Photo by Jane Gershovich/Soccer By Ives
By JASON MITCHELL
SEATTLE – The Portland Timbers wrapped up the regular season as perhaps the hottest team in MLS. That showed no signs of changing as the Western Conference semifinals got underway Saturday night in front 38,507 at CenturyLink Field.
Portland entered the match undefeated in its previous eight games and coming off a 5-0 thrashing of Chivas USA in its regular-season finale. The Timbers opened the playoffs just as they finished the season, playing with poise and disciplined defensive organization, riding goals from Ryan Johnson and Darlington Nagbe to a 2-1 win in the opening match of this two-leg, aggregate-goal series.
It was the Timbers’ first ever playoff match as an MLS side, but a casual observer wouldn’t have known it.
“This team is very confident right now,” said Jack Jewsbury. “We’re very comfortable in the way we’re playing. We can morph into different teams depending how the game is going. If it’s direct, we can fight with you. If it settles down, we can possess and go that way. It was a great start for us, very nice to get the goal, and especially nice to get the win.”
The second leg will be played on Thursday at Portland’s Jeld-Wen Field. Kickoff is scheduled for 11 p.m. ET.
While Seattle began the match with an energy belying its busy schedule, Portland opened the scoring in just the 15th minute after Diego Chara found Jewsbury streaking alone down the right sideline. The veteran right back took a touch to gather himself before whipping in a near-post cross that Johnson flicked on for the 1-0 lead.
“The majority of the balls make it to that near-post area,” Johnson said. “It was a good, weighted ball and I did good enough to redirect it and it was a good finish.”
Despite losing the possession battle for much of the night, Portland doubled the lead in the 66th minute, when Nagbe turned on a pass into the box from substitute Khalif Alhassan and beat both Djimi Traore and goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann from 12 yards out.
“It was a great first touch and a great finish,” said Jewsbury. “He’s an unbelievable talent and a guy that’s come along for us this year. I’m just so happy for him because he’s such a great kid on and off the field as well.”
Timbers head coach Caleb Porter implied his team—usually so possession-oriented—was more than happy to let the Sounders have some of the game.
“We wanted them to have a bit of the ball,” said Porter, “so we could roast them on counterattacks, and I thought we were very dangerous on the counter all day long.”
Portland absorbed 20 shots and defended 11 Seattle corners over the course of the match.
Seattle did manage to secure a late score, a 90th-minute goal that could prove critical in the second leg.
Late substitute Shalrie Joseph flicked on a deep throw-in from Brad Evans, and Osvaldo Alonso scooted in from the top of the area to bury a left-footed volley from the penalty spot.
“The goal at the end of the game was very important for us,” said Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid. “It gives us an opportunity to go down there and win.”
Clint Dempsey proved to be the most consistently threatening player for either side throughout the night, but found himself bedeviled at every turn.
Donovan Ricketts made a leaping, fingertip save on Dempsey’s 20th-minute free kick. Another free kick hit the post. A left-footed, 15-yard volley sailed wide left in the 75th minute. And in the waning minutes of regulation, a clean header on a Mauro Rosales free kick slapped off the FieldTurf and floated inches over the crossbar.
“I had my chances tonight,” Dempsey said. “I was happy with the looks I got, and [happy] getting touches on the ball, it just seemed like it was one of those nights [where] it wasn’t gonna go in for me.”
It was the Sounders’ third game in just seven days, a fact Schmid felt impacted the game.
“I think at certain times in the game, on the field, you could tell that we were a little more fatigued,” he said.
That left the Sounders looking forward to a few days rest before the second leg.
“When we go down to Portland,” said Schmid, “we’re going to be sharp, and we’re going to be rested, and we’re not going to have heavy legs.”
Aside from being fatigued, the Sounders were also missing Designated Player Obafemi Martins and standout rookie DeAndre Yedlin to injury. Yedlin, at least, should be back for the second leg.
“He’ll be ready,” Schmid said after the match. “It was touch-and-go today, but he’ll be ready.”
Here are the match highlights: