Cinderella Sounders: Playoff bound?

With legions of fans, a hot new star and a big win over Portland, the world is watching Seattle soccer.
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Sounders goalie Michael Gspurning denied Portland.

With legions of fans, a hot new star and a big win over Portland, the world is watching Seattle soccer.

The Seattle Sounders got some of what they wanted from their Sunday evening match with Portland. They won that second meeting, 1-0, on a lovely flick header from their striker Eddie Johnson in the 60th minute of the match. The victory over their archrival Timbers moved Seattle into the bracket of teams that qualify for the payoffs, and left them only slightly behind the Timbers in the standings.

Nearly 68,000 fans came out for Sunday’s game, a regular season attendance record that rated worldwide attention. Only Dortmund in Germany’s world famous Bundesliga drew more fans. No other team in Major League Soccer is even close.

For a few big reasons and a thousand little ones, the Sounders can load that downtown stadium like a phone booth. Green-scarfed fans come from every direction. It is a big, green contentious company meeting. None of them talked of losing the game. Few mentioned how well the Timbers were playing. It was a summer Sunday eve, in our own home, with our new star player Clint Dempsey and it was too weird to think we could lose.

The playoffs are two months away. There will be many changes and much anxiety between now and then, but the Sounders have lagged outside the playoff bracket all season and they were palpably thrilled to win the game, and palpably thrilled to have it over with. A loss or even a tie would have been a disappointment.

Clint Dempsey is a new frontier as well. He is arguably the first premier soccer player to come to the MLS in the prime of his career. It helped that he is from Texas, that he is also a star on the US National team and that he played in the MLS seven years ago. But every team in the league noted his decision to play for Seattle. If Dempsey will come, then the league must be good enough for others of his caliber. Big house, big player, big night. Seattle keeps pushing the MLS boundaries, of talent and tally, a little farther.

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It was the first time that Johnson (at left) and Dempsey had played together with the Sounders. When Nigerian forward, Obafemi Martins, who is injured at the moment, becomes available, perhaps this weekend, then, frankly, no one knows what we’ll have. Martins is a 5-foot, 7-inch rocket who makes the Sounders’ attack less a clump. His speed can slice the lines of a defense and once the lines are cut, you could imagine Dempseys and Johnsons all over the pitch. We’ll have to wait and see.

What the Sounders did not get on Sunday night was any sense of Timbers flinching. Portland was not intimidated by the crowd, or the moment. They are cool, tough customers, and they clearly enjoy the success that has kept them ahead of Seattle in the standings. Nothing would have pleased them more than to have won or at least tied the game. They were playing without their two best midfielders, Will Johnson and Diego Chara, but they didn’t seem to care.

The game nearly took a very different turn. Soccer is like that. You must watch all of it, closely. In the fifteenth minute, Timbers’ Ryan Johnson slipped behind the Sounder defense and would have scored but for the wonderful Seattle goal keeper Michael Gspurning, who made a brave and lovely save by rushing out and diving into the ball. Twenty minutes later, Timbers’ star Valeri took a long shot from the center that beat Gspurning by both speed and direction. Lucky for us, it just hit the frame.

If Portland scores on either shot, you have a very different game – and 68,000 very quiet green seats. Silencing a crowd provides as big a boost as having it roar for your side.

The Sounders nearly scored as well in that first half. Shalrie Joseph, the veteran Sounder midfielder, badly missed a chance on a header into an open net. It was a terrible night for Joseph, who in years past seemed only too amused to score and score again against the Sounders. But he is 35 years old now and on this night, that was too old. He missed not only the header but eight passes as well, eight that were intercepted by the quicker Timbers and sent them back on offense. In baseball terms, Joseph struck out looking, with the bases loaded, three times by the fifth inning. In soccer terms, he gummed up the rhythm of his own team.

Moments into the second half, Joseph was subbed out of for Mauro Rosales and two minutes later the Sounders scored the game’s only goal. Rosales is the poetry of any Sounder offense. Once he has unfolded his array of crosses and loops and corners, the Sounders become less a force of long balls and bullies. 

It was a difficult night for the referee Jair Marrufo. The Timbers and the Sounders do not like each other and they never will. The Timbers get credit for being scrappy, united, the noble earnest warrior underdog. The Sounders get dissed for being rich, selfish, arrogant, spoiled and corporate. Both characterizations, of course, are true in some parts and baloney in others, but the emotions sit out there and are not going away.

The Timbers went right after the new rich kid Dempsey, chopping away at him at every chance. Ozzie Alonzo, the wonderful Sounder midfielder and sheriff, chopped away in return at Portland's star Valeri.

In other hands, like the strict-tempered MLS referee Ricardo Salazar, this game would have taken an hour longer and there would have been considerably less people on the pitch by game's end. Salazar would have red carded at least three of the plays and the game would have been a mess. Jair let them play, trusting that the match would eventually settle into a rhythm beyond retaliation. And it did, providing moments which were brave and elegant. 

In the 87th minute, the Timbers nearly got what they came for. Darlington Nagbe, their Liberian forward found space and drove a shot to goal, a shot that would have gone straight through the heart of Seattle loyalists had Gspurning not managed to tip the ball over the bar. Seattle had won, but only for the moment.

The two teams now go off to fight other battles. They will meet again, in Portland, on October 13th. With luck, the match will have meaning and both teams will jump off the cliff and play for it all. If we get very lucky, the Sounders and the Timbers will meet yet again, in the playoffs and you can see for yourself what the phrase "no holds barred" really means.

  

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About the Authors & Contributors

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Peter Miller

Peter Miller is owner of Peter Miller Books, a store in Seattle specializing in architecture and design books. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.