If you are a Portland Timbers or Sporting Kansas City fan, or watched Thursday night’s game with one, congratulations, you have probably survived the full spectrum of human emotion. In varying order (depending on who you support), there was anticipation, hope, elation, anxiety, devastation, exhaustion, anger, frustration, and euphoria.
In a game that featured two second half goals, two extra time goals, and two goals within just minutes of what could have been the final whistle, not to mention a nerve-racking shootout and nine yellow cards, the Portland Timbers advanced to the Western Conference Semi-finals of the MLS playoffs. It took 120 minutes, plus penalties by every player in the game, including each goalkeeper, but shortly after 1:00 AM EST on Friday morning, the Timbers beat Sporting Kansas City.
It was a game for the ages, one that whether or not one rates the quality of MLS play, one simply cannot deny that MLS playoff soccer is exciting. Like the playoffs or not, they bring drama, and it’s a blast.
All that said, here’s four takeaways from the Portland Timbers shootout win over SKC.
1. MLS still needs a lot of work on its concussion policy
A great game was marred by poor handling of Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Tim Melia’s suspected concussion. In the 69th minute, the Timbers Rodney Wallace was a bit optimistic in going for a ball that was clearly Melia’s, and caught Melia with his boot as he jumped over the SKC keeper. Melia looked dazed, and SKC’s trainer put Melia through some sort of concussion test (I know nothing about concussion tests, but it was good to see some sort of test actually done). Without being able to hear what was said, it appeared that the trainer wanted to remove Melia from the game, but Melia insisted he stay on, appearing to say “I’m fine” repeatedly. After a few minutes, the trainer apparently (I say apparently, because without hearing, we can’t know for sure) relented and allowed Melia to continue.
Fifteen minutes later, Melia was forced to come off, clearly suffering the effects of a blow to the head. This should never have been allowed to happen. If Melia had a suspected concussion, and the trainer felt he needed to come out of the game in the 69th minute, Melia should have come off in the 69th minute. That’s not to blame the player. No player would want to come out in that situation. But, the trainer is a trained medical professional. If in his medical opinion, there was concern about a head injury, he should have stood his ground. Now, maybe he followed the league’s concussion protocol to a T, maybe he did everything right. Or, maybe he let the player talk him into staying on, maybe he worried about being forced to make a sub. Maybe the trainer felt that he wouldn’t be supported in his decision to remove Melia. MLS clearly needs to take steps to strengthen its concussion protocols and make sure that the trainer medical trainers are supported in their professional medical decisions.
Wins are important, especially in the playoffs, but long term health is more important, and the league should act like it.
2. Timbers need to keep their foot on the gas
Not long after scoring the opening goal, the Timbers took their foot off the gas, and in the end they nearly paid for it with their playoff lives. After starting the game on the front foot and having the best chances throughout the first half and most of the second half, the Timbers, protecting a 1-0 lead, bunkered down with about 15 minutes to go. They didn’t need to. They had allowed just one shot on target up to that point. But they did.
Check out this tweet from Matthew Doyle of MLSScocer.com
Portland’s passing map from the 77th minute onward. There was no reason to go “boot & protect” at that point. pic.twitter.com/DFTJZDfyn7
The tactical shift was made worse when in the 85th minute George Fochive was brought on for Lucas Melano and the Timbers switched from the 4-3-3 that has been so successful over the last four games, to the 4-2-3-1 that had them almost missing the playoffs headed into the last few games of the season.
Now, it’s understandable to be a bit more cautious when protecting a late lead. That does not mean that a team needs to sit back, bunker in, and boot the ball long every time they get it. Again, the Timbers had conceded just a single shot on target. They could’ve continued possessing the ball and continued to play their game, while maybe telling their full-backs to not press as high, telling Jack Jewsbury to sit a bit more defensively. They could’ve been cautious without parking the bus, and they almost paid for sitting back so much.
3. What happened to the defense?
Speaking of defending, the question must be asked. What happened to the Timbers defense? For most of this season, the Timbers were one of the best defenses in Major League Soccer. Adam Kwarasey had a league leading 13 clean sheets in the regular season. But, in their last three games, the Timbers have given up five goals, and some of them due to very poor defending. The moments of poor defending aren’t a shock, they happened from time to time this season, but it seems that lately they’re more frequent. Against SKC, Kevin Ellis’ header to equalize in the 87th minute, while an impressive finish, was poorly defended. Liam Ridgewell allowed Ellis to get to the ball far too easily, failing to put a body on him or really slow his run in any way. A simple bump as Ellis made his run probably would’ve been enough, but Ridgewell let Ellis get their first, and then was helpless as Ellis rose to meet the ball for the goal.
4. A little bit of magic
Even the great teams need a bit of luck now and then. When teams go on magical runs to championships, there’s often at least one moment of pure luck that people point to and say “that’s when we knew.” Well, if the Timbers continue this run their on, the moment people will point to was Saad Abdul-Salaam’s penalty attempt in the shootout bouncing off not one, but two posts, and then out, to give the Timbers new life. Maybe it was luck, maybe it was magic, maybe, as Timbers coach Caleb Porter suggested, it was the Timbers Army:
Something kept that goal out. I don’t know what it was; maybe it was the air from them yelling so much. Something did, something kept it out. So I’m going to credit the Timbers Army. – Caleb Porter
Either way, it was something unbelievable and unforgettable. I could try and describe it with words, but words couldn’t possibly do it justice, so here:
And then, this:
Timbers win. See you Sunday.