FINAL THOUGHTS: The first hour of the game proved that Sounders coach Sigi Schmid had gotten his starting lineup disastrously wrong. The midfield diamond left the Timbers with too many angles of attack to exploit and they raced to a 2-0 lead. But Schmid used his bench far more effectively than coach Caleb Porter for the Timbers. The introduction of Mauro Rosales gave Seattle someone to protect the ball and allow the Sounders to attack coherently. Rosales' dead-ball delivery underlined the folly of his starting lineup. The whip and swerve of his corners and free kicks was in marked contrast to Seattle forward Clint Dempsey's aimless set pieces. Shifting Brad Evans to right-back and introducing Shalrie Joseph both contributed to the Sounders' goal.
As for the Timbers, they looked dominant in the first half, but as the game wore on, their confidence seemed to erode. In the end, their basic defending — Kah and Danso's ability to make blocks and clearances — managed to preserve Portland's advantage heading into the second leg.
PREAMBLE: The Portland Timbers' first appearance in the MLS playoffs pits them against the hated Seattle Sounders. Whatever happens in this two-legged tie against the Timbers' fiercest rivals, the 2013 season will be remembered in Portland for the transformation the home team has undergone. It's difficult to remember sometimes the clumsy, ineffective style of the 2012 Timbers, characterized by late capitulations, tactics that brought the worst out of the team's stars and million-dollar embarrassment Kris Boyd. The Rose City now has a team that reflects the character to which it aspires. It combines the patient intricacy and improvisation of the creole style with the Dutch-Catalan school's emphasis on multi-functional players who can alternate positions like clockwork — in other words, it is authentic in the sense that Portland's restaurant scene is authentic, literate in the sense that Portland's art and music spheres are literate, and playful in the sense that Portland's political landscape is playful.
But imagine, for a second, all of the Timbers' good work this season undone by Seattle. The Sounders limped into the playoffs, winning none of their last seven games in the regular season before Wednesday night's 2-0 victory over a limited Colorado Rapids team in the wildcard matchup. There can be no question, though, that the Sounders will be motivated by the chance to ruin their biggest rivals' season, and in front of their home crowd, they are very good indeed, having lost only twice there this year. If the Timbers lose out to the Sounders, it could be an unparalleled heartache for the Timbers Army. Like the tortoise being overtaken at the finish line by a limping, out of shape hare smoking two cigars at once. Like Pip Pirrip learning to recite all of Estella's favorite poems from memory, only to look up to see her locked in a desperate embrace with the coarse Bentley Drummle. Like how Katy Perry would feel if Russell Brand got together with Ke$ha.
It will be interesting to see what Timbers coach Caleb Porter does with Diego Valeri. The midfielder is, by some distance, the team's most talented player, and leads the Timbers in goals and assists. He's also a leading candidate for MLS MVP. But in the Timbers' victory over Seattle earlier this season, he was an unused substitute.
Programming note: I'll be referring to Seattle's home ground as Occidental Avenue, after its street address. Why? Because I don't see why a Louisiana-based communications company should get free publicity from Willamette Week just because it paid to have a stadium named after it.
Sounders (4-3-1-2): Hahnemann; Scott, Hurtado, Traore, Gonzalez; Evans, Alonso, Moffat; Dempsey; Eddie Johnson, Neagle
Timbers (4-2-3-1): Ricketts; Jewsbury, Danso, Kah, Harrington; Chara, Will Johnson; Nagbe, Valeri, Wallace; Ryan Johnson
6:36: P.S. The game begins at 7. It's on NBC Sports if you want to see it. Also, according to this, Diego Valeri was an Italian poet whose "poems encapsulated a "sense of vanitas arising from his penetration to the core of the natural world itself." Bob Dylan has said he believes he is the trans-dimensional reincarnation of another Robert Zimmerman, who was a motorcyclist killed in an accident. Perhaps the modern, soccer-playing Diego Valeri and the deceased, poem-writing one are also one and the same.
