The Portland Timbers are good sports. Throughout their time in MLS, the Timbers have rarely been instigators or enforcers. They’re never among the league leaders in red cards, and have rarely been the subject of Disciplinary Committee action.
And that’s a good thing.
But right now it’s killing them.
The Timbers’ latest streak isn’t a good one: Three games in a row opponents have committed red-card worthy tackles that have gone underpunished only to have the Disciplinary Committee issue a suspension the following week to repair the referee’s mistake on the field.
Tackles by Real Salt Lake’s Burrito Martinez and Orlando City’s Brek Shea were both unanimously adjudged by the MLS Disciplinary Committee after the fact to be "a clear and unequivocal red card." And then on Sunday, Nigel de Jong knocked Nagbe out of the game with one of the worst tackles in an MLS game since MLS suffered a rash of terrible tackles in 2011. Although, as Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl reported this afternoon, x-rays turned up negative and Nagbe’s injury may not be as bad as initially feared, the Disciplinary Committee is getting ready to make yet another call to fix a refereeing error in a Timbers game.
Sources: Nagbe X-ray negative (nothing broken), still waiting on MRI results. MLS DisCo set on retro red for De Jong; not set on ban length.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) April 11, 2016
Make no mistake: the opponents’ tackles have been bad and the referees have been blowing the calls. They’re the ones at fault.
But misjudgments by the referee and later Disciplinary Committee action aren’t the only thing the incidents had in common. In each instance, the Timbers reacted in a subdued, classy, business-as-usual manner.
And in doing so, they haven’t helped themselves.
After Burrito’s tackle in second-half stoppage time, the Timbers, pushing in vain for a late winner, essentially ignored Martinez’s dangerous challenge in favor of a quick restart.
That action, by itself, may have been understandable. The Timbers in the moment had bigger fish to fry, and their decision to play on rather than call attention to Burrito’s recklessness and tend to Nagbe is understandable.
But fast forward to after the international break and the Timbers’ failure to react is a little bit more head-scratching after Brek Shea took down Dairon Asprilla with a similarly dangerous tackle in the 18th minute.
This time the Timbers didn’t have a late push for a goal to excuse their ho-hum reaction to Shea’s 15th-minute tackle. With the mild exception of Diego Chara jogging up to have a word with referee Alan Kelly, they just didn’t react.
And finally, on Sunday, after de Jong’s horror tackle, the bulk of the Timbers who were in the area -- Diego Valeri, Fanendo Adi, Lucas Melano, and Alvas Powell -- again reacted in a business-as-usual manner to a very not business-as-usual tackle.
Ouch! @LAGalaxy's Nigel de Jong goes in hard on @TimbersFC's Darlington Nagbe, emerges with a yellow card. #LAvPOR https://t.co/sQS1EQIUZI— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) April 11, 2016
Of all the Timbers on the field, only Diego Chara reacted to de Jong’s tackle with any urgency, unlike the Galaxy who vociferously (although foolishly) protested referee Allen Chapman giving the foul at all. Although Nat Borchers, Alvas Powell, and Jack Jewsbury eventually joined the fray to some extent, that was only after the Galaxy surrounded Chara. All the while de Jong and Chapman more or less went about their business. Adi, for his part, eventually had a polite discussion with de Jong, but on the whole the Timbers reaction was hardly enough to get Chapman’s attention.
On one level the Timbers should be commended for their responses to ugly tackles that they’ve suffered. This is how people who would rather watch soccer than handbags want a team to behave. And in a perfect world this wouldn’t be a problem; the referees would go about protecting players and issuing proper sanctions for bad tackles while the players could worry about getting on with the game.
But the MLS refereeing landscape is far, far from a perfect world, and the reality is while the Timbers are handling the now-repeated violent tackles they have suffered in stride, so are the referees.
As a point of contrast, watch how the Galaxy reacted last weekend to a Matias Laba tackle that doesn’t even rate on the same scale of dangerousness as any of the underpunished tackles that the Timbers have suffered in the past several weeks:
The tackle was bad, but not awful. On merit, it’s the kind of borderline yellow or red card that MLS referees have given a lot this year. But the Galaxy treated it like it was a big deal; they immediately surrounded referee Jair Marrufo and let him know how unacceptable Laba’s tackle was. After being yelled at by Galaxy players for most of 30 seconds, Marrufo showed Laba straight red.
As much as the league would be a better place if it was otherwise, MLS referees frequently make calls based on the emotion of the situation as much as their dispassionate assessment of a challenge. And although MLS would certainly prefer if teams didn’t make a show of every bad foul, until its referees demonstrate they can appropriately assess challenges without the theatrics, teams, including the Timbers, don't have any choice.
So the Timbers’ laid-back, sportsmanlike approach to the challenges they’ve suffered over the past few weeks has done them no good.
It’s not about being tough. And it’s not about getting even. That stuff is the kind of garbage that all sports could do without.
It’s about getting the calls that they are entitled to and that are necessary to protect their players. So far this year the Timbers have been letting referees off the hook by allowing them to make the easy decision to keep a player on the field even when he doesn’t deserve to be. And over the past several weeks that has meant three yellow cards to opponents who deserved no-brainer reds, and two games that could have yielded very different results if they had been called appropriately.
It’s time for the Timbers to get tougher. Because MLS has made clear that if the Timbers don’t look out for themselves, the league’s referees won’t look out for them, either.