There was a markedly different feel heading into the 112th installment of this Cascadia rivalry, though it’s doubtful goalkeeper Stefan Frei and the rest of his Sounders teammates could have anticipated the unusual turn of events that helped decide it.
Playing the Portland Timbers in front of actual fans at Portland’s Providence Park on Sunday for the first time since August 2019 certainly was going to be different, as was the standings gap with the Sounders perched atop Major League Soccer while their injury-depleted, jet-lagged rivals languish near the basement. But the sight of longtime nemesis Diego Valeri missing on not one, but two second-half Portland penalty kicks in a scoreless game that later became a 2-1 victory by Frei’s Seattle team wasn’t something the keeper or anybody else would have dared predicted.
“Sometimes, it’s not going to be pretty,’’ Frei said afterward on a day he notched his 1,000th career save, a milestone achieved by only eight MLS netminders. “But we came out on top.’’
Indeed, few things had been pretty for the Rave Green until soon after Valeri’s consecutive muffed tries, when Raul Ruidiaz was awarded a penalty kick of his own and buried it behind Portland goalkeeper Jeff Attinella in the 63rd minute to open the scoring. Moments later, Attinella left with an injury and 19-year-old, fourth-string replacement Hunter Sulte wasn’t aggressive enough in challenging a Joao Paulo free kick in the 79th minute that Fredy Montero headed into the net for his first Sounders goal against Portland since 2012.
The two-goal lead provided enough of a cushion to help the Sounders withstand a free-kick goal by Bill Tuiloma deep in extra time and improve to a league-best 3-0-1. They are now 55-42-15 lifetime against Portland in North America’s oldest soccer rivalry.
About 3,850 spectators – capped at 15% capacity due to COVID-19 restrictions – unleashed their usual hostile, sometimes obscenity-filled chants at the Sounders and tried to bolster a weary 1-3-0 home side that’s struggled in juggling regular season and CONCACAF Champions League play. The Timbers had just flown home from Mexico City after being eliminated by Club America on Wednesday night in the Champions League quarterfinals, yet somehow they were the speedier-looking ones early on in shutting down the Sounders’ dangerous flank attack of recent games led by left-back Brad Smith.
Other than Ruidiaz missing an easy tap-in attempt at the goalmouth in the 11th minute after a perfect Will Bruin feed, the visitors were largely contained. Timbers forward Jeremy Ebobisse – making his first start of the season – nearly gave Portland the lead minutes before halftime, but whiffed on a shot attempt from the center of the box.
Ruidiaz missed another chance early in the second half and then Ebobisse found himself alone on the left side of the box in the 55th minute and was taken down by Shane O’Neill for the penalty.
Valeri, the Argentinian midfielder with 84 career goals in nine MLS seasons, lined up to take the kick and stunningly fired the ball straight into Frei, who’d feinted right and then dove slightly to his left. The Sounders erupted in celebration, but only momentarily as, upon video review, it was ruled Frei had been standing just off his goal line before the kick occurred.
Nouhou had also encroached and either violation was enough for the ensuing re-do to be ordered by referee Chris Penso. Frei tried to stay focused and let the pressure fall on Valeri to make his second try.
“I think mentally you switch it around right away and you think ‘Well, what’s the kicker going through?’ ’’ Frei said. “He just missed and he’s got to take another one so the pressure is really on him.’’
This time, Frei feinted right and then actually dove in that direction as Valeri’s shot rattled off the post.
Valeri immediately put the rebound in the net, arguing Frei had touched the shot — making it a live ball Valeri was eligible to further play. But his pleas went ignored and the Sounders had dodged a major challenge.
Frei said the “bend but don’t break’’ Sounders have absorbed similar early bouts of pressure to finish strong, as in their season-opening victory over Minnesota United FC, and then “take care of business’’ when given opportunities.
Ruidiaz certainly didn’t miss his third scoring chance of the day, notching his fifth goal in four games when awarded his penalty try after being tripped in the box. Nor did Montero, scoring not long after his 72nd-minute substitution for Bruin when he raced under Paulo’s free kick ahead of inexperienced netminder Sulte.
“There isn’t much to prepare,’’ Montero said of his second goal this season and 49th career goal for the Sounders. “You just have to be ready and composed all the time and ready to get in when your coach calls you.’’
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer had laid into his club with some “firm, direct’’ remarks at halftime, letting the players know their play was too sluggish and conservative. But he was pleased with how they responded, especially once Frei stopped Valeri and then Ruidiaz and Montero — now tied for the second-most career goals by Sounders against Portland with five apiece — delivered as they have so often against the Timbers.
“I mean, we’ve got guys that are Portland killers,’’ Schmetzer said. “And so, Fredy coming back and scoring that goal was tremendous.’’
And ultimately, Schmetzer knows that’s all that will matter about what he described as a “weird’’ edition of a Sounders-Timbers rivalry that dates back to 1975 in the North American Soccer League.
“What this game will mean 10 years from now is we came down to Portland and we won – we got three points,’’ he said. “And it was a hard game … that group, again, doesn’t quit. They keep fighting. And that’s what I most appreciate.’’