After 120 minutes of intense physicality Thursday, after consecutive games this week, after 43 years of rivalry, the best game ever between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers came down to damnable penalty kicks.
The Timbers were better. The Sounders were aghast. The sellout crowd of nearly 40,000 was stunned.
The one-time worst team in the Western Conference transformed into one of MLS’s best in a single season, the Sounders failed abruptly in the Western semifinals to its most arch of rivals.
It is,” said Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer, “a kick in the stomach.”
Will Bruin corrected him.
“A little lower than the gut,” he said, offering the smallest of rueful smiles.
Wherever was the exact point of figurative anatomical grief, there was no mistaking its depth and breadth.
“To watch our arch-rivals celebrate on our home field,” said Schemetzer, “it hurt.”
Was this the toughest loss in his considerable history with the Cascadian drama?
“I would absolutely say yes.”
The Sounders finally lost their grip on a season almost perpetually on edge.
“This year, it got us,” Bruin said. “You can’t always be pulling it out at the end and be scrambling to get a result, because things like this are going to happen.
“It’s good when you can pull it off, but the soccer gods weren’t with us tonight.”
A wild night of turns eventually turned against the second-seeded Sounders to deny them a third consecutive appearance in the West finals.
After a 3-2 match win tied the aggregate series 4-4, the penalty kicks went 4-2 to Portland. Reserve forward Dairon Asprilla had the pleasure of slipping in the figurative shiv, celebrating with a cartwheel and a back flip before being mobbed in the suddenly silent cavern that moments earlier was throbbing.
Bruin and Ozzie Alonso, the venerable original Sounder, each misfired. Alonso’s shot was blocked, and Bruin hit the far post. Nicolas Lodeiro, the Sounders’ best player, never took a shot. He asked to go fifth, but the shoot-out never made it that far.
“I’ve practiced that one to the bottom corner,” Bruin said. ” I didn’t change anything up in my routine. I just pulled it a little.
The Sounders can’t complain about bad bounces, because they had a great one in the 68th minute when Portland goalie Jeff Attinella came way off his line to grab a ball that he couldn’t hold. As he fell, the abandoned ball bounced twice before Raul Ruidiaz smashed into the net.
The game’s first score not only broke open a conservative, almost apprehensive game, it made the Sounders too giddy. After scoring a road goal in Portland Sunday in the 2-1 Timbers victory in the home-and-home series, all the Sounders needed was a 1-0 win to advance.
That lead lasted 1o minutes.
Timbers star Sebastian Blanco leveled matters with a blistering shot from the top of the box that caught the Sounders defense — missing veteran anchor Chad Marshall, who had knee surgery Tuesday to repair meniscus torn in the Sunday match — out of position.
Portland had its road goal.
“When the breakthrough (first goal) came, we have to be sharp,” Schmetzer said. “We have to make sure that we don’t let our guard down.”
They did let their guard down. All the Timbers needed to do was hold serve to advance. They too, failed.
As the tension built through the six minutes of stoppage time, Blanco attempted to clear the ball with his head away from the Portland goal. Instead, he sent it to the middle, where Ruidiaz leaped and swung his leg horiziontally and violently. The game was tied, bedlam was back and two 15-minute overtime periods beckoned.
The Timbers pounced again, Asprilla nailing a header just two minutes in. Three minutes later, the Sounders answered. A handball call in the box offered Lodeiro a penalty kick that he easily converted.
Even though the final 23 minutes played out without a score for a 3-2 Seattle match win, Timbers players believed they had won the series and began with celebratory hugs and high fives. They were unaware that, in the obtuse arcana of the MLS playoff system, the weighted road goals no longer counted in overtime in an aggregate series.
Finally the Timbers coaches unwound their players’ bizarre confusion, and managed to pull together a team playing its third game in eight days and fourth in the past 11 to prevail in PKs against a higher-seeded, more rested Seattle outfit.
The swings in momentum stood in contrast to steady intensity the Timbers brought to a hostile house. They were rewarded with a series win, after taking two of three from Seattle in the regular season.
Rookie Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese was impressed after his exposure to the MLS’s premier rivalry.
“Seattle and Portland brought the rivalry to this match and it was incredible,” he said. “There were moments when they scored, it looked like it was going to be difficult for us, then it was back and forth all the way to PKs.
“I think it was a very good match.”
It was. But for a team that set an MLS record with nine consecutive wins, and another record for the best second half-season (14-2-1), and won 14 of their final 16 to escape the playoffs’ knockout round, the curtain on the compelling theater came down way too soon.