by Brennan Burns
The prematch buildup to the Seattle Sounders one-nil victory over the Portland Timbers centered on the home debut of Clint Dempsey, yet it was Deuce’s US Men’s national team and new club mate Eddie Johnson who again popped up to punish Portland for profligacy on the attacking end.
The Timbers were missing key players in the suspended Diego Chara and injured captain Will Johnson, in their stead Jack Jewsbury returned from an ankle injury to captain the side alongside Kalif Alhassan in central midfield.
Seattle were missing Obafemi Martins while Mauro Rosales started his night on the bench, Shalrie Joseph in the first eleven in his place.
Minutes into the match it was Jewsbury who was first to strike as he headed a corner kick delivery to the far post where DeAndre Yedlin did well to clear off the line.
Shortly after Joseph was all alone at Portland’s back post when a cross came in but the Grenadan whiffed on a free header with the goalmouth gaping.
At the quarter hour mark Portland looked threatening again, Diego Valeri cutting inside Osvaldo Alonso before threading a pass between Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Zach Scott to spring Ryan Johnson into space.
Unfortunately for Portland, the Jamaican’s touch was heavy and allowed Michael Gspurning to come off his line to quell the danger.
Ten minutes on Dempsey’s first chance came as Donovan Ricketts spilled a Lamar Neagle cross, but a tackle from behind by Jewsbury saw the newly signed Sounder lying prone on the deck after bouncing off a stationary Andrew Jean-Baptiste.
Seattle fans will feel hard done by after viewing the replay, Jewsbury claiming more shin than ball as the official surprisingly waved play on for what looked a surefire penalty.
Another ten minutes past and Portland was back on the front foot, Darlington Nagbe collecting the ball at the top of the box to lay off to Valeri, the Argentine prettily bending a shot around the Seattle defense only to be denied by the woodwork with Gspurning beaten.
Dempsey looked in on goal again minutes later but Ricketts made no mistake this time as he slid out to corral the ball.
Portland’s most creative duo combined again just before the break when Nagbe released Valeri down the wing, where the South American maestro picked out Johnson with an inch perfect cross only for the forward’s header to deflect off the back of Yedlin and out of bounds.
Seattle were fortunate to enter intermission on level terms, and soon made Portland pay for failing to convert on a trio of superb first half opportunities.
As the match resumed tackles were coming thick and fast with nary a whistle from the referee, but when Pa Modou Kah took EJ down with a leg sweeping tackle in the 59th minute the match’s first and shockingly only yellow card was issued to the Gambian.
Mauro Rosales subbed on just minutes earlier for Joseph to provide the pass that put EJ into space before Kah fouled, and the infraction proved more painful for Portland less than a minute later when Rosales stepped up to deliver the set piece to EJ’s head for the game’s lone goal at the hour mark.
EJ scored for the fourth time in five matches against Portland, beating Alvas Powell in one of the rare moments the young Jamaican was outplayed all evening.
A minute later Porter made his first change of the evening with Jose Valencia replacing Johnson, the Colombian hopeful of another late goal in a Cascadian derby as he supplied at the Vancouver Whitecaps earlier this year.
The insertion of Rosales by Seattle manager Sigi Schmid proved instrumental, the Argentine again finding EJ with an excellent cross ten minutes later, the striker’s downward header forcing Ricketts into an impressive save.
Dempsey tried an overhead attempt on the rebound, but took more of Powell than the ball with his boot as the defender needed time off the pitch to recover.
Seattle’s new striker then tried his luck on a Rosales corner when Dempsey headed on frame minutes later, but was denied his first goal in a Sounders shirt with Valeri blocking the ball’s flight to goal.
Sal Zizzo replaced Powell in the 81st minute, and when Jewsbury went off with what appeared a head injury after contact from another Dempsey bicycle kick, Ben Zemanksi came on in the 86th minute.
Time was in short supply when Rodney Wallace set up Nagbe to unleash a shot from distance shortly before full time, Gspurning fingertipping the ball over the crossbar to preserve the home side’s advantage.
The Austrian netminder denied late headers from Jean-Baptiste and Kah as five minutes of injury time expired with Djimi Traore and Servando Carrasco brought on for Neagle and EJ, who took the long way to the sideline to kill time as Seattle secured a vital derby win to propel themselves into first place in the Cascadia Cup standings.
More importantly for the Sounders they find themselves back in playoff contention as they moved up to fifth in the Western Conference with the victory over their fiercest foes.
Portland drops to fourth after only their fourth loss of the season, arguably the most stinging defeat of manager Caleb Porter’s first season.
The excuse of missing personnel won’t be what prickles the consummately competitive coach. It is that his team stood toe to toe with a supposedly much stronger side and still ceded all three points.
A matter of six inches on Valeri’s missed shot or a first time strike from Johnson a breakaway and Portland are cruising in this match, instead the visitors are left to lament losing ground to a regional rival that has two games in hand on them with the playoffs not yet guaranteed.
For Schmid and the Sounders, the CenturyLink Field debut of a new Designated Player saw the home side triumphant, albeit with Dempsey still not showing the scoring ability he demonstrated in the English Premier League with Fulham and Tottenham.
Dempsey is showing plenty of style but little substance in his return to MLS so far, no goals or assists so far but that may also be a sign that the league he’s come back to after seven years abroad is much improved.
Neat flicks, no look passes, and chest bumping antics are all good for the cameras, but finishing is why he was brought in to the tune of eight million dollars a year.
Much as David Beckham had to earn competitive success in the US when he came across the pond, for all the star quality Dempsey possesses he must quickly deduce that Major League Soccer is a competition that will require all his ability to carry the mantle of MLS Cup expectations.
The Sounders are on a roll with four wins out of six while the Timbers are reeling with only one win in the same stretch of fixtures, and are by no means out of the proverbial woods when it comes to playoff safety.
For both clubs moving forward in the stretch run is crucial, Portland up next on the road in a rematch of last week’s draw with Real Salt Lake and Seattle away to the Columbus Crew.
If Dempsey and his fellow Sounders can gel expect Seattle to make a late push up the table, for Portland it is time to find the finishing touch that put them above their northern neighbors in the standings.