6:51: Lineups analysis. If you're looking for reasons to be optimistic as a Timbers fan, Seattle is without starting goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, who was sent off after handling the ball outside the penalty area against the Rapids. His replacement is 41-year-old Marcus Hahnemann. The former US national team custodian looked ponderous and rusty during his minutes in the Colorado game.
The Sounders have also changed their tactics completely to accommodate Clint Dempsey. The national team captain became the highest paid player in the history of MLS when he signed for Seattle in midseason, but he didn't score once in the regular season. After playing 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 for most of the season, the Sounders have shifted to a 4-3-1-2 for their last two games, dropping erstwhile captain Mauro Rosales to accommodate Dempsey behind the strikers. It's a formation that congests the central midfield area but leaves space on the flanks for fullbacks to push forward. If the Timbers can keep the playing area spread wide, it's likely they will have the upper hand, as long as Will Johnson and Diego Chara don't allow Portland's ponderous center-backs to get isolated against Seattle's front three.
6:59: If you want to reach me during the game, my Twitter handle is @atomchak and my email address is email@example.com.
7:02: Sounders center back Djimi Traore is a Champions League winner who has played for some of Europe's most storied clubs, but unquestionably he will always be remembered chiefly for this ridiculous mistake:
7:06: The match is now on the television. The stadium on Occidental Avenue sounds loud, you'd have to say. Clint Dempsey is interviewed. He looks sweaty. His eyes look bulgy. He does not have his game face on, and because his game face looks like this, you'd have to say that's a bit of a pity.
7:17: It's probably about five minutes to kickoff. You could do worse than to spend that time watching Diego Valeri's highlights from his time at Lanus in the Argentine league:
7:20: I've only caught sight of Seattle's tifo display close-up, but it appears to involve colored pieces of aluminum foil.
7:21: Seattle's fan display now seems to include a skull with a brown, dead rose in its mouth. Or maybe it's a comedy exploding cigar. Sounders coach Sigi Schmid looks a little subdued on the bench. Portland's Caleb Porter is not very expressive.
1 min: Marcus Hahnemann's facial hair for this game is regrettable. A pronounced gray soul patch and a stubbly, very rounded handlebar.
2 min: The US' use of South American free kick spray has always been one of the more endearing aspects of MLS. But Will Johnson doesn't do much with the free kick.
6 min: Dempsey insists on taking the corner kick. Egotistical move, Deuce.
8 min: So far, the game is stop-start. Both teams have a reputation for silky soccer, but the they've spent a goodly portion of this game craning their necks to watch the ball hurtle through the chilly Seattle sky.
12 min: The Timbers' magician Valeri shows his dastardly side, hacking down scampering Sounder Ossie Alonso. Clint Dempsey stands gravely over the free kick. It's not exactly a half-chance for Traore. Maybe an eighth-chance?
14 min: Every time Diego Valeri puts his foot on the ball to look up and survey his options, a kitten is born. The Humane Society has been agitating Porter to make Valeri up the tempo of his game.
15 min: GOOOOOOOOOOALL!
Seattle 0-1 Portland: Ryan Johnson glances home a whipped right-wing cross from Jack Jewsbury with his head.
18 min: Sorry about the delay on the goal announcement. I would like some credit for saying the Timbers would get joy down the flanks. Ryan Johnson managed to head the ball at a near-90 degree angle. It took a lot of technique.
20 min: Dempsey's free kick forces Donovan Ricketts to fly across his goal to keep the ball out of the top corner. Now the Timbers counterattack with five, but it doesn't quite come off.
23 min: The referee stops the game for an alleged Rodney Wallace foul on Djimi Traore. To me it just looked like Traore forgot what his legs were for and fell to the ground, which would not be out of character.
25 min: The clash between ex-Timber Adam Moffat and Jack Jewsbury down the Timbers' right is interesting, because neither player looks entirely comfortable in his role. It's like watching two men fence using shovels.
