Three Thoughts: Timbers team to beat as they top Sounders, move on to Western finals
Three thoughts on the Portland Timbers' 3-2 win over the Seattle Sounders in the second leg of the Western Conference semifinals, giving Portland a 5-3 win in the series on aggregate:
Portland is now the team to beat. Will Johnson confidently stepped up and buried a spot kick after a silly handball by the Sounders' Djimi Traore. Diego Valeri finished off an exquisite combination play. When the first half ended at Jeld-Wen Field, the Timbers had a 2-0 lead and their foot on Seattle's throat. Within seconds of the second half, they took the next step.
With possession of the ball and no hesitation, Portland stormed down the field and got what looked like their third goal as Will Johnson finished past Seattle goalkeeper Michael Gspurning. Except it wasn't a goal -- Portland's Rodney Wallace was whistled for a handball before Johnson's finish.
It hardly mattered. In fact, it may have been the most important non-scoring incident of the game -- in that one play, the Timbers made clear that even with a 5-1 aggregate lead, they wren't letting up. In the process, Portland seized what little momentum they hadn't already taken from the deflated Sounders. Futty Danso's headed goal off a free kick just minutes later proved as much -- Portland took the set piece quickly, and Seattle, still asleep defensively, allowed Danso the run, the header, and what would prove to be the winning tally.
Yes, the Sounders took that momentum back. DeAndre Yedlin continued his breakout campaign with an opportunistic goal in front of Portland's raucous supporters, and Eddie Johnson put those same fans into an unexpected stressful silence with another goal to pull things within two goals on aggregate. However, the Timbers weathered the storm. And in doing so, they now look like the strongest of the remaining teams vying for the 2014 MLS Cup.
That's not just because of playoff supremacy. The Timbers barely missed out on the MLS Supporters' Shield, but they have been the league's best team since September, rattling off 10 straight games without a loss (eight to end regular season and two in the Playoffs). Moreover, this is a team with a history of lengthy unbeaten runs. In the first three months of the regular season, the Timbers played 17 games and lost only once.
Sigi, you got some 'splaining to do. Make no mistake, there is plenty of blame to go around for Seattle's stunning collapse, which really began long before tonight's devastating loss. The Sounders' win in the Playoffs' opening round against Colorado was their first since September 21st. It would also be their last of a season where, at one point, they looked to be strong contenders for the Supporters' Shield and a No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
With the caliber players Seattle has, such a fall from grace doesn't happen without some level of failure on all sides, on the field and off. But in the position where it is often easiest to make a change, head coach Sigi Schmid will face questions big and small.
Why, for example, was it such a struggle to find a place for Designated Player Clint Dempsey, who showed flashes of his ability but never really got an opportunity to leave a stamp on this series? And what of the Sounders' goalkeeping situation to close the season, which was a constant seesaw between the suddenly error-prone Michael Gspurning and a rusty Marcus Hahnemann? Thursday's game brought another surprising decision -- Shalrie Joseph, a central midfielder by trade, started the match alongside Eddie Johnson at striker.He didn't look at all comfortable or effective there, and was replaced in the 49th minute by Obafemi Martins. Seattle looked better after that, but it was simply too late.
Sounders owner Joe Roth told SI.com's Grant Wahl on the playoff's eve that he wasn't at all happy with how Seattle ended the regular season. Two losses to the team's fiercest rivals to dump his team from MLS Cup contention early for the fourth consecutive year certainly won't help.
Don't bother predicting the MLS playoffs. In this playoff series, the Timbers faced a Seattle team expensively assembled, deep on talent, rich with playoff experience, and with one of MLS' most decorated coaches at the helm. Yet it was the Timbers, in their first playoffs, with a payroll far less than their northwest neighbors and a young head coach in his first professional season, that advanced with confidence and style. In that sense, the final game of the final day of the MLS conference semifinals drilled in a lesson we already learned with Houston's upset of New York on Wednesday. Nothing is out of the ordinary when a league with as much parity as MLS goes to an elimination-style tournament. And though there is much justified grumbling over the format, one would hope that unpredictable, totally wacky magic never completely goes away.