As closing acts go, the Sounders fell off the stage, into the orchestra pit and may not be recovered for days. Embarrassingly outplayed for 70 minutes Thursday night in Portland, Seattle scored two late goals, but the Timbers, clearly the superior team, prevailed 3-2 and 5-3 in the aggregate to move on to the Western Conference finals against Real Salt Lake.
The Sounders’ season of high expectations came to a messy end with their ninth winless game among the season’s final 10 for a team that for a short while in early September had the best record in Major League Soccer. The late-season collapse was among the worst in Seattle sports history and a humiliation for a team that took great pride in its five-year run of success.
The heralded, expensive acquisition of American star Clint Dempsey was, for its half-season, virtually worthless. Dempsey was often unavailable because of injuries and national-team call-ups. When he was on the pitch, he never found a fit with his new teammates.
Sounders ownership went to lengths to upgrade the designated player spots with Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, the Nigerian international who scored some stellar goals but played only the final half Thursday, his first game in the final six after sitting out with a groin injury. Neither were much of a factor.
After a 2-1 triumph Saturday in Seattle in the first of two legs, the Timbers showed they had no intention of laying back Thursday. Coach Sigi Schmid surprised by starting at forward Shalrie Joseph, whose last start was Aug. 25 against Portland in the Seattle debut game of Dempsey, won 1-0.
But his size and experience did nothing to deter the potent attack of Timbers, who haven’t lost at home (12-0-5) since March. The Timbers in the second minute were denied a goal by an offsides call, and had several more scoring opportunities in the first 15 minutes.
A major Seattle defensive blunder, a careless handball by Jimmy Traore in the 27th minute, gave a penalty kick to Will Johnson. He converted easily past goalie Michael Gspurning for a 1-0 lead that thwarted any hope by Seattle of early momentum against a hostile sellout crowd at Jen-Weld Field.
In the 43rd minute, Diego Valeri offered a brilliant score with a sliding shot off a short pass. Bad as was the 2-0 halftime deficit for Seattle, it grew to 3-0 in the 47th minute on Mamadou (Futty) Danso’s close-in header. The party was on in Portland, where soccer fans always seemed to have been the junior partner in the Northwest rivalry to Seattle’s huge fan base and fast start from expansion.
Schmid subbed in Martins and Mauro Rosales in an effort to stir up any kind of offense against a Portland defense that had a home shutout streak going of more than 500 minutes entering the game.
In the 74th minute, Brad Evans had a long throw-in that Eddie Johnson moved along with his head before DeAndre Yedlin finally broke through with a short-range score. Evidence that the Timbers had backed off the throttle came less than two minutes later when Johnson scored on a header.
A match believed long over suddenly had a little life. The Sounders pressured heavily, finally getting a shot at a tie in the 89th minute, but Dempsey’s 12-yard attempt from straightaway inexplicably went wide left of the near post.
The Sounders-Timbers series in MLS is now 3-3-3, but Portland, which finished first in the West under new coach Caleb Porter after two mediocre seasons, took the 2013 series 3-1-1. Their relatively easy playoff triumphs over Seattle ratchet up the Northwest drama to fresh levels of intensity for 2014.
Meanwhile, the Sounders have a long winter to ponder after another playoff futility, made worse by the late collapse in the regular season. Matters will be more complex because Dempsey is likely to be loaned to a European team, and will likely have national team duty for the 2014 World Cup.
Schmid addressed post-game the inevitable calls for a coaching change.
“I don’t want to walk away,” he told The News Tribune. “I know there are probably people out there who would like me to walk away. The press — you guys like that.
“There’s a good base of talent. There a good base of people we can work with. But there’s improvements and changes that we have to make. At the end of the day, my job security is really in the hands of (GAM Adrian Hanauer) Adrian and (majority owner) Joe Roth.”
Schmid — or as some fans prefer, his successor — will have to sort through a talented roster that, for reasons of injury, call-ups or ego, could not sustain its mid-season success and failed at the worst time, in the worst place.