The Portland Timbers overtook the Seattle Sounders to sit atop the standings with a 1-nil win courtesy of a first half Kalif Alhassan goal, sending the Cascadia Cup to the Vancouver Whitecaps while putting Portland in pole position to claim a playoff berth and possibly the Supporters Shield.
Caleb Porter opted for Alhassan over an injury battling Diego Valeri in midfield, with skipper Will Johnson and Diego Chara in behind forwards Darlington Nagbe, Max Urruti, and Jose Valencia.
Seattle’s Sigi Schmid was forced into rotation as well, the biggest change in between the pipes with backup Marcus Hahnemann replacing Michael Gspurning, with Leo Gonzales and Patrick Ianni included in the back four with Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and DeAndre Yedlin.
The changes didn’t end there for the Sounders, Clint Dempsey starting alongside Lamar Neagle while former Timber Adam Moffat and Alex Caskey came on in midfield to complement captain Osvaldo Alonso and Mauro Rosales.
Portland stayed with an unchanged backline, Pa Modou Kah and Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso flanked by Michael Harrington and Jack Jewsbury.
The super cyan clad Sounders pressed the advantage of kickoff to earn an early free kick, but two attempts were two too few to test Donovan Ricketts in the opening minutes.
Chippy challenges were exchanged on numerous occasions before Gonzalez picked out Neagle at the top of the box, but the Seattle striker’s bending effort went wide of the far post eight minutes into the contest.
Portland countered with pressure from Urruti, who reacted quicker to a loose ball than Yedlin to draw a foul at the top of the arc just outside the Seattle eighteen yard box.
Johnson lined up behind the ball and assumed the responsibility to clear the wall, but wasted the opportunity as he was well over the goal in the attempt.
Chara cut down Dempsey from behind minutes later, and the pinpoint delivery from Rosales found the head of Neagle, who nearly caught out Ricketts at the far post.
The danger was far from over from Portland, who struggled to clear the ensuing corner that eventually fell to Dempsey, who watched in angst as his as his free header caromed off the crossbar just before the hour mark.
Following the near miss Dempsey looked lively and determined to notch his first goal for the Sounders since his return to MLS after a long spell in England, dropping ever deeper to pick up the ball to create another chance to open up the home side.
The Timbers tried to push play to the wings, but found little as both Valencia and Harrington failed to produce distribution from the outside. Alhassan and Nagbe fared little better up the middle, the Sounders ever present to any attack up the center of the park.
One run 26 minutes in by Alhassan looked promising, only for Moffat to pull it back prematurely, ending the threat and earning the match’s first yellow card in the process.
The contentious nature of the encounter prevented any measure of continuity for either side, and as the match wore on it seemed ever more likely a set piece might decide the outcome.
When Caskey felled Chara near the sideline just past the half hour mark to provide just such a chance, Johnson crossed the ball in to meet the head of Jewsbury, but the former captain could not keep the connection down to threaten Hahnemann.
The next best effort came shortly after when Nagbe picked up the ball in midfield with Alonso snapping at his heels, and the Portland forward unleashed a rocket from outside the area that forced Hahnemann into his first real save of the evening.
The shot served as a precursor to Nagbe’s ability moments later when he again outran Alonso after nipping into dribble on goal from near midfield, a late challenge just enough to keep the goalkeeper from being beaten.
Seattle seemed subdued until Moffat crashed a long range shot off the boards behind the goal, eliciting chants of ‘Timbers reject’ from the Timbers Army in a less than flattering welcome back to the city where he briefly plied his trade in 2011.
Portland’s poise in possession eventually won out when a series of passes found Jewsbury with time and space to deliver an inswinging ball.
A missed header from Nagbe threw off Yedlin as his header was poorly cleared, and the ball bounced back out to the top of the box in the 45th minute where Alhassan was more than happy to put it back on frame with a blistering finish to open the scoring just before the break.
Amidst the smoky encore in the North End Alhassan was issued a caution by the official for excessive celebration, the removal of his shirt by comparison minor to the emotion on display in the stands.
After a bright start for Seattle and nearly making it to intermission with a clean sheet, the late concession was a cruel blow for the visitors, who now found themselves trailing in match in which they should have led.
Schmid and Porter were content to stick with their starters as the match kicked off in the second half, perhaps due more to a lack of consistent options off the bench than anything else.
