By MIKE DONOVAN
PORTLAND, Ore.- Not since the Timbers inaugural season as a professional soccer team had the club knocked their rival, the Seattle Sounders, out of postseason play. But that is exactly what Portland did on Thursday night in front of a frenzied crowd, some of whom had waited 38 years for a match of this magnitude.
Portland set the tone early and ran past the Sounders at Jeld-Wen Field by a final score of 3-2. The win gave the club a 5-3 edge on aggregate and put the Timbers in the MLS Western Conference Finals for the first time. Will Johnson, Diego Valeri, and Futty Danso found the back of the net in front of a frenzied home crowd. DeAndre Yedlin and Eddie Johnson scored for Seattle in the second half, but it was too little, too late for Seattle.
“At home, we are a team that wants to run our opponent over and I thought we did that for good periods of tonight. Our pressure was as good as I’ve seen out of this group, all season,” head coach Caleb Porter said. “When we had it going, I thought we were very relentless.”
The Timbers came out firing, rather than trying to bunker down after beating Seattle 2-1 in the first leg of the series. Portland’s aggressive style gave Seattle little chance as the Timbers used quick counters and long passing sequences to blow by the Sounders backline on multiple occasions. Extending back into the regular season, it was the third Timbers victory over their rival in the last 25 days.
“It’s not easy to beat a team three times in a row. We were able to do that and I think that was a credit to how hungry our team is right now,” Porter said. “They are on a mission, right now. And the best thing I can do is stay out of the way. And I tried to do that tonight. I wanted to just release them and let them go. Getting to 3-0, there was some scary stuff that we put together as a team.”
Midway through the first half, Will Johnson delivered from the spot after Djimi Traore handled the ball in the penalty area. Michael Gspurning went the wrong way as the Timbers captain slotted home the kick in front of the Timbers Army.
Diego Valeri continued his magical first MLS season with a give-and-go combination with Rodney Wallace that led to a sliding finish from the Argentine DP. The goal sent the Timbers into the halftime break with both momentum and a two-goal lead for the match. Even without the goal, Valeri left his mark on the match with numerous creative combination plays and passes.
While Osvaldo Alonso carried the Sounders during the first leg of the series, he was unable to replicate his performance Thursday, especially in the first 45 minutes. The other Seattle midfielders were unable to pick up the slack.
“I thought tonight we got outplayed in the first half. We didn’t play well in the first half. They closed us down, put pressure on us,” Sigi Schmid said. “We didn’t play forward. I thought we lost the game in the midfield.”
When Futty Danso headed home a Wallace cross moments after the second half restart, the rout seemed to be on. Seattle was able to muster two goals in a two-minute stretch in the second half, but in the end, the club had dug themselves too deep a hole. The late goals given up will not be lost on the Timbers going forward, however.
“The two goals, obviously, is something that grounds us a little bit,” Will Johnson said. “We know if we switch it off for just a second, we can give up two goals just like that.”
The Sounders began the must-win match with Shalrie Joseph getting the start in place of Lamar Neagle, who was out due to yellow card accumulation. By the time attacking substitutes, Obafemi Martins and Mauro Rosales, entered the match the Sounders were four goals down in aggregate.
“What we wanted to do was get Shalrie in there and have him play a little more advanced, and at least physically be able to battle with their center backs,” Schmid said. “But he ended up dropping in too far and taking spaces that Demspey normally gets the ball in, and as a result we were disjointed in the first half.”
The victory was the first for Portland in a playoff series against Seattle since the club’s inaugural season in the NASL in 1975. While aware of the intense rivalry, most Timbers players seemed to consider the Sounders just a team standing in their way.
“We’re so focused on advancing and just getting to the next round, if we drew Seattle, so be it. If it was Colorado that we had to beat, so be it.” Will Johnson said. “It means a great deal to our fans and we want to do right by them. So obviously we are happy that they can trash-talk their rival fanbase. But for us, it was just another team that was in our way.”
Portland has not lost a home match in any competition since March 9 and hasn’t lost to a Western Conference opponent at Jeld-Wen since July of 2012. The homefield advantage created by the fans goes hand-in-hand with the style the Timbers are currently exhibiting.
“It helps our style of play and the way we press and attack teams. I think the atmosphere fuels that even more,” Timbers defender Michael Harrington said.
Portland will head to Utah to take on Real Salt Lake for the first leg of the Western Conference Finals on Sunday night. After having a recovery day Friday and practicing Saturday, the club will take a charter to Salt Lake Saturday afternoon.
It is a quick turnaround for the club, but they seem to be peaking at the right time.
“In the end, we were the better team and we deserve to move on in the series. I thought it was some of the best stuff of the year for our team, both sides of the ball,” Porter said. “But again, I think there is still more in this team, so that’s what is scary.”