By JASON MITCHELL
SEATTLE – All eyes were on Clint Dempsey. But anyone who has watched Eddie Johnson since he joined the Seattle Sounders knew to keep tracking that lone golden dome as it zipped around the pitch Sunday night.
It took an hour. An hour of increasingly physical play, Sounders buildups full of false hope, promising counterattacks from the visitors, near misses from both sides.
But in the 60th minute Johnson got just enough on a Mauro Rosales free kick to send a glancing header past goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts and put the Seattle Sounders up 1-0 over the Portland Timbers. It was Johnson’s sixth goal in just nine matches against Pacific Northwest rivals Vancouver and Portland.
“Eddie does what he does,” said Dempsey after his first match in Seattle, “he comes up in big moments and helps you score.”
The lead held over the final 30 minutes, lifting the Sounders over their fiercest rivals, edging them back into the playoff mix, and welcoming Dempsey to town in front of 67,385 at CenturyLink Field.
Andrew Jean-Baptiste nearly equalized with a snap header from the top of the six-yard box late in stoppage time, but Michael Gspurning came up with the save to preserve the win. Gspurning also made a fingertip save on a Darlington Nagbe shot in the 88th minute.
The crowd was the second largest in history for a stand-alone MLS match, the largest ever for a Sounders’ game.
“I still pinch myself every time I see that,” said Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid about the relatively few times the team has opened the entire stadium.
The victory pushes the Sounders (11-8-4, 37 points) into fifth place in the Western Conference and extends their home unbeaten streak to 10 games (7-0-3).
It also gives Seattle a 3-1-3 record against the Timbers since Portland joined the league two seasons ago.
“We’re always gonna be the team to beat,” said starting center back and long-time Sounder Zach Scott. “They can say there’s a changing of the guard. They can say we’re a group of stars and they’re the team, but in the end we’re the ones that are going to come out victorious.”
The Sounders have now won four of their last five matches, and with Obafemi Martins out with an ankle injury on Sunday have yet to play at full strength since signing Dempsey.
The victory also moves Seattle into first place in the Cascadia Cup, the fan-sponsored annual competition with Portland and Vancouver for regional bragging rights.
The Timbers (9-4-12, 39 points) played a midweek match and came into the night missing Diego Chara to suspension and Will Johnson to injury. While still in sole possession of fourth place in the conference, Portland now finds itself only two points ahead of Seattle and FC Dallas for the last playoff spot in the West. The Timbers have won just once in their last six matches (1-2-3) and with the loss fell to 0-1-3 in the Cascadia Cup.
Portland head coach Caleb Porter saw positives in the loss, but also lamented his team’s continuing struggles with set pieces.
“We’re going to continue to be in every single game we play, and not just hoping to win, but expecting to win,” Porter said. “I thought the performance was good, the mentality was good. I thought especially in the first half, we controlled large periods [of the game]. I thought at times we were the better team. But, in the end, we’re going to keep suffering if we don’t find goals and if we don’t continue to sort out set pieces.”
Defender Michael Harrington agreed.
“We just need to be a little bit more ruthless on both sides of the ball in the boxes,” said the 27-year-old left back.
Both teams missed on multiple first-half chances, with the Timbers controlling possession and repeatedly threatening through Diego Valeri’s midfield distribution.
In just the fourth minute, Seattle defender DeAndre Yedlin cleared a Jack Jewsbury header off the line. Barely two minutes later Shalrie Joseph found himself unmarked at the back post on a Brad Evans free kick, but slammed a header into the FieldTurf and well wide.
In the 16th minute, Ryan Johnson ran onto a gorgeous Valeri through-ball, splitting Seattle’s central defenders to get himself alone against Gspurning. But the 6-foot-5 Austrian got low in a hurry, charging to smother the ball at Johnson’s feet.
Valeri, brilliant throughout the first half, nearly scored himself in the 35th minute, collecting a pass from Khalif Alhassan and slapping the right post from 22 yards out.
A game full of missed chances, until it wasn’t.
“This is a game of moments,” said Porter. “You lose a moment, you lose a game. You get punished. It’s cruel.”
Looking forward, the Sounders travel to Ohio to face the Columbus Crew (8-12-5, 29 points) on Saturday. Portland visits league-leading Real Salt Lake (13-8-6, 45 points) on Friday. The Sounders and Timbers play for a third and final time on Oct. 13 at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland.