes, people heard the voices of the players and coaches, a few one off attempts at a cheer for their side, and some good natured applause. Timbers matches are known for the raucous atmosphere and vibrant displays, but the entire North End went silent, and I'm sure the ESPN crowd wasn't sure what they had tuned into. Much like Atlanta, Portland put some pressure on early as Paredes tested Frei in the 10th minute from distance that he blocked, but it fell to Loria. Marvin put a shot on target, but Frei pushed it over the bar to earn a corner kick that generated a chance for the Timbers, but  Tuiloma rushed a header in the 11th minute just wide. The Sounders seemed content to let the Timbers run about until the 22nd minute when Morris sprinted down the left side with Valentin providing the mark. Unfortunately, Zarek committed the cardinal sin of defending in reaching his foot out to stop Morris, and the Seattle forward easily out maneuvered him to then get clear and put a cross from left to right. With Ruidiaz and Roldan near the goal relatively unmarked, the ball fell to Ruidiaz, but his shot was deflected away by Clark momentarily. However, Roldan was able to find the rebound and tap it into an open goal to give the Sounders a 1 to 0. However, the celebration was very subdued outside of a few claps and the near quiet returned to the crowd seconds later.

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.
The Sounders players fell to the turf in exhaustion and elation while their supporters gathered in the southwest corner with the Cascadia Cup in celebration that they would be keepers of the cup for another season. The Sounders had been conceding goals like crazy coming into this match, but their defense held together enough to yield just one goal on the night, and the points give them some much needed momentum. The Timbers, on the other hand, were left to sort through the wreckage of another home loss. There certainly are those heaping blame on the result on Marrufo and his crew, who missed a handball in the box in the 40th minute off Delem from a cross that Marrufo ruled his leg, but the replays show the ball struck the hand then the leg, and the decision on Fernandez was a really close call. The defense could certainly get some scrutiny as Valentin lost track of Morris on both goals in trying to mark, and Morris appeared to be struggling with a leg injury on and off for most of the evening, yet he was able to beat Zarek on multiple occasions. Cascante also was left exposed on a few runs, forcing Tuiloma to have to adjust and he wasn't able to make a few plays either, whether this was due to unfamiliarity with each other or just pressure from the Sounders. But for me, the biggest issue on the night was the Timbers' impatience on the offensive end. Saverese lamented the team wasn't very composed for most of the night on offense, especially considering the wealth of chances the team enjoyed, and I agree with the coach.

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.
The one group that I wouldn't think to blame for the results would be the supporters, who brought tons of energy and noise after their initial protest. Some didn't feel that way and voiced their frustration at the Timbers Army's decision to stay silent for a good portion of an extremely important  match with tons of implications. Many outlets have been covering the protest for several months, but the supporters' actions and subsequent response has given this story even more attention and it's being discussed in many social circles. If you followed the situation on Twitter, most folks on the #RCTID hashtag supported the protest and voiced approval, but on Facebook, the reaction was far more negative, as many fans wondered why the Army would do this during in a Cascadia Cup match. It doesn't take an ad wizard to know that putting a vocal protest against a rule or situation works much better with a wider audience, and what bigger stage could the supporters get than a national audience on ESPN in the only MLS match going at that broadcast window? The actions forced people to talk about the Iron Front symbol, the actions taken by the league and the teams, and what the supporters are protesting about. Even the players got into the situation with Valentin wearing an Iron Front symbol shirt before the match and afterwards during the team's media time, while Ebobisse had a Colin Kaepernick jersey on. The Sounders were also engaged as Frei saluted the Timbers Army after the match and gave an impassioned interview afterwards about his thoughts.

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.


  1. excellent write-up! i do hope the timbers fo and mls come to their senses before it's too late.

  2. Do you have a reference for this statement, " Iron Front logo would be prohibited on any large displays. It could, however, be used on clothing and small individual banners...."? I have never heard they allowed "small individual banners". How small is small?

  3. The mentions were on Twitter on the team's official account, but of course, they are gone now. Essentially, they allowed a personal expression of protest on a shirt, hat, bag or other individual display. They would allow a small sign or 2-stick, although as you know, security has been random in terms of enforcement of the rules. Some will let it in, others won't. Part of the issue here is the ambiguity of the policy.