At the end of regulation play last Saturday night, Barry Watling, the Seattle goalie by way of Hartlepool, England, was wondering if his dolls had begun to lose their magic. With just 35 seconds to play, a desperation Portland shot had ricocheted off one of his Seattle teammates and into the net. That locked the score at 2-2 and the two North American Soccer League powers were heading into sudden-death overtime. Sadly, Watling picked up the two dolls he tucks away in one corner of the goal before every game and carried them to the sideline.
There, John Best, the Seattle coach, quietly began to rally his stunned troops. In the stands of the picturesque high school stadium where the Sounders play their home games, a sellout crowd of 17,925 moaned over the misfortune. This was the third meeting between the two rivals, with each having won once. Seattle needed a victory to stay in contention for the Western Division championship.
The Portland Timbers, in their first season, had come in with a record of 16-4 and 136 points. Seattle was in second place, 13-6, with 112 points. In the NASL you get six points for every victory, plus a point for each goal scored up to three per game. With three regular-season games to play, the Sounders still had a chance. But even if they lost to the Timbers, they were virtually certain to make the playoffs. "But it's not the same," explained Sounder General Manager Jack Daley. "True, all we need is one victory in our next three games and we'll be in the playoffs as one of the wild-card teams. But then we'll have to play all our games on the road. Only the division champions are assured of at least one home game."
The bitterest blow, though, would be finishing behind Portland, a group of yeomanly Englishmen who assembled just a few days before the season opened and have since taken great delight in thrashing almost everyone, especially Seattle just a week earlier.
The Timbers won that one by a score of 2-1 before a crowd of 27,310 in Portland. Three nights later 23,005 Portland fans turned out to see their heroes beat San Jose 3-2. (In between, 5,076 fans watched Portland Thunder of the WFL play an exhibition game against Philadelphia.) "Seattle playing Portland has become as heated as any neighborhood-division rivalry they have in England," said Best. "It's Liverpool playing Everton. After they beat us, Portland celebrated all night. It was a victory for the whole town. And in Seattle everyone has been saying how they'd show Portland who had the best team next time. It's what real soccer should be."
And now, with overtime about to begin, Best began to prime his athletes. "Heads up, lads," he said quietly. "They can't stay lucky forever. You've devastated them all night. Just keep playing as you have been. One of our shots has to go in sometime." He shook his head. "The way we've played, we should have won 5-0 by now."
By 5-0 at least. For one thing, four of the Timbers were slowed by injuries. And then there is the width of the Sounders' field, which is six yards narrower than the Timbers' home pitch. Portland has two fine wingmen, Jimmy Kelly, a 5'6" magician from Belfast, and Willie Anderson, 5'8", from Liverpool. The narrower field took some of the sting out of their speed.
But the man the Sounders had to neutralize was Peter Withe, the big, strong striker who had scored both goals against them in their last game. Withe, who was just sold for $150,000 by Wolverhampton to Birmingham City in the English first division (he plays year round), is the target man in Portland's attack, and he terrorizes goalies. A favored Portland play is a long flier to Withe, who butts the ball back to Barry Powell, who in turn deals off to Kelly. Then it's right back to Withe, and—wham—a 60-mph bullet flying at some hapless goalie.
"If we stop those three," said Jim Gabriel, Best's assistant and a skilled defender with 12 years' first-division experience, "the rest cannot beat us."
The job of stopping Withe fell to Mike England, a legend in English soccer. A 6'2", 184-pound Welshman, England was more than equal to the task. He simply placed all that muscle in front of Withe and there it stayed. Then Seattle put two men on Kelly, and Hank Liotart, normally an offense player, on Powell—and Portland's potent offense never really got going.
Well, almost never. With 20 minutes gone, Kelly, closely guarded by Adrian Webster and Dave Gillett, brought the ball down the sideline, made one of his adroit moves and drilled a kick toward Withe. Out moved Watling from the goal to intercept. Only Gillett nicked a piece of the ball, just enough to deflect it away from Watling and right to Withe, who popped it in for a 1-0 Portland lead.
Meanwhile, both sides were actively establishing two of the prime rules of English soccer: 1) go right out and show your opponent you are more rugged than he, and 2) when the opponent tries to show you how rugged he is, never take a step backward. Fights began breaking out all over, most of them involving Seattle's John Rowlands, a free spirit who is both the Sounders' target man and their enforcer. After one particularly fierce battle, Rowlands drew a yellow card, or referee's caution. A second card, a red one, and you're out of the game. If the warning intimidated Rowlands, it was not apparent.
"John's a veteran," Best said. "He knows how far he can go before crossing over the line. He's been walking that line most of his life."
Too, Rowlands showed there was more than one way to stop the Timbers. Again Kelly brought the ball down the sideline and fired it to Graham Day. The crowd gasped as Day leaped to head the ball just outside the Seattle goal. Rowlands reached two muscular arms around Day's neck from behind and hauled him to the ground. It was, for sure, a penalty-shot offense. Everyone in Seattle saw it but the referee. "I thought it was a great piece of defensive work myself," Rowlands said later.
With less than 14 minutes to play in the first half, Seattle tied the score on a four-yard header by Tom Baldwin. Early in the second half, England, who had scored only once all season, found himself with the ball and open space just inside his own half of the field, and took off straight for Portland's goal. As Seattle's attackers began to set up, Graham Brown, Portland's superb goalie, tried to figure who the big defender would pass off to. Instead, 30 yards out, England drilled the ball into the net.
The way Portland was being closed off, that should have been it. The clock began winding down. Then, with 31 seconds left, Powell kicked a desperation shot. Baldwin, defending just to the left of the net, lifted a leg to hook the ball outside. Instead, he deflected it into the net. Overtime.
Sighing, Watling picked up his two dolls and went back onto the field. Actually, it is the second pair he's had this season. The first two dolls, which were given to him by Gabriel's daughters, had become bedraggled.
Seattle wrapped the game up in less than three minutes. The Timbers helped by knocking the ball out-of-bounds near their own goal. Seattle sent Paul Crossley, who led the league in assists with 11 and needed only one more to tie the league record, to throw in the ball. Firing between two crossing defenders, Crossley found Rowlands near the goal, and the big centerforward nodded it into the net. Never have 17,925 fans made so much noise.
Seattle has two games remaining with San Antonio and San Jose; Portland just one, with Los Angeles.
Portland doesn't have to win to clinch the championship. The Timbers need only two goals, which will give them two points and put them out of reach of Seattle no matter what the Sounders do. What Seattle needs is two victories and at least three goals in each.
"No sweat," said Rowlands. "I'd lay a few dollars on us. If I could get the right odds."