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The most meaningful match of a lost 2012 season started off with some bizarre personnel choices and ended with the Portland Timbers self-destructing in front of a paid attendance of 66,452. The Timbers have one last shot at the Cascadia Cup, two weeks from now in Vancouver.
Five Keys to the Match
Questionable lineup decisions: Against DC United we saw Gavin Wilkinson use a lineup nearly identical to the previous match, with only the striker position changing. The decision was a surprise, given Wilkinson's talk of wanting to see all of his players audition for a spot on next year's squad.
Sunday's lineup was a different kind of surprise, with three changes made to the Timbers' starting back line, along with the return of Donovan Ricketts in goal. Wilkinson said after the game that the decision to sit Steven Smith in favor of Rodney Wallace was a result of a slight muscle strain Smith had picked up in practice. Whatever the reason for the change, it looked like the wrong choice, as Wallace bore the bulk of the blame for two of the Seattle Sounders' goals.
Meatball subs: As ineffective as Sal Zizzo was in the first half, replacing him with Mike Fucito was an odd choice. Fucito brings plenty of speed and exuberance to the pitch, but he doesn't provide much of a different look for the opposing defense to deal with.
Wilkinson's other two substitutions were just as inexplicable, from a tactical perspective. The only thing they all had in common was that the substituting players hadn't played significant minutes in recent weeks.
Too many touches: The Timbers did get the ball into the Seattle penalty area on many occasions, but they lacked even the slightest amount of confidence once they got there. This lack of confidence thing has been a theme for most of the season, but as a group they have rarely looked less sure of themselves than they did on Sunday.
Take these broken wings: Sal Zizzo and Franck Songo'o turned in their worst performances of the year on both sides of the ball. Pulled after 45 minutes, Zizzo turned the ball over ten times, while completing only nine successful passes. His poor performance didn't appear to result from any awesome play by Leo Gonzalez -- he just looked out of sorts and off his game.
Franck Songo'o, meanwhile, showed his usual penchant for fancy dribbling but failed again to find the key passes that might have led to scoring opportunities. He added a new feature to his game, arguing with the official on multiple occasions while the ball was still in play.
As much cause as Timbers fans have to blame the lineup changes for the loss, the regular starters didn't look much better.
The stats lie: The mlssoccer.com match stats show a game in which Portland outshot Seattle, had more shots hit the target, won more corner kicks, conceded fewer fouls, and pass more effectively. Indeed, if not for a couple of embarrassing defensive collapses, the Timbers might have lost 1-0. But they still would have lost -- only one of the six shots on target (to Seattle's four) had enough pace to beat the worst keeper in MLS.
Meanwhile, you don't have to hit the target if your opponent is doing it for you.
Just a fool's hope: There was never much hope for a victory in Seattle, in front of 64,000 hostile customers. Considering the way both of these teams have played this year, at their best and worst, I don't know anyone who would have expected a Timbers win, even with a stronger starting lineup. Still, few fans could have expected the Timbers to play worse than they did.
Moment of the Match
In the 25th minute, Rodney Wallace left his feet for an ill-advised attempted tackle of Christian Tiffert. With Adam Johansson making an overlapping run behind him, Wallace should have followed the runner or at least stayed on his feet for his challenge of Tiffert. Instead, he was removed from the play, and Seattle took advantage of the ensuing two-on-two situation, all but forcing Futty Danso's own goal.
As Futty hung his head, the rest of the team followed suit, and the tone of the remainder of the match was set.
Injuries and Suspensions
Diego Chara and Donovan Ricketts both rejoined the starting XI after having missed a couple of weeks with injuries suffered in the Timbers' previous match against Seattle. Eric Brunner also contributed double-digit minutes for the first time since sustaining a concussion against Vancouver in May.
Wilkinson told the media earlier this week that Hanyer Mosquera was 50/50 for Sunday's game, after having pulled a hamstring last week against DC United. The international break should give Mosco an opportunity to recuperate before the October 21st match against the Whitecaps.
Steven Smith, who reportedly missed Sunday's game due to a slight muscle strain (but still made the 18), will presumably have time to recover as well.
Diego Chara received his tenth yellow card of the season for a hard (and possibly retaliatory) challenge on Christian Tiffert, which, by my math, puts him one away from another suspension. Jack Jewsbury remains one yellow away from an accumulation suspension as well.
Around the League
Chivas USA 1:1 FC Dallas: FC Dallas failed to keep pace with Vancouver after the Whitecaps' midweek trouncing of Chivas USA, settling for a draw in Carson, California. With a game in Seattle coming up for Dallas, their playoff chances now rest on the hope of some highly unlikely results.
My current calculations give Portland a generous 23% chance of winning the Cascadia Cup.