Penalty kicks boot Sounders out of MLS playoffs, put Timbers into conference finals
SEATTLE — Four times on Thursday, the Portland Timbers celebrated, believing they were headed to the MLS Western Conference finals.
The first three celebrations were false alarms.
But when Dairon Asprilla converted his penalty kick, the Timbers were finally finished with a wild, back-and-forth battle with Seattle that ranks with the first time these rivals tangled in a playoff match.
The Timbers advanced by outscoring Seattle 4-2 in a penalty-kick tiebreaker after the two-game playoff finished tied at 4-4.
They won the shootout despite a strange end to the overtime, when some of the Timbers players celebrated as if they had won. The away-goals tiebreaker does not matter once the game gets to overtime, a rule the Timbers appeared not to understand.
After the game, the Timbers' company line was they were only reacting because they were confident about the tiebreaker. But the on-field reaction told a different story.
While premature, the celebration eventually happened for real.
Portland will next play on Nov. 25 in the first leg of the Western Conference finals, at home against Sporting Kansas City or at Real Salt Lake. Those teams' conference semifinal is tied 1-1 with the second game at Sporting KC on Sunday.
The conference finals is a two-leg contest, with the winner advancing to MLS Cup.
Thursday's match in front of 39,542 fans at CenturyLink Field was 2-1 Seattle at the end of regulation, which meant it was 3-3 on aggregate and 30 minutes of extra time was coming. Asprilla scored with a wonderful header in the third minute of overtime. Four minutes later, Seattle's Nicolas Lodeiro converted a penalty kick to tie the count again.
Lucas Melano, Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Asprilla converted PKs in the shootout. Timbers goalkeeper Jeff Attinella saved a shot by Seattle's Ossie Alonso, and the Sounders' Will Bruin put his shot off the post. Timbers defender Liam Ridgewell's second professional penalty kick was saved by Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei.
The Timbers entered the match with a 2-1 lead and with defending its priority. The Sounders dominated possession with 70 percent of the ball in a scoreless first half in which Portland cleared away 18 crosses.
The hold the fort approach was holding until Attinella dropped a cross in the 68th minute and Raul Ruidiaz pounced. The goal gave the Sounders a 1-0 lead, and at rhe time the lead in the series based on the away goal they scored at Portland.
"A big part of my game is coming off the line and helping deal with crosses. I got a pretty good read on it. I just lost it," Attinella said. "Unfortunately, that happened. I'm just happy the guys were able to battle back for me."
Suddenly needing to attack, the Timbers got the equalizer and the lead in the series when Blanco took a layoff pass from Asprilla and placed a shot inside the left post.
"I saw the goalkeeper couldn't see me, couldn't see the ball. Thank God it went in," Blanco said.
Blanco's night then took a tough turn. His attempt to head away a ball fell into the path of Ruidiaz, whose howitzer shot from 12 yards came in the third minute of second-half stoppage time.
Moments earlier, Melano almost clinched it for the Timbers, but Frei made a wonderful stop to keep the Sounders' chances alive.
After Asprilla gave Portland a series lead early in overtime, Blanco's hand ball foul near the top of the penalty area allowed Lodeiro to equalize.
"The important thing is to overcome adversities in soccer," Blanco said. "In the PKs, you've got to be confident. I'm glad the mistakes we made didn't knock us out of the Cup."
In the 23rd minute of overtime, Ruidiaz scored again but was correctly cited for using his hand on a ball that spun backward off Timbers defender Larrys Mabiala.
The Timbers' defense-first approach meant keeping eight or nine field players behind the ball for long stretches. The plan was to funnel the Sounders into wide areas and then defend crosses.
It was mentally and physically demanding.
"It's mentally exhausting. It takes a lot of focus when you play like that. But it shows the faith our coaching staff has in our back line," Attinella said. "We dealt with it really well. If I don't make that mistake, the game probably ends 0-0 and it's a pretty boring game, but we did our job."
Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said he wasn't concerned that Seattle had the ball 68 percent of the time.
"Yes, they did have more possession … but we closed the spaces," Savarese said. "We tried to make it difficult for them to find through balls in between lines. I thought we did a very good job. They tried to open up through the wide areas, but we didn't drop too far.
"The game is not about possession," the coach added. "Yes, when you have the ball you can do good things, but you have to make sure it's positive possession. We felt pretty good in moments we were starting to get good possession going forward. The important thing at the end is that we scored the goals that we needed to score."
The result was one of the most memorable in the rivalry that dates to 1975, when Tony Betts scored the overtime winner that vanquished Seattle in a North American Soccer League playoff match at then-Civic Stadium.
Most of those at CenturyLink Field on Thursday won't remember that moment, but they won't soon forget the MLS match.
It was one Timbers fans will long celebrate.