It never felt like anything but a playoff match. The San Jose Earthquakes and the Portland Timbers clashed on the field, off the field, and everywhere in between Sunday night in a game that exposed the ugly, niggly side of the beautiful game – with gallons of intensity, pride, stupidity, and stakes.
It was a battle. The Portland Timbers won. Will Johnson continued building his legend. A rivalry was burst into the open. We’ll see San Jose next weekend. We won’t see Alan Gordon for a long while. It was beyond intense, often furious. This was the big-time, and the heroic Timbers came up big.
It only took a few minutes of tight, simmering action at Jeld-Wen Field to realize that there was going to be a red card Saturday night. The San Jose Earthquakes, true to their reputation, are the epitome of a dirty team: They get under your skin, they trip, they yank, the yell, the whine, they take cheap shots – much like their supporters group. The Earthquakes don’t always take on a dark persona, but feeling the threat of a superior soccer team in the Portland cauldron drove the visitors to their worst selves – MLS’ version of the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons of the late ‘80s.
The Timbers, on the other hand, have never backed down from a fight or a difficult game at home, but now, swelled by confidence and hubris from recent success, they were ready to match San Jose eye-for-eye.
The two teams had bad blood coming into the match – one of the more notable events of the Timbers 2012 season was the altercation after the full-time whistle at Buck Shaw Stadium, when David Horst and Chris Wondolowski were in the middle of a fracas between the two sides. The x-factor in the delicately poised match was referee Hilario Grajeda, who is in a class of his own in the MLS Refereeing Incompetency Sweepstakes.
It was clear from the opening whistle that Grajeda was having a Grajeda game – the referee had no control of the match, and as his foul calls became fewer, farer and more bizarre in between, the game became more and more physical.
San Jose were reduced to a defensive force early in the match, as they executed an effective game-plan against Caleb Porter’s side. The Earthquakes ceded possession to the Timbers more than any side Portland has faced this year, playing kick-ball and kick-Timbers, staying compact, and not giving Portland’s attacking threats any space in the final third.
The Earthquakes vexatious attacking trio of Wondolowski, Gordon, and Steven Lenhart had to chase long-balls – without much daylight. Futty Danso, stepping in for Andrew Jean-Baptiste as another Timbers center-back was felled by injury, was spectacular – quick, decisive and effective, as was Mikael Silvestre, who inspired confidence in the heart of the Timbers defense.
With the game feeling claustrophobic in the first half, refereeing decisions took over the first half. Portland should have had a penalty when Rafael Baca removed Darlington Nagbe’s legs from the floor on a bruising run down the byline, but the ball springing away from the scene may have fooled Grajeda. Live, it looked like Baca got the ball first, when actually he had simply tackled Nagbe’s leg into the ball. It should have been a penalty, but it wasn’t a terrible missed call.
Less forgivable was Grajeda’s handling of the haggling in the midfield – especially a sequence when Chara was ferociously upended, only to see the referee play an advantage that gave the Timbers a back-pass to Jack Jewsbury, with Chara howling in pain, instead of giving the Timbers a central free-kick, in shooting range.
No booking was issued for that challenge, but Chara’s name was taken when he retaliated in a foreseeable fashion, but with a much less dangerous tackle than the one he had suffered. Needless to say, emotions were running high at the break.
The Timbers were always going to have an advantage in the second half, as the dogged San Jose defense tired, and space opened up. But Portland was in the driver’s seat when the Earthquakes were reduced to 10 men in the 70th minute.
Until that point, the Timbers had probed without much success. 10 minutes previously, Alan Gordon, a respected career MLS journeyman, got into an altercation where he disgustingly directed a homophobic slur at Will Johnson. Five minutes later, Gordon was booked. Then, Gordon completed his hat-trick 10 minutes by introducing his elbow to Mikael Silvestre’s face – an infraction that more than deservedly got Gordon dismissed for his second yellow card.
Gordon, engaging, along with the rest of Earthquakes in generally thuggish play, could have been sent off two-times over – first for the slur, and the elbow was a red-card offense in itself. While the red card truly did retire San Jose as an attacking threat, it didn’t change much as San Jose was already parking eight to nine players behind the ball and playing for a draw.
The Timbers just needed one moment of magic, one moment to unlock the door. When Kalif Alhasson, playing some very pretty soccer at times, won a free-kick in the 77th minute, it was seemingly unsure who would take the set-piece.
Diego Valeri was out recovering from a concussion, Kris Boyd and Franck Songo’o are both no longer with the club. But it wasn’t unknown to Caleb Porter or Will Johnson who would take the free-kick.
Johnson stepped up and hit an absolute majesty, a textbook bender to beat Jon Busch with one of the finest goals and most important goals in the club’s history. It was a Captain’s moment. In the midst of a vicious battle, in a game that had become much more than one of 34 regular season games, Johnson stepped up. It was the kind of goal that builds a legacy. It was the kind of goal that makes legends.
Portland almost gave it all when Wondolowski, quiet much of the night, busy defending, was allowed a free header in front of goal in stoppage time – but his effort went right into the grateful arms of Ricketts.
When the final whistle blew, it was euphoria for the Timbers - because they won more than just a game. It was the kind of night that pulls a team together, wins respect, and believers. It was Portland’s most difficult game of the season, and they came through it with their grittiest performance. Before and after the game, there were reports of hooliganism from San Jose’s “Ultras”, an ugly addition to a fantastic win for the Timbers.
This is a full-fledged rivalry. Portland’s game at Buck Shaw Stadium next weekend is a must-watch encounter. Stay classy, San Jose. Because when bullies are threatened, they tend to come unglued.