By MIKE DONOVAN
PORTLAND, Ore.- National team call-ups and injuries did little to damper the hatred and rivalry between the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders during their match Sunday night at Jeld-Wen Field.
And at the end of a physical 90 minutes that saw numerous confrontations, an injury-time strike off the crossbar, and an ejection, the Timbers stood on top of their rivals, 1-0.
Kalif Alhassan scored the lone goal just moments before halftime while Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso was sent off in the second half. Sounders substitute Steve Zakuani looked to save his side in stoppage time, but his deflected shot found the crossbar.
Between the playoff implications, the intense play, and deafening fan support provided by the Timbers Army and a large number of Sounders supporters, the match went beyond the usual fervor, according to Timbers captain Will Johnson.
“That was the most intense atmosphere I’ve ever played in,” Johnson said.
As sometimes happens in rivalry matches, the soccer wasn’t always the finest, but Timbers head coach Caleb Porter and his squad didn’t mind the physical nature of the Cascadia Cup match.
“We’re up for a fight, if there needs to be a fight, I have no problem with that. We aren’t going to back down,” Porter said.
The victory moved Portland (13-5-14, 53 points) into the top spot in the Western Conference with two games remaining in the regular season and handed Seattle (15-11-6, 51 points) its third straight defeat.
While Porter said his “heart was in his stomach” during the final minutes, he had a premonition about the result.
“There are times when you just know you’re going to win. It was just one of those days,” Porter said. “We knew we were going to win the game.”
Alhassan put the Timbers on the board just before halftime, when he calmly slotted home a loose ball after a poor DeAndre Yedlin clearance and sent Jeld-Wen Field into pandemonium. Alhassan, who was getting the start due to Diego Valeri’s adductor injury, made the most of his opportunity and tallied his third goal in his last nine matches. The three-goal outburst comes after the Ghanaian midfielder went 34 league games without a goal.
“He seems to get big goals in these big games for us. He’s evolving as a player,” Johnson said. “He’s becoming a more complete player and he’s still from time-to-time able to get something very special in the box and you can’t put a price on a guy who can finish like that in the box.”
Clint Dempsey received first start in eight matches due to his injured hamstring. The American International almost scored his first Sounders goal when his 14th-minute header beat Ricketts but found only the the crossbar. Dempsey was hampered by a shoulder injury throughout the match and received medical attention twice in the first half.
The match took a turn in the Timbers favor when Sounders defender Jhon Kennedy Hurtado fouled Darlington Nagbe. Immediately after the play, Osvaldo Alonso and Will Johnson came together with video evidence suggesting that Alonso elbowed Johnson. The elbow earned Alonso a red card and left the Sounders down to ten men for the final 16 minutes of the match.
“(It was) two guys competing, going at it and in the referee’s eyes, he crossed the line,” Johnson said.
Alonso’s ejection was the culmination of a highly physical match that saw Dempsey fouled on numerous occasions by Portland and Seattle being dealt multiple yellow cards for fouls on the Timbers midfield players.
“If you want to play football, we can play football. If you want to get physical, we can get physical,” Ricketts said. “We just play whatever the game brings to us. Sometimes it’s about playing good football, sometimes it’s about fighting like it was tonight.”
While Seattle did rattle the woodwork twice, Seattle struggled in the middle of the field against Diego Chara and Will Johnson. The shutout was the fourth consecutive at home for the Timbers and gave Ricketts his 12th clean sheet of the season. The Jamaican International did have a coy smile on his face when talking about the woodwork post-match.
“I know if I don’t save it, my crossbar will save me,” Ricketts said.
Next up for Portland is a home match with Real Salt Lake, who trails Portland by one point in the Western Conference standings. A Timbers victory would guarantee them a top-three seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Seattle, meanwhile, will travel to FC Dallas and hope to put to rest its worst losing streak since 2010.