Match Report: Timbers Face First Playoff Test; Need Improvement

In one very important way, Sunday’s match against Vancouver was a dress rehearsal for the second leg of a playoff series.  Portland has proven over the past several weeks that they can go toe to toe with playoff-quality opposition and come away with the result they need.

What this Timbers team hadn’t faced, however, was an opponent with its back against the wall, desperate to prolong its season.  Against a Vancouver Whitecaps team in desperate need of three points, the Timbers confronted just such a test.  And while they didn’t fail, the Timbers showed they have work to do to close out the frantic onslaughts of a desperate foe.

As was to be expected, the Whitecaps came out firing on Sunday, dominating the ball and creating their fair share of chances at the opening whistle.  In the 14th minute, Nigel Reo-Coker found Darren Mattocks on a perfectly weighted through ball, but Pa Modou Kah tackled the ball away just before the Jamaican put foot to his finish.

Two minutes later, the Whitecaps – who sat deep a lot in the first half and looked to get out on the break – found another chance going toward Portland’s goal with a head of steam.  After Reo-Coker got free on the right wing, he sent a dangerous cross in toward Camilo Sanvezzo, but Donovan Ricketts was off his line just quick enough to gather.

As the half went along, however, the opportunities Vancouver had on the break dried up; as the Timbers put their foot on the ball and refused to give the Caps any breathing room.  In the 17th minute, after a very nice spell of patient buildup play from the Timbers, Jack Jewsbury got loose on the right wing and sent a low cross in for Maxi Urruti, but the youngster couldn’t pull his finish on frame.

For the most part, however, the Timbers didn’t create genuine chances in spades despite their substantial possession advantage.  Fortunately for Portland, however, Darlington Nagbe doesn’t need chances in spades.  Given a diamond of space twenty-five yards from goal, Darlington Nagbe blessed Vancouver’s hearts for their generosity and clubbed the ball inside David Ousted’s post for the opener.

A very different Vancouver team emerged from the half than the one the Timbers dominated for the last half hour of the opening stanza.  The Caps stated their intent early on, as in the 48th minute, Mattocks worked the ball to the byline before cutting it back through the box, where it eventually found its way to the foot of Matt Watson, whose promising effort deflected just wide.

Just after the hour, Vancouver came even closer.  After the Timbers struggled to clear a corner, a low Camilo reentry ball danced in front of an open net, but Portland somehow managed to get it clear.

The Timbers really began to push their luck in the 75th minute.  After Portland turned the ball over in midfield as they were trying to relieve pressure, Ricketts saved Kekuta Manneh’s close range shot from the face of goal.  The rebound deflected to Camilo just beyond the near post, and Ricketts heroically recovered from his first dive to stone the Brazilian’s putback effort.

A minute later, Portland’s fortunes finally turned.  After a foul 30 yards from goal that Caleb Porter questioned after the match, Camilo’s free kick looked to be heading straight for Ricketts before taking a glancing deflection off of Rodney Wallace’s head and nestling in Ricketts’ goal for the equalizer.

Off the ensuing kickoff, however, the Timbers got it right back.  After Darlington Nagbe worked the ball all-too-easily to the byline and shook two Caps defenders, he cut a pass back to Will Johnson making a late run to the top of the box.  Johnson struck a low shot that took a deflection off of Carlyle Mitchell and put Portland back on top.

That, too, wouldn’t last.  Just a minute later, after a Mattocks cross from the byline for nobody in particular came all the way through to Y.P. Lee, the veteran right back volleyed the ball to the top of the eighteen where Camilo stunningly scissored it into the net to equalize once again.  It was, quite simply, the best goal I’ve ever seen in person.

Having given up two leads in just over two minutes, the Timbers very easily could have folded under pressure.  Vancouver, sensing the three points they were desperate for were within reach, kept throwing numbers forward in hopes of finding the winner.

And Vancouver generated some chances.  In the 92nd minute, after Portland showed some very antsy midfield defending, Y.P. Lee gathered on the right looking bottled up by two Timbers defenders.  His Tim Hardaway-like crossover, however, sent both green shirts flying beyond the play, and the black shirt of Donovan Ricketts jumping to athletically save the resultant shot.

Just a minute later, the Timbers needed Ricketts again.  After a corner was only cleared as far as Manneh 20 yards from goal, the 18-year-old Gambian speedster measured a volley and cracked it near post, only to have Ricketts seemingly come out of nowhere to palm it outside the frame.

The match, despite weathering dueling dives in the final minute, thus ended in a just draw.  While Vancouver enjoyed one-way traffic for much of the second half, the Timbers were ultimately only beaten by two extraordinary goals, neither of which were really the result of a beaten defense.

But the reality is if things go well for Portland in these last few weeks and into the playoffs, Vancouver won’t be the last team fighting for their collective lives the Timbers will face.  Rather, anytime Portland has an advantage in a playoff series, their opponent will show the same reckless abandon the Caps played with in the second half on Sunday.

So while it would be inaccurate and unfair to say the Timbers failed this major playoff test, the truth of the matter is to have success in the playoffs they’re going to have to handle desperation better than they did on Sunday.  If the Timbers have their way, next time it won’t be Vancouver frantically flying forward for a season-saving goal.  It will be L.A. Galaxy, or Real Salt Lake, or the Seattle Sounders.  And if the Timbers don’t handle it better than they did in Vancouver, it may well lead to the bitter end of Portland’s season.

