In hindsight, it should have been predictable. Coming into Wednesday, there was every reason to believe we’d see two quality teams put on a classy performance. Rather, on Wednesday night at Jeld-Wen Field the Timbers Army was treated to two good teams playing disjointed soccer, and a referee with aspirations for stardom.
For a while, however, it looked like the Timbers were going to be able to run away with this one. In the fourth minute, Alvas Powell raced up the right side and sent a ball into the box for nobody in particular. Nat Borchers was there, but made a mess of the clearance, which only got as far as Diego Valeri eight yards from goal. With only Jeff Attinella, RSL’s backup keeper, to beat, Valeri sent his shot off the far post.
But the Timbers weren’t done. While RSL had their share of the ball, their defense looked lost in the absence of Kyle Beckerman. In the 24th minute, the Timbers found their goal. After Valeri sent a perfectly bent free kick from the left wing into the box, Rodney Wallace raced his way to the end of it and finished routinely with his head.
For the next fifteen minutes, the Timbers were dangerous, but couldn’t find the goal that would make the game a laugher. Instead, RSL found one that would make it interesting. After Valeri bungled an ill-advised bicycle clearance under pressure from Javi Morales, the veteran Argentine sent a ball into the box where Robbie Findley got open head to it. Donovan Ricketts made a fantastic save falling to his right, but the rebound fell straight to Borchers who easily tapped home.
Enter referee Ricardo Salazar. Five minutes later, after Khari Stephenson rocketed a swerving shot that Ricketts could only get his chest in front of, the ball bounced to – and away from – Morales under pressure from Jean-Baptiste. The young central defender had his arm across Morales’s chest and, feeling the touch, the dive master dramatically threw himself to the ground to Salazar’s delight. Morales coolly stepped to the spot and slotted past an incorrectly guessing Ricketts.
Going into the locker room in full meltdown, the Timbers came back out and slowly began to right the ship. They almost drew level in the 50th minute, when Valeri found Ryan Johnson all alone at the backpost on a free kick from the left wing, but Attinella was quick off his line and made himself big to snuff out the chance.
If the Jeld-Wen Field crowd thought Salazar was biased, however, the much-maligned referee put that notion to rest in the 56th minute by whistling a penalty the other way just as soft as the first. After Darlington Nagbe found Rodney Wallace with a very nice vertical pass, the ball bounced up on the edge of the area and hit Brandon McDonald in his unintentionally semi-outstretched arm. The ball fell to Wallace who looked poised to gather and send back into the center for Valeri, but, despite having to his avail the far less dramatic options of placing the ball just outside the area or swallowing his whistle altogether, Salazar fancied himself once again and awarded the Timbers a penalty. Diego Valeri – despite a startling finishing slump – stepped to the spot and beat Attinella.
From there, for the first time in the game, both teams looked like they were settling into their rhythm. Although the Timbers were playing with a little bit more desperation, the next twenty minutes saw some of the best soccer of the night. After a nice piece of buildup from the Claret-and-Cobalt, Findley unleashed a shot form the left side of the box that looked goalward but for a deflection from Pa Modou Kah. On the other end, Valeri was set up beautifully after Alvas Powell – who put together a nice little second half for himself – made a long run up the right side and set the maestro through in the box, but good nearpost positioning from Attinella forced Valeri to be too cute and send the ball into the side netting.
For Salazar, however, this was too much of the teams on the field deciding the game. So, in the 79th minute, the referee took matters into his own hands and gave Yordany Alvarez a red card for the sin of being a split second late to challenge Diego Chara for the ball. Alvarez went in one-legged and side-footed, so as to keep his studs away from Chara’s leg. It was the sort of challenge that can bruise a shin and hurt like a mother, but was ultimately not that dangerous. But that was enough for Salazar, and that was it for Alvarez.
And for a few moments, it looked like Salazar’s gratuitous red card would decide the game. After Powell sent a nice cross from the touchline into the box, Jose Valencia challenged Borchers for the ball just enough that his clearance could only find Kalif Alhassan ten yards out, where he took a touch and fired inside the far post.
As it stood, the result was great for the Timbers, if perhaps a little bit uncomfortable for Lady Justice.
Some gut-wrenching justice would be served in second half stoppage time, leaving fans of both the Timbers and soccer ambivalent about the result. A couple minutes into stoppage time, after Tony Beltran squeezed the ball away from Ryan Miller and Diego Chara, Luis Gil sent a ball into the box that was knocked away by Jean-Baptiste only so far as Cole Grossman, who fired it back in past Ricketts for the equalizer.
In the end, walking out of Jeld-Wen Field on Saturday had an empty feeling. A game that had so much potential on so many levels left something to be desired in many ways. Even if the match was marred by Salazar’s hyperactivity, the Timbers were ultimately undone by their lack of focus and grit.
Now wouldn’t be a bad time to find those brass balls again.
Notes & Observations
- I’m reluctant to draw too many sweeping conclusions from Wednesday because it was just a really strange game. Portland didn’t play all that well, but they weren’t horrible. RSL – as is to be expected from a Jason Kreis team – overperformed considering the absence of several key players. In the end, there was just enough randomness to the evening to make it dangerous to take too much away from the game. That said, I’m undeterred in making a handful of observations.
- I thought the Timbers really missed Will Johnson on Wednesday. While his absence has been felt tangibly on the field, it’s hard not to notice the vastly increased frequency of the Timbers’ mental lapses in his absence. From the concession against Dallas to the poor reaction to almost every major moment against RSL, Portland’s lack of steadiness and grit has been marked the last couple weeks.
- I’m really not sure what to make of the Timbers’ tactics on Wednesday. For one, there were extended stretches where the game was frantic enough that there wasn’t much in the way of tactical soccer. When the Timbers did slide into their system, they tended to play unbalanced favoring the right side of the field – the opposite of their normal tendency. This included often bringing Rodney Wallace into the center of the field, both offensively and defensively, where he looked a little bit lost at times. Even more unusual, however, was that Portland was still aggressive with Alvas Powell – their right back. Typically when the Timbers play an unbalanced midfield, they bring the opposite fullback forward to provide a switch outlet. On Wednesday, however, the Timbers often pushed the fullback forward on the same side they had skewed the midfield, which would occasionally let Wallace leak out to the left to provide the switch. Ultimately, this led to mixed results, as the Timbers looked a little lost tactically at times, especially Valeri and Nagbe, and left Michael Harrington exposed a time or two.
 Lady Justice is, not surprisingly, inspired by the Greek and Roman goddesses of justice. The Greek goddess of justice, coincidentally, is Dike, whose name is pronounced like Bright’s surname.
 The word “ambivalent” has largely been miscast today as a synonym for “indifferent.” In reality, it means having feelings both ways.