by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland Timbers midfielder Ben Zemanski takes a shot against Seattle Sounders FC goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann (right) in the second half Sunday night at Jeld-Wen Field. You know things aren't going great for the Seattle Sounders when they lose to their arch-rivals, their star striker goes down with a collarbone injury and the coach is praising his players' resolve.

That's the way it was Sunday night at Jeld-Wen Field after the Portland Timbers' 1-0 Major League Soccer victory sent the Sounders to their third straight defeat and zoomed the local lads into first place in the MLS Western Conference.

"If we'd played with the effort in the last two games that we played with tonight, we wouldn't be in this position right now," said Seattle coach Siegfried "Siggy" Schmid. "I was proud of the effort we showed."

The Sounders are now in third place in the West, two points back of Portland, one point behind Real Salt Lake with two games yet to play. They were better Sunday than they'd been in drubbings by Colorado (5-1) and Vancouver (4-1). That doesn't exactly count as momentum, though, as the playoffs approach.

Schmid didn't use the phrase, but the inference was that Sunday's loss was somewhat of a moral victory for his side.

"We hit the crossbar three times in the first half and even once when playing a man down in the second half," he said. "I didn't think we deserved to lose the game at all. We deserved to come away with at least a tie. At the very worst, it was an even game."

Maybe I missed a couple of those first-half crossbar shots. I remember a header by Clint Dempsey that bounced off and over the bar. And a shot by reserve Steve Zakuani in stoppage time of the second half that hit the bar and caused the Timbers and their throaty followers some heart palpitations just before the final whistle.

Portland outshot Seattle 15-11 and, after an initial flurry in the game's 25 minutes, seemed to get the better of it the rest of the way.

For sure, the Timbers' Will Johnson got the goat of Seattle's Osvaldo Alonso, who drew a red card during a wild second-half episode that was as close to a veritable free-for-all as happens in American soccer.

After referee Hilario Grajeda called Seattle's Jhon Kennedy Hurtado for a questionable trip on Portland's Darlington Nagbe, general unrest ensued at mid-pitch. Lots of yelling, plenty of shoving, a lot of holding back Sounder players from pouncing on Grajeda, not a popular man with the visitors on this night.

When Johnson came from behind and got up into Alonso's ear, the midfielder reared back an elbow that couldn't have dented a piece of paper mache but caused Johnson to flinch and touch his face in purported pain. Alonso was then issued a red, which had the same effect the color would with a bull. Before order was restored, Hurtado owned a yellow card and the referee signaled one on Dempsey, too, though the latter infraction wasn't noted on the final box score.

Dempsey, a three-time U.S. player of the year signed by Seattle in August to an unprecedented four-year contract worth $32 million, was injured in the first half in a collision with Portland's Diego Chara. Dempsey left the game, returned and played until being substituted for late in the second half.

"Chara fouls him and he ends ups with an AC joint sprain and dislocation," Schmid said. "He tried to play through it. Chara commits four fouls in the first half and never gets carded. That was a turning point in the game.

"Look at the times when Dempsey got fouled … that crap has to stop. The referees have to protect him, and they don't. It doesn't matter if a foul is early or late in the game."

Schmid said he instructed his players to play with extra vigor after a first-half yellow card was issued to Seattle's Adam Moffat "the first time we committed a hard foul. We realized they weren't going to call stuff (on the Timbers), so we talked about we have to be a little more physical."

The Seattle coach said he didn't get a good look at Alonso's transgression.

"The linesman said 'Ozzie' caught (Johnson) with an elbow to the face," Schmid said. "All I can tell you is, whenever things happen, Will Johnson always seems to be at the other end of things. I don't know what he says, what he does to instigate things.

"Ozzie has to control his behavior. Sometimes it's tough in the heat of the battle to do that, but he's a veteran player; he needs to do better."

Johnson is no stranger to controversy. San Jose's Alan Gordon called Johnson a gay slur after a game in April, drawing a three-game suspension. Last season, Seattle defender Marc Burch also drew a three-match ban for the same slur aimed at Johnson, who evidently knows how to dig a needle.

"He starts talking to me," Alonso said after Sunday's game. "I turn my elbow, but I never swing. But they gave me a red card. When we play against them, he always starts talking, complaining."

Johnson and the Timbers got the last laugh. Dempsey was heading for treatment in the training room afterward, unavailable to the media to explain his version of the officiating and why he has been unable to get a goal or an assist in his first seven games as a Sounder.

Zakuani was asked if there is bad blood between the Northwest rivals.

"On the pitch, yes, it's there for sure," he said. "You can't deny that. Once we leave the pitch, I have friends on their team; it's forgotten.

"But you want to win. The fans get into it; the players get into it. This game means a little more than others. Tonight, both teams wanted to win so badly. You try to get an edge any way you can."

In his way, Johnson helped the Timbers get that edge. So did Kalif Alhassan, who scored the game's only goal -- and the biggest goal of his young MLS career -- two days shy of his 23rd birthday.

The raucous Timbers Army ate it up. The Sounders chalked it up as a learning experience.

"This is not an easy place to play," Seattle goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann said. "We're disappointed with the result, but the fight we showed to the last minute was great team spirit. We can build on that, for sure."

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