Justice for Will Johnson

You may have noticed I didn’t discuss one notable play in the match narrative; to wit, Kekuta Manneh’s claimed penalty in second half stoppage time.  The reason it didn’t make the match report is the same reason Jose Valencia’s didn’t; they were dives.  If a referee is going to give either of those penalties, he’s going to give a half dozen per game.

But the more interesting story that nobody is writing relates to the fracas after Manneh mowed the turf.

2013-10-08 20.05.01In the first picture at right, we see Manneh has beaten Will Johnson and is within steps of going down easy.  Look closely above Will Johnson’s left eyebrow.  While it is a little hard to see, you’ll notice his forehead is unremarkable.

In the second photo, below right, you can see Will Johnson heading in Manneh’s direction to remind him that there’s no lifeguard on duty, and diving is accordingly prohibited.IMG_0149

Within tenths-of-seconds thereafter, the camera on the Vancouver feed available on MLSLive cuts away from the action to show Martin Rennie’s reaction.  As such, we don’t see exactly what happens when Johnson gives Manneh his talking to.

When the camera returns to the action, we see what can only be described as the Great Group-Hug of Gambia, as seen below.  Johnson and Manneh the Mangler have already been separated at this point.IMG_0154

Moments later, after showing replays, the broadcast returns to referee Silviu Petrescu having a conversation with Johnson and his assailant.

Just after this conference breaks up, we get our first good shot of Johnson’s face post-dustup, seen in the final picture.  If you look over Johnson’s left eyebrow in the picture below at right, you’ll see that he’s now bleeding from his once-pristine forehead.  Petrescu’s powers of observation or deduction failed him fantastically, however, as Manneh gets off free of sanction despite the very plain evidence that Will Johnson took some sort of extracurricular shot to the head with no viable suspect other than Mr. Manneh. 2013-10-08 20.07.08

The goose egg and cut on Johnson’s forehead was fairly substantial after the game, and when asked about the injury, Johnson coyly answered, “that was the play at the end there.”  And after a little pause, the Timbers captain added, “um . . . that’s how it goes.”

While Johnson responded with restraint,[1] the postgame grapevine confirmed what is clear from the above; Manneh headbutted the Captain when Johnson confronted him about the putative penalty.

This is surely the sort of thing that merits a suspension, perhaps even a multi-game ban.  Recall June 15, 2013, and the one-game suspension handed to Jair Benitez by the MLS Disciplinary Committee for an attempted headbutt on Frederic Piquionne.  The contact Benitez made – if any – was nominal, despite the veteran striker’s dramatic flop.  Nonetheless, the Disciplinary Committee adjudged it aggressive enough to merit a single-game ban.

Unlike Benitez, however, Manneh made contact and did pretty significant damage.  A one-game suspension would be a charmed result for Kekuta, and ban that would keep him out of the Whitecaps’ lineup for the rest of the season isn’t out of the realm of possibilities.

But here’s where this gets weird.  The Disciplinary Committee might not have any idea this happened.  The D.C. has plays referred to it in two ways.  First, the league watches every game, so presumably they refer incidents for the Committee’s consideration.  Second, the teams can also refer plays to the Disciplinary Committee for review.

As for MLS review, one of the people that watches every game is the PRO referee evaluator.  The PRO evaluator sits in the press box during the game, and observes the referee live while watching an MLSLive-like television feed of the game.  I know this because the PRO evaluator pilfered my seat in the Jeld-Wen Field press box a week ago at the Timbers-L.A. Galaxy match.  Embittered, I seized the opportunity to observe how he did his work.

Note, however, that the PRO evaluator uses the television feed – the same feed that cut away from the Manneh incident to show Rennie’s reaction to the unawarded penalty.  If the PRO evaluator is using the television feed, it’s reasonable to assume other league officials use the same footage in their review.  It’s entirely conceivable, especially considering the play had the added controversy of the penalty shout, that the league evaluators would miss Manneh’s mania entirely.

As to the teams’ review, obviously the Whitecaps aren’t going to turn their own player in.  Typically in this situation, however, the heatbuttee’s team would alert the league to the headbuttor’s guilt and refer the video to the Disciplinary Committee.  As we’ve seen from time to time in Simon Borg’s “Instant Replay” segment, the league has access to raw footage shot by all of the cameras shooting the game, even those that didn’t make it onto the live broadcast.  Surely, considering the headbutt was right in the middle of the action, it was caught by some of the many cameras in B.C. Place.

But the Timbers, who obviously know about the incident, are probably covering it up.  Why?  Simple.  The Timbers don’t play Vancouver again this year, and they would like to have Manneh available for the Whitecaps when they face Seattle on Wednesday.  Manneh’s availability is especially important considering Kenny Miller is injured and Darren Mattocks has been called out on international duty.  For the Whitecaps, it’s either Tommy Heinemann or Kekuta Manneh up top alongside Camilo on Wednesday.  And, well, that’s not a hard choice.

So, to recap, Kekuta Manneh split Will Johnson’s forehead open with a headbutt, but the league may well miss it, the Whitecaps are more than happy to harbor Manneh, and the Timbers have an interest in keeping this under wraps.

But we know.  And here’s hoping there is some justice out there for Will Johnson.

Now if you’ll excuse me, these tinfoil hats won’t make themselves.

Preseason Prediction: Whitecaps 2, Timbers 0.
Actual Result: Timbers 2, Whitecaps 2.

Onward, Rose City!

[1] Recall his coy postgame reaction to Alan Gordon’s homophobic slur on the 14th of April.

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One Response to Match Report: Timbers Face First Playoff Test; Need Improvement

  1. John says:

    What does your crystal ball say about this weekend’s game since Manneh just scored his 3rd goal against the Sounders.

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