This game had it all. On a succulent Saturday afternoon in Portland, a national TV audience and a crowd at Jeld-Wen Field that knocked up the decibel level another few notches beyond any other fan-base in North America saw two of the best teams in MLS play an enthralling game.
We saw Portland play their game, controlling possession, dominating the ball with panache, composure and some fantastic skill. We saw FC Dallas strike fear into the hearts of Timbers fans with a sprightly attack and offense all over the field. We saw an astonishingly incompetent refereeing performance that let a head-butt go unpunished and made you ask yourself the question: I know refereeing is hard, but it can't be that hard, can it?
We saw a cursed Diego Chara punished by the soccer gods, three times failing to find the back of the net with golden opportunities, three times unable to celebrate his first goal in two years despite being one of the best Timbers on the field. We saw the two best goalkeepers in MLS make stop after stop and look down the field at the other guy and say, "Your turn."
We saw Frederic Piquionne thundered off the field by the crowd at Jeld-Wen for his effort. We saw some great play. It was a game that meant a lot going in, and a whole lot more going out. The whole 90 minutes, the stakes were raised. Eighteen shots for Dallas, seven on goal. Seventeen shots for Portland, eight on goal. It was scintillating stuff.
And none of it mattered.
Because the game was decided in one moment – one magical moment. Playing in front of his mother the day before Father’s Day, Darlington Nagbe delivered a special goal in a split-second that decided the whole shebang.
What an afternoon. What a game. What a great time to be a Portland Timbers fan.
One look at the standings would have let you know coming in that this was a big game, all the more surprising, because Portland and Dallas were two of the Western Conference’s worst teams last year. Dallas revamped, keeping faith in head coach Schellas Hyndman, while Portland overhauled by bringing Caleb Porter and turning over their team.
The fruits of the two different approaches are Dallas in first place in the Western Conference, with Portland hot on their heels in third. Almost certainly, these two are playoff teams. Just a few weeks ago, Portland played Dallas to a 1-1 draw in Frisco.
Dallas’ goal-scorer that day, Kenny Cooper, was unavailable to return to Portland for the first time in an opposition jersey because of a family emergency (hoping all is okay for Kenny – a very good guy), and when Eric Hassli limped out of the game in the seventh minute, Dallas was left without a true striker.
But Dallas is a good team, and they weren’t knocked off their game. The match was entertaining in large part because both teams were able to play their game in the midst of each other. Portland controlled possession and probed with very good individual play, while Dallas hit quickly on counters and sprung on fortunate bounces to put the Timbers under pressure. Both teams were very solid defensively, and the net play from Ricketts and Fernandez respectively was sensational.
The game really came to life late in the first half when Piquionne was head-butted. After the ball went out of play for a Timbers corner, Piquionne, already jawing with defender Jair Benitez – who had kicked Piquionne in the shin after the ball went of play – stepped into Benitez’s face. Benitez, apparently not much of a conversationalist, butted Piquionne between the eyes.
Somehow, Benitez, who by the letter of the law should have been sent off, got away with the head-butt, and the incredulous Timbers lost focus, letting Dallas claw onto the front-foot at the end of the first half.
The teams were so evenly matched; you always felt it was going to take a special moment from a player to win the game. That special moment came from Darlington Nagbe in the 52nd minute.
After receiving the ball a few yards into the left side of the box from Kalif Alhassan, Nagbe, with his back to goal, turned and uncorked a drive into the top corner, a no-look shot that gave Fernandez no-chance. It was simply brilliant – one of the best goals of the season in MLS.
It was the game of Nagbe. But it was almost the game of Chara. The Timbers diminutive midfield man isn’t a goal-scorer, in fact, it seems like Chara has developed a phobia of shooting in the last year. Against Dallas, Chara had three golden chances to break his duck.
The first was out of a goal-mouth scramble, the ball deflecting to Chara for a half-volley inside on the edge of the six-yard box. Chara had to shoot – and he did, striking the ball true, only to be denied by Fernandez, who sprawled back into the play from beyond the far-post for wonder save.
Chara’s second chance was a signature play of his, a lung-bursting run from midfield, a solo little train who can, but once again, Chara’s shot at the end of his run was tipped aside by Fernandez.
Chara’s third chance came off what would have been the assist of the season from Nagbe, who pulled the ball back onto his toe and popped it over the Dallas defense to send Chara into the clear. It was him and the goalkeeper, and Chara was never going to score. In the end, he just poked the ball wide.
The poor guy wanted to disappear into the ground. If anyone on the Timbers deserves a goal, it’s Chara, who has been so good for this team throughout the last three years. It was the only bitterness to a sweet victory.
The Timbers held out in the end thanks in large part to Donovan Ricketts, who has been the best keeper in the league this season. Ricketts hasn’t let in a home goal in five matches and has a shutout streak of 216 minutes going. Ricketts has done it was a constantly changing center-back pairing – against Dallas, Futty was injured and had to be replaced with Andrew Jean-Baptiste, as Pah Moudu Kah had a shaky afternoon.
It was one of the Timbers’ best triumphs in their MLS history, delivered by an insanely likable team on a day in which everyone played their part.
Not least of all, the fans. They were absolutely sensational. Portland’s fans, and not just the Timbers Army, gave Piqiuonne a standing ovation when he was substituted. Same with Kalif Alhassan, who was back to his best. The Army chanted Ricketts’ name at the end of the game, and created an atmosphere that is unlike many we have in sports today.
I’ve been to Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea plays in London. It isn’t as loud, it isn’t as emotional, and it isn’t as connected to its team as Jeld-Wen Field is to the Timbers. The Timbers supporters are awesome – and they should be getting playoff soccer in 2013. Portland isn’t leaving the top of the Western Conference any time soon.
Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports