By James Morgan
The Portland Timbers were forced to swallow a bitter pill Saturday night at Jeld-Wen Field as, despite having largely dominated much of the game, they were finally defeated by a combination of missed opportunities, a dogged opponent and suspect officiating.
The match was the home leg of the Timbers’ two game regular season engagement with the Colorado Rapids and it was clear from the first minute that the Timbers were a very different team from the one that took a humiliating 4-1 drubbing in its season opener against Colorado. Both sides entered the match badly needing a win, the Timbers due to a two-game (now three) losing streak, and the Rapids, last year’s MLS Cup winners, on a six-game tie streak. The sense of urgency on either side was immediately apparent as both teams came out playing hard and aggressive soccer.
Within the first eight minutes both goalkeepers were forced to make diving saves and by the 12th minute, Timbers forward Kenny Cooper had sustained a bleeding forehead injury that obliged him to play the rest of the match with a bandage wrapped around his skull. The physical play continued with both sides creating opportunities, but with the Timbers gaining an edge in passing and possession.
In the 29th minute Timbers defender Mamadou “Futty” Danso went down with a shoulder injury sustained in what looked like an attempted header that ran afoul of Rapids forward Caleb Folan. Futty was taken off the pitch on a stretcher and was replaced by David Horst, he of mustache fame.
For the remainder of the first half, the Timbers continued to look slightly sharper and more determined, beating the Rapids to the mark both in the air and on the ground and continuing to create opportunities and general havoc among an otherwise staid Colorado backline.
However, all the chances in the world won’t do any good without accuracy, and for whatever reason, the Timbers seemed unable to control their shots and sent several seemingly sure things wildly astray. Defender Rodney Wallace, for example, capped the half by ending stoppage time with an otherwise excellent shot sent near a yard over the bar.
The second half started more sedately with the Timbers using crisp passing to again gain a slight edge in possession and seeming to take control of the game. The Rapids, to their credit, and as one would expect of a seasoned and accomplished side, did not panic or seem flustered and continued to exert continuous pressure of their own.
However, as the half progressed, an increasing number of fouls were called and referee Abiodun Okulaja gave out two yellow cards, to the Timbers and Rapids respectively, within the first ten minutes. The rest of the half saw fouls called on both sides with increasing frequency.
For their part, the Timbers continued to play a convincing attacking game against a solid Rapids defense. Midfielders Jack Jewsbury and Diego Chará worked together better than ever in creating a strong center, while Darlington Nagbe and Kalif Alhassan worked the wings with good service to forwards Kenny Cooper and Jorge Perlazza. Unfortunately, much of this beautiful play was squandered as the Timbers struggled with accuracy, repeatedly botching good opportunities with inaccurate strikes.
The match looked to be winding down to a disappointing but nonetheless exciting and well-played draw, when, in the second minute of stoppage time, Okulaja called yet another foul, this time on the Timbers, giving the Rapids a free-kick from about 30 yards out.
The kick itself did not find home, but the Timbers backline was not able to clear it entirely and it set up a sequence that resulted in a mad scramble with Troy Perkins making two saves before Moor finally knocked it into the back of the net for the game-winning goal.
The loss is the Timbers’ third consecutive and does not bode well for next Sunday’s match against the New York Red Bulls who are easily one of the best in MLS. For the Rapids, the win ends a six-game tie streak and, in theory at least, marks the beginning of their return to the upper echelons of MLS.
Other Notes, Questions, Gripes, Observations and General Bellyaching:
That said, there are a few things to say about this loss:
On the one hand, it’s worth admitting, without reservation, that in some ways the Timbers played like the expansion team that they are. While they are a very talented side with a great attacking midfield that’s excellent at setting up service down the sides to the lightning-fast Perlazza and the always composed and well-positioned Cooper, they repeatedly drop beautiful opportunities by shooting with zero accuracy. Additionally, while it’s improved by leaps and bounds since its porous early days, the Timbers backline still needs a lot of work. Troy Perkins is good enough to shoulder many an error, but no goalkeeper can do it alone, and in the end, this loss can be, at least partially, laid at the feet of the Portland backline’s inability to clear it when it finally mattered.
On the other hand, as good as they are, it’s still not too late for the Timbers. Most of their issues have more to do with lack of execution and good communication than they do with ability. If the Timbers can plug the holes in their game and continue to work out the bugs, they have the raw talent to be successful this year.
Which brings me to my third point: the real story here is that once again, suspect officiating seems to have played an important role in determining the winner of what was an otherwise exciting and well-played game between two well-matched sides.
Allow me to elaborate: astute observers cannot have failed to notice that Timbers head coach John Spencer was ejected from the pitch following the Rapids’ goal in the second minute of stoppage. The reason for this is that, “he called a foul against us that I didn’t think was a foul, and I told him that,” said Spencer.
Fair enough, you’re not supposed to yell at the referee and if you do, you should expect to get ejected.
But here’s the real question: why was Spencer so pissed at the referee to begin with?
The answer is simple. Spencer felt that Okulaja simply was not physically fit enough to keep up with the run of play, that towards the end of the match, he was “blowing calls from 50 or 60 yards away,” and that he called more and more fouls as the game progressed because, quite simply, he was tired.
As Spencer said after the match, “I think the referee was starting to call innocuous fouls. He was calling foul after foul, and started calling more fouls as the game went on because he was getting tired… He couldn’t cover the ground.”
Spencer went on to say, “I think this is a problem in the game. The referees make decisions that cost people their jobs and yet they go back to their homes on Monday morning and everything is fine and dandy. They go back to their families with a smile on their face. But, you know, my job’s on the line… It’s four guys who don’t have to stand up and be held accountable. I think that [they] should be standing up in front of the cameras at press conferences and giving reasons why they’re making their decisions. Then maybe they might think twice about making a decision in the future.”
Personally, I agree. Poor officiating is a particular and unique blight that affects soccer more so than any other major sport. The solution, if there is one, lies in applying accountability to the FIFA goon squads that currently dominate the sport.
As for Futty Danso, the most recent news is that he was taken to Providence St. Vincent hospital in Portland with a “shoulder separation.” I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds like a dislocation. Hopefully he will recover soon.