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– Seeking Justice for the Seriously Injured –
Matt Pentz is an award-winning sports reporter who writes weekly columns on Sounders FC for Prost Amerika. Matt’s work also appears on the Guardian, ESPNFC, FourFourTwo and Yahoo
By Matt Pentz
The final act of Sunday night’s dramatic 2-2 draw between the Sounders and Timbers at Portland’s Providence Park felt preordained.
Of course Clint Dempsey was able to shake free in the 94th minute to deliver yet another dagger into rival hearts – that’s what Dempsey does. His match-tying header was his 9th goal in nine career matches against the Timbers, the most any Sounder has ever netted against their most hated foe.
But it wasn’t that.
Sunday’s result encapsulated why Seattle should feel positively about its chances of returning to the postseason to defend its MLS Cup title, despite currently being outside of the playoff spots. And it underlined why Portland should again be nervously eying that red cutoff line despite a strong start that initially saw it topping the Western Conference.
The Sounders haven’t often looked themselves in 2017, at least not the version that so memorably surged down last season’s home stretch en route to their first league title. Blame the lack of chemistry between Dempsey and Nicolas Lodeiro, or Jordan Morris’ sophomore slump, but something is clearly amiss.
Yet all that being said, Seattle has been able to grind out the points necessary to hang around the fringe of the postseason places even when not playing its best. It is still just one point back of sixth-place Los Angeles with a long way to go.
“This team will not quit,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said when asked how he rallied his team in the wake of Brad Evans’ 44th-minute red card. “It’s too proud of a franchise to do that and they did that again on their own. I barely had to say words in there (at halftime), because those guys in there were the determined ones that make sure they can get something out of the game. I don’t really need to coach them up in situations like this.”
Seattle’s championship run was testament to how far collective perseverance and moments of individual brilliance can take a team.
Portland’s season to this point has almost been the inverse of its rival’s. The Timbers have looked so good, for such long stretches of play, but they just cannot find a way to close out games and back up performances with results.
“There’s a pattern of this,” coach Caleb Porter admitted after the match. “I would say (it was) a mix of complacency with a few guys and a mix of fear with a few guys. We’ve got to change it because when the pressure tightened up in the second half, we didn’t manage the game well.”
Widen the scope, and the statistics are damning. Since the beginning of last season, Portland has allowed 17 goals after the 80th-minute, second-worst in MLS. The Timbers have scored five times and given up seven after the 75th minute during this campaign – and they’ve dropped eight points and earned a big fat goose egg as a result of those late goals.
You could feel the Timbers tighten as the second half progressed without an insurance goal, and they looked bizarre tentative from the moment the final 45 kicked off. Leave it to Evans for the wry insult: He was forced to watch on his phone from the visiting locker room after his red card, and said he didn’t have to worry about spoilers from the home crowd.
“You can’t hear anything in here,” Evans said. “But I mean, (Portland) didn’t really have any chances in the second half. They got a couple of corner kicks near the end, and I could hear a little bit.”
Porter’s postgame press conference verged on exasperated, and it was an insightful window into his team’s mentality.
“There were far too many guys that gave the ball away when they shouldn’t,” Porter said. “Far too many guys fouled. Far too many guys didn’t make the right decisions. Individually and collectively, we’ve got to figure it out.
“Leadership-wise, we need more guys that are wanting to hold people accountable. Like I said, we will always be a pretty good team, but that’s not what we want to be this year and what we should be this year — a great team … a team that wins something. We have to have more killer instinct. We have to have more guys that are finding ways to f—— win games. Excuse my French.”
To borrow from Porter, even if the Sounders aren’t often winning games, they’ve still shown the capability to earn f—— results even when down a man and a goal for more than a half.
Until the Timbers show that they can so much as close a game out, let alone similarly push through adversity and rally from behind, it’s fair to view their playoff candidacy with skepticism even if they’re currently in safe standing.