27 min: Darlington Nagbe is pleasingly capable of alternating the imperious and the mystifying. Just now, Seattle cleared a Rodney Wallace cross right to him in a glorious scoring position, but rather than strike the ball home for one of his trademark half-volleys, he manages to let the ball squirm between his legs like an affectionate kitty cat.
31 min: The Sounders simply cannot match the Timbers' technique in midfield. Moffat tries to take a clearance out of the air and the ball bounces away like he's made of dark matter.
32 min: Lamar Neagle tries to cut onto his left foot for a shot and ends up dribbling ten yards in the wrong direction trying to redeem a bad touch.
34 min: The Sounders' chief mode of attack seems to involve Dempsey standing over a dead ball on the 40 yard line like he's pondering the ontological mystery, then smacking it onto the penalty spot.
36 min: By way of contrast, Will Johnson takes a free kick from the 40 yard line and uses it to change the Timbers' point of attack with a crossfield ball to Michael Harrington.
37 min: In his day, Clint Dempsey's scored with plenty of headers, so his insistence on taking the set pieces for the Sounders is pretty baffling.
41 min: Darlington Nagbe dances past Moffat, then he scoots past Alonso. Then Alonso kicks him.
42 min: Valeri, Nagbe and Ryan Johnson work a whirring triangle of passes on the 30 yard line that utterly befuddles the Seattle midfield, then they switch the ball out to Jewsbury. It doesn't come to anything approaching a chance (edit), but that's the way you play the sport.
45 min: As MLS has grown in stature, there has come to seem something bizarrely postmodern about playing a game of soccer around gridiron markers, as if the Timbers are enacting some sort of performance art about the rise of the beautiful game, slowly encircling and strangling American football like the Union Navy in the Civil War.
HALFTIME: The Timbers end the half with a spell of unrelenting pressure on the Sounders goal, at one point marching down the field with five players on the back of a Sounders corner, before getting the ball caught under their feet in the penalty area. Then they work the ball out to Jewsbury for a rather tame strike from outside the area that Hahnemann saves without really stretching himself.
HALFTIME SCORE Sounders 0-1 Timbers and I'm going to go make more coffee.
8:15: NBC presenter Salazar asks whether the Timbers should sit on their lead or go for the jugular. Jugular, always!
8:21: I don't know about you guys, but for reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that I live in Portland and cover the Timbers, I'd be bitterly disappointed if this next MLS Cup was another LA-Houston rematch. Reason 1: No more Beckham. Reason 2: Houston is one of the least fun teams in the league to watch.
8:24: Some poetry by Diego Valeri:
C'Ã¨, scavata nell'aria, la tua dolce
forma di donna; un vuoto
che palpita di te, come l'immoto
silenzio dopo una perduta voce.
49 min: A puzzling closeup of Michael Harrington jockeying for the ball with an offscreen Sounder. The camera seems obsessed with the lank-haired fullback right now.
50 min: Ryan Johnson just chased Jhon Kennedy Hurtado the entire width of the field. Aside from being plain funny, the incident seemed to symbolize the problems the Timbers are creating for the Sounders with their pressing. Hurtado looked shaken, and didn't have time to look up for a pass out of defense.
54 min: Ryan Johnson is writhing right now after a shoulder barge from Scott, but the Sounders are playing on.
56 min: The non-call on Scott was a correct one. He didn't see Johnson and Johnson didn't see him. The Sounders have successfully upped the tempo of the game, which probably suits them.
58 min: Sounders captain Brad Evans releases a tame shot, but the ease with which he was able to turn on the ball in the final third should give the Timbers pause.
60 min: Futty Danso breaks up Seattle's most coherent attack of the game so far, dispossessing Dempsey on the turn, then strides forward with the ball. It's always exciting when a center back carries the ball out of the back, but it's funny to see Danso realize he can't spot a pass and play a sideways pass to Diego Chara. Khalif Alhassan is on for Valeri. "L'Assenza" indeed.