Valencia made the first foray forward minutes after the resumption of play, a rare run in behind Gonzalez offering an opening that the young Colombian could not keep down as he blasted high over Hahnemann.
The Sounders responded with an incisive cross from Neagle that Jewsbury failed to clear at the far post, the defender grateful his former teammate Moffat did no better than to pop the ball back across goal and into the hands of a waiting Ricketts.
A spurt of pressure from the Timbers nearly undid the Sounders again ten minutes into the second interval, Chara battling Dempsey off as the ball squirted forward to Nagbe, who neatly backheeled in stride to set up Johnson breaking into the box.
The Portland captain looked clear in on goal, but snatched at the chance and put the ball high and wide.
The first change of the contest came a minute later in the 57th, Rosales off for David Estrada as Schmid began to look for fresh legs to counter the pace of Portland.
A long ball from Johnson was missed by Hurtado as he fell to the turf unaided, then tumbled over Urruti as the Argentine tried to get around the defender, only for the official to oddly play advantage at the hour mark.
Porter then made his first substitution as Ben Zemanksi replaced Valencia in the 67th minute, a move ready made to shore up a one goal advantage.
The match grew chippier with each passing moment and the frustration of Seattle grew, a trip by Hurtado on Nagbe drew a foul call followed by a late challenge from Alonso on Johnson, the aftermath erupting into an elbow from the Sounders captain to the jaw of his Timbers counterpart.
The center referee caught the first infraction to issue a yellow to Hurtado, while the assistant referee was wise to the Cuban’s ways after the whistle was already blown. After an officials’ conference amongst a crowd of players in a heated exchange, Alonso earned a red card for his inability to rein in his insipid ire.
Now down a goal and down a man, Dempsey was sacrificed to the sidelines in the 77th minute as Steve Zakuani came on in the star’s stead, with the addition of Andy Rose for Caskey minutes later.
The infusion of a new players seemed to spike the energy even higher for Seattle, and soon after an excellent chance was presented to Estrada, who cut inside his marker to force Ricketts into a save at his near post in a rare second half shot on goal for the Sounders.
The Timbers sent Urruti into space moments later, but the Argentine flailed his shot across goal and then went to ground suffering from what appeared to be a hamstring strain. Urruti was stretchered off as a precaution, with Frederic Piquionne seeing his first minutes since an injury took him out of the lineup in early August.
The change was followed two minutes later with Sal Zizzo in for Alhassan, the Ghanaian walking off to a standing ovation from the home support.
The departing player’s influence was the difference in the match’s margin, one that looked considerably slimmer when the ball fell to the feet of Zakuani in the waning moments, the striker’s shot bouncing off the underside of a diving defender and then the crossbar.
Portland eventually cleared in helter skelter fashion as Jewsbury cleared a rebounded shot off the line, hearts in mouths in the Rose City as a near equalizer was averted.
The Timbers earned a corner that came to Zemanski at the near post, where the midfielder beat Hahnemann with a cross across the six yard box, but Seattle cleared before a Portland player could pounce on the open look from close range.
It proved the last chance at heroics for either side as the home side was content to run out the remainder of five minutes of injury time and hold on for the win.
The victory moves Portland into a tie on points with the New York Red Bulls for first place in the Supporters Shield standings, while also ensuring the Cascadia Cup will not be going to Seattle.
Defeat for the Sounders means British Columbia takes bragging rights for the best team in the region in this year’s head to head competition, a result that stings worse for the traveling fans who now must look up to see Portland in the league table while Vancouver pressures their playoff hopes from below.
The result marks a fourth consecutive home win for Portland and a third straight home conquest with a score of 1-nil, a heady feat considering each of those was over direct competitors for Western Conference playoff positioning.
Schmid and Seattle will head North ruing the absence of the suspended Zach Scott and injured stars Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins for this third consecutive disheartening loss and fifth without a win, but missing players won’t be an acceptable excuse given Portland won without Valeri and other top producers like Ryan Johnson and Rodney Wallace.
Even on matches played heading into the final two rounds of league play, the Timbers are rolling and looking to cut more logs in preparation for their first ever playoff berth, which is now a mere formality with a game at home to Real Salt Lake next weekend and then away to Chivas in the final match of the regular season.
The Sounders are on the road to a now eliminated FC Dallas and then home against the Los Angeles Galaxy, and nothing less than two wins will keep alive hopes of finishing atop the league and restoring a squad shorn of confidence in the end of season run-in.