Saturday was an extraordinary evening in Seattle. The air was soft and elegant, and the sunset wore a handsome Rothko orange slash full across the Olympics. Seattleites are a bit of a cheap date with weather. It has been a dreadful Winter and Spring but with this past week and this night in particular, well, then not so bad. Both before and even after the game, troupes of prom dates, out of a separate movie, crisscrossed the game crowd in gaudy colors and high difficult heels, heading to some secret graduation affair in Pioneer Square.
For the Sounders at Qwest Field, it was a less elegant time and unfortunate to boot. They could only battle the visiting Columbus Crew to a 1-1 tie. If a tie is like kissing your sister, then there were a lot of sisters turning their head and trying to get out of the way. The Sounders are getting the hang of it with these ties: this was their fifth in a row and probably not a coincidence.
It was a screwball game, not at all dull, and only for brief moments did Columbus appear to not mind if the clock ticked some time away. Stalling can be the very death of a game, but that was not this night. Columbus has not had a good season. They lost their coach, Sigi Schmid, last winter in a dispute and he promptly was announced the new head coach of the Seattle Sounders. There was some hugging before the game with his ex-players, but Sigi knew, and made it clear, that he wanted a victory and the Crew would want at least some credit, if not some redemption. Sigi brought the fine midfielder Brad Evans with him in the move to Seattle — and his assistant coach and his regime and program and all the other equipment, literal and figurative.
The Crew were last year the Champions of the MLS but this year are simply at the bottom in their league, so there were plenty of emotions to be spent with this game, their first meeting of the year. The Sounders opened more seats at Qwest, which now has room for 30,000 green scarves and they were all there. As the teams came out for the start, it was already odd. Somehow, someone had decided that the referees should wear orange shirts, an orange not even being played in the sunset, and it made them look like very stern HazMat officials at a radiation leak. It was not the color of the meek and the referees would not have a gentle evening.
The Sounders are still an uncertain team at midfield, for reasons of both time and injury, and they started this game skipping their midfielders, driving their clearances well into the attack. Columbus has a fine defense (they are a Sigi-designed team after all), and they had little trouble with the long range Seattle tactics. But the Crew, as do many, had specific trouble with Seattle's Freddie Ljungberg. By the 7th minute, playing out on the right flank, Ljungberg made a wonderful presentation of his love for the give and the go — I will give it in to you, they will for a moment look, and I will take off like a shot and be open. It is the hammer of midfield play and Ljungberg bangs away with it.
The Sounder defense is not yet comfortable at the left side. The Crew repeatedly drove into it and suddenly at the 12th minute they broke free for a cross to the center that just skipped over the front leg of Jhon Hurtado and was headed by Moreno for a Columbus goal. No one had scored so early against the Sounders at QWest, nor so deftly, and it was suddenly still. Drew Carey, one of the Sounder owners, was buoyant in the pregame TV and happily detailed his prediction of a 2-0 victory; now he was not so buoyant and hopefully doubting the wisdom of too much giddy and too much talk.
Columbus continued to outplay Seattle but the goal did jolt up the Sounders, especially Ljungberg, who was determined to bring both confidence and the play back through the midfield. At the 30th minute, on his give and go at the left, Ljungberg bore onto the goal and drew a hard foul from the Crew defender and a penalty kick. The PK would even the score and bring order to the game and the evening, and it was early enough. In truth, most believed Seattle would win this game and move closer to their rival Chivas, who had finally lost a game, for first place in the Western Division.
Ljungberg took the penalty kick. He had, after all, forced the play, taken the foul and the punishment, it was his. But Ljungberg had also been out of play for two weeks with a migraine and would later comment that he was dizzy for much of the first half. Whatever the case, he missed the penalty kick wide left, more by a foot than an inch, just outside the diving and relieved keeper. Every player in the stands, and there are remarkable numbers of them, every one of them was shocked that Freddie had missed, for he is a deadly sort, and every one of them recalled when they had missed as well. If Freddie could miss, they could miss, anyone can miss.
