To find one game that stands out in the long history between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers, check out April 30, 1977.
The rivalry renews at 8 p.m. Saturday at Qwest Field when the expansion Timbers meet the Sounders for the first time as Major League Soccer rivals. But a meeting 34 years years ago as rivals in the defunct North American Soccer League turned around the Sounders.
One player set the bar so high on the pitch that day that it has yet to be equaled or exceeded in the 74 times since the rivals have met.
As a result of the comeback victory in the Kingdome, the Sounders salvaged a season and went on to reach the 1977 Soccer Bowl against Pele’s New York Cosmos.
The Sounders already lost their first three matches. The season looked gloomy. The Sounders were losing to their bitter rivals 2-0 early in the second half. Then something extraordinary happened.
Jimmy Gabriel entered the pitch.
Gabriel was the Sounders head coach as well as a player. His two assistants — Bobby Howe and Harry Redknapp — also played. Gabriel was 36 and three years removed from a storied professional career with Dundee United, Everton, Southhampton and the Scottish National Team. Gabriel had won an English First Division and FA Cup championships with Everton.
Gabriel had stature and respect. He achieved more in his career than most of the players on the Kingdome carpet. He was a quiet leader — and still the best player on either team.
Seeing his side drop two goals, Gabriel decided to sub himself in the second half. That might have been the smartest coaching decision he ever made.
By the final whistle, Gabriel had inspired his team to three goals for a 3-2 win. The team transformed virtually overnight and went on to reach the Soccer Bowl, losing to Pele’s legendary Cosmos squad, 2-1.
“I think Jimmy’s entry into the game was really significant,” recalled Howe, who also was enlisted to play the whole match in the midfield. “That’s the one that’s most memorable to me.”
For six seasons, Howe was an assistant coach and player. He then went on to coach the U.S. National team program as well as the USL-1 Timbers. He is now a youth coach for Emerald City FC.
“I coached the Timbers when both clubs were in the USL,” Howe said. “It was always highly competitive. The rivalry was always there. You could feel the extra adrenaline, and there was that extra edge when we played against Seattle. Everybody was pumped for the game.”
Like any big match, the adrenaline wears off. Reality sets in. The players have to execute under pressure. When Gabriel stepped onto the turf, his Sounders clearly were floundering.
“Jimmy’s presence was immediately felt in the game,” Howe remembered. “He injected so much confidence. His presence was inspiring and he stamped his authority on the game. It was amazing.”
Gabriel immediately set the tone with a hard tackle that strained a muscle. His players could see he was injured and limping. But he refused to sub out and started demanding the ball and instructing his players where to go and what to do. Always, he led by example — tackling hard, delivering quality pinpoint passes, holding the ball calmly under pressure.
“Jimmy was a wonderful, wonderful player of international standard,” Howe said. Howe played with Gabriel at Bournemouth, when both were at the end of their careers. Howe also had played for West Ham United in the English First Division. “He was a high quality player, in my opinion. He was a hard tackler and that sometimes overrided the fact he was a wonderful passer of the ball and was a player of great skill.
“Jimmy was very helpful with his instruction on the field — very demanding, but very encouraging. When I got to play with him, he made you feel good. But you’d receive your fair share of bollickings, too.”
For Gabriel, watching his team struggle and hardly fight back was unacceptable.
“For me, it was for the fans,” Gabriel said. “I said, ‘No, we got to end this, we’ve got to stop this.’ We were better than that.”
He inserted himself into the midfield and rearranged it so he could attack and get into the box. His limping was lifting his players as they watched their coach give everything. The Sounders immediately put the Timbers under pressure. “I was pretty good in the air,” he said, “and I could still play a little bit.”
Gabriel showed his players the way. His message: “We fight back and get our way back into the game. We don’t get dominated. And that’s what they did. It was just a great feeling, when you see the team struggling, and you can go in there and lift them up.”
In less than 20 minutes, Paul Crossley scored and David Butler nabbed the other two to secure the improbable come back against the Timbers.
“When you’re the head coach, you’re the boss,” Gabriel said. “I was able to show them some bossiness. I wanted them to know that we were a club with high standards and shouldn’t have gotten beat 2-0. If I hadn’t gone on there, I don’t think it would have lifted them. They needed someone in command.”
The season was still unsteady. The Sounders finished third in their division but qualified for the playoffs. They sailed through the playoffs to meet the Cosmos. It would be Pele’s last game.
“Getting into the finals was tremendous,” Gabriel said. “Getting beat in the finals wasn’t so great. But it was Pele’s last game, it was end-to-end action and one of the most exciting championship finals.”
For that, the Sounders can thank the Timbers and Jimmy Gabriel. The Scotsman set the bar high for the club and showed that losing to a local rival was simply unacceptable.