62 min: Scott is down again and erstwhile Sounders captain Mauro Rosales is on for him. Rosales is the Sounders' all time assist leader, so it's a very positive change. The ball bounces embarrassingly off of Hahnemann in the area, but he gets it on the second try.
64 min: It's not immediately clear what the Sounders' new formation is. Neagle is on the right now. Dempsey and Rosales are both floating. Rosales takes a free kick from that 40-yard line and it's immediately apparent that he's much better than Dempsey with a dead ball.
66 min: GOOOOOOOOOOOALLLLL!!!!!!!
Sounders 0-2 Portland Darlington Nagbe takes the ball around Traore's lunge (edit) on the left side of the Sounders area and then finishes into the bottom far corner.
68 min: Remember when I said Nagbe is capable of the sublime? It was a juicy little touch to create the space for him. In the meantime, Rosales has taken another corner. His delivery is so much more dangerous than Dempsey's. It's genuinely ludicrous that Seattle wasted so many dead balls on Dempsey's ego.
70 min: Another dangerous corner from Rosales creates a chance for the Sounders. Seattle's pretty lucky there's no away goals rule in MLS playoffs, because this would be hopeless for them if there was.
71 min: Timbers midfielder Ben Zemanski is preparing to come on. The Sounders have a good spell of possession, but Chara takes the pressure off the Timbers with an erudite dribble on the right wing.
72 min: Rosales is now controlling the game from a deep midfield position. Typical of an Argentine No 10, he is so good at shielding the ball when he receives it. The Timbers put Zemanski on for Nagbe, presumably to add another body to the midfield.
75 min: There's an almighy scramble in the Timbers box, and the ball ends up at Dempsey's feet. His shot is sliced, but I personally felt a lump of terror in my throat.
77 min: Seattle puts on MLS legend Shalrie Joseph for the ineffective Moffat. I always thought Joseph was the only good thing about the New England teams he was in. Traore plays him a bad pass and makes his first touch a tackle.
79 min: Alhassan receives the ball under pressure from Neagle and Gonzalez, and he uses a sly first touch to escape just for a second, but it's enough to earn a free kick. Will Johnson's delivery on the free kick leaves the ball bouncing in the Sounders area. It's a testament to the Timbers' strength this season that a player as elusive and creative as Alhassan can't make the starting XI.
83 min: Alhassan's clinical through ball releases Ryan Johnson behind the Seattle defense. Hahnemann charges forward to close down the angle on him. Johnson checks onto his right and tries a daring chip from outside the area, but Hahnemann gets the block. I literally screamed with pleasure. But now Ryan Johnson's off for Adolfo Valencia.
86 min: Rosales has done such a good job of drawing fouls from a the Timbers' defense. He' wins another and the Timbers struggle to clear Joseph's header. One of the Timbers center backs nearly puts it in his own net. Rosales takes the ensuing corner, putting it right on Dempsey's forehead for a powerful effort that forces Ricketts to keep it out by the tips of his fingers.
90 min: GOOOOOOOOAL
Seattle 1-2 Portland. Alonso finally converts a set piece, but it's not one of Rosales' corners, but a long throw from Brad Evans.
92 min: The atmosphere in Seattle has surged with optimism, and Eddie Johnson surfs it into the penalty area, before getting carried away and slipping.
93 min: Will Johnson performs a neat little sombrero move over Joseph, but the Sounders take possession and charge upfield again. Then Wallace nearly releases Valencia, but Hurtado makes the block.
FULL TIME: The Sounders ended the game absolutely buffeting the Timbers, not just knocking at the door, but throwing bricks through their windows and unleashing termites into their basement. The final whistle blew with Ricketts catching Dempsey's backheader. Final thoughts in a minute.
FINAL SCORE: Seattle Sounders 1-2 Portland Timbers