Columbus had two more very good chances to score in the first half and twist the game into an awful knot, but keeper Kasey Keller, jabbing some with his defense, kept the score at 1-0 for the halftime. At the break, the Sounders regrouped, fooled with a few details, and, as Sigi has often been able to arrange, they returned a much stronger team.
Controlling play in the midfield, the Sounders finally scored at the 57th minute — Zakuani to Jaqua, who tips to Ljungberg at the center, who bounces the ball once to himself for pace then loops it high back to Jaqua who must wait for half more than a second for the ball even to come down, then drives a lovely shot over the keeper's right shoulder, a shot so swift and true the keeper had not even raised his arms. Goal, goooooal, in every league and level all over the world, goal.
Now it was 1-1, and suddenly the Crew were not quite so certain and they were playing on the downhill side. But at the 74th minute, the game went into a chaos and the orange HazMat referee shirts started to make sense. The Columbus defense, pressured by the Sounders and the now screaming crowd, made a two bounce pass back to their keeper. He picked it up and started to look where to make a throw. This may be a football town but there were 25,000 people in those stands who knew, with a roar, that this was an illegal pass back and a penalty shot from the spot and the spot was six feet from the goal. This play, this error, shows up first with the six year olds, in games played behind supermarkets and then sticks around forever, up through the ranks, but you may watch every MLS game this year and never see it again.
Six feet, of course, is nearly as near as you can get and the Crew put every body they could wedge in front of Ljungberg and Montero and then they all started to yell and jockey and probably remember when they were last involved in such a play. Everything has been done before in soccer, and these are veterans of a million games from when they were six and this was one of those times and probably it is even too close, and maybe no one ever does score, it is like shooting in a phone booth with six other guys. The HazMat man had more than his hands full, and Ljungberg is a born agitator, running forward and back, pointing and flailing all even before the ball, and the crowd is screaming, the Crew will not stay back, HazMat gives them two yellow cards, upping the chaos, and finally whistles to start and after two fakes, a shot, that perhaps could not have gotten through unless it were a dart, that deflects out to nowhere.
All crazy chaos. But amidst it all, Columbus kept its head and humor and the Sounders did not, and it cost them, for they had become the better team and were the more likely to score. The game itself went into extra minutes and got even loopier. Ljungberg, urging the team goalward, twice tried to rush a throw-in, and twice had been called back for cheating too far forward, and his protest brought a yellow card. Meanwhile, the Crew forward Ekbo had some stuff of his own to keep the crowd at a pitch. At every moment of contact, down went Ekbo, writhing, dragging his unseen injuries slowly off field to the crowds' derision. All very well, all this screaming at HazMat, throwing hands in disgust, but then the Crew got the payoff and the Sounders got the bill.
On a play that ended this game and may never be made clear, the Crew sub (for Ekbo!) taunted Sounder defender Tyrone Marshall into retaliation and a punch, and with 91 minutes of this thing gone, with Seattle near ready to shoot, Marshall gets a red card, the Sounders fifth this year, and the game is finished. Every cunning team the Sounders have played this year has lured the Sounders into a red card. Take a message, lads.
And now, up next, Chivas, for a second time in Carson City. Chivas, perhaps the most rigorous team in the MLS, the only team to truly beat the Sounders, and the Sounders will play without Marshall, who should have kept in mind that Chivas was up next. The Sounders will not be favored, but if they can find a way to be fun, and not foolish, they might surprise themselves with the pleasure of cunning and craft.
A note to the Sounders management. On such lovely nights, on nights of sun and sunset and dusk and hard contests and will, it would be interesting to shut off the glitter that rains on the field, and the light stream sideline banners for a moment and let it be only the game, only the lads, only the pitch and only the wonderful display of soccer. For it is indeed glorious and, for any city, great good fortune.