By Paul Gardner
Well, here we go again. The trusty Red Bulls get off to a flying start in Portland, storming into a 3-1 halftime lead. Then, you'll never guess what ... it all went wrong in the second half and those predictably fallible Bulls ended up hanging on for dear life to salvage a 3-3 tie.
The Timbers, of course, had a lot to say about that result, by starting off poorly, then playing a second-half of excellent soccer.
What I’m describing added up to a hell of a game to watch, and a wonderful TV spectacle. Not the least interesting part of this game was the debut of two young American coaches, Portland’s Caleb Porter, and the Bulls’ Mike Petke. But this business of coaches can be -- usually is -- made too much of. It is a subtext, operating well below the level of what brings the drama and the thrills to the game -- which is the action on the field.
We got plenty of that, more than enough to push the coaches into the background where, in my vision of the game, they belong.
So -- to the field and to the players. What they gave us was non-stop action. End-to-end play. Exactly the sort of soccer that MLS needs, that it should encourage. And we got six goals, ranging from brilliant through to tragicomic.
Those six goals meant a game with a shape, like a well-constructed play. And a game that built to a wonderful climax. The excitement began early, with Portland’s Mikael Silvestre -- one of the most experienced players in MLS -- under pressure, making a banal error by tapping the ball back to his goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts. Poor Ricketts, with no chance or time to play the ball with his feet, hesitated, then fumbled it with his hands. Which should have been an indirect free kick to the Bulls. But the pace of the game was not going to allow time for such niceties -- in a flash Fabian Espindola had the loose ball in the net with a deadly left-footed tap-in.
After just eight minutes. Yep -- this was going to be a game where you could portion out the excitement in minutes. Just five minutes later, Portland was level, thanks to a superb goal from Argentine Diego Valeri, a newcomer who looks like the real deal for Portland. Soccer artistry at its best, combining speed of thought, of action, and perfect delicacy of touch and control.
At the other end, Espindola continued his muscular marauding and within 10 minutes, he struck again, quick as a cat to pounce on another Portland error. And again it was Silvestre who goofed, evidently baffled by the bounce of the ball off the artificial turf. Espindola raced into the Portland area, the ball at his feet, looking all the way for a partner to pass to -- but eventually deciding to go it alone, one more step, then a thundering left foot drive into the net. Where Valeri had given us artistry, Espindola, another Argentine, replied with stunning power.
Four frantic minutes later, following a Red Bulls corner kick, two Red Bull defenders engineered a nice goal as Heath Pearce’s low ball across the area was slammed home by Jamison Olave, lurking at the far post.
After only 28 minutes, the Red Bulls were riding a 3-1 lead, and that, I guess, ought to have been that. Not really -- there was simply too much going on in this game to feel that the action would dry up. You knew, for a start, that the Red Bulls would not be able to play defensively and protect that lead. They’ve never been good at that. And we’d already seen enough of the Timbers to know that they, with those 20,000-plus fans yelling their heads off, were not about to roll over. More -- there was a lot of good soccer coming from Porter’s team, from Valeri, Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe in particular.
Meanwhile, back at the Red Bull ranch it was SNAFU as usual. The 3-1 lead was glittering on the scoreboard, but where was the sparkle on the field? Take away Espindola and Olave, take away a sort of satisfactory competence from the defense, and there remained a series of alarmingly sub-par performances. Where was Thierry Henry? Ditto Tim Cahill? Dax McCarty was to be seen, for sure, usually passing laterally or backward, repeatedly outfoxed by Valeri in midfield. Juninho contributed little -- even his corner kicks were poor.
From the Portland point of view, these Red Bulls must have looked invitingly fragile. And so they proved -- run ragged by the livelier Timbers in the second half. In the 55th minute, Andrew Jean-Baptiste saw his shot cleared off the goal line by Kosuke Kimura, but just one urgent minute later, the Timbers got the score to 2-3 when, from Valeri’s shot (yes, him again), Bulls’ goalkeeper Luis Robles palmed the ball out straight to Nagbe who walloped it into the net.
The minutes were flashing by, more like seconds, full of excitement and action, attacking action. The Timbers left it late -- another 27 high-speed, gripping minutes raced by and then Nagbe took over, bursting past McCarty with insulting ease and blasting a powerful shot that Robles, once again, managed only to bat out -- this time the ball went to Portland’s Jose Valencia who dodged Roy Miller’s flailing challenge and calmly hit the ball hard back into the goalmouth. Where it ended up in the Red Bulls’ net. Three-three. Of course Portland deserved that goal, but how tragic, how typical of soccer’s unforgiving perversity, that it should have been the Bulls’ Olave -- splendid in defense all game long -- who scored it, unable to get out of the way of Valencia’s driven ball, and deflecting it into the net.
Some 10 rip-roaring minutes later it was over. The Timbers came close to winning it -- Will Johnson having skied the ball over the bar from six yards, and Ryan Johnson, latching on to a superb lofted pass from Valeri had seen his shot well saved by Robles.
But the score stayed at 3-3, the points duly shared between the frustrated Timbers and the relieved Red Bulls.
Back to the coaches. How much influence did they have on this game? Well, they picked the players, for a start. That’s something -- when it means bringing in guys like Diego Valeri, or snapping up a Fabian Espindola. And neither Porter nor Petke even tried to play defensively -- though one wonders whether that was ever really an option here: Not really, not for the Red Bulls with their chronic defensive frailties, not for the Timbers with 20,000 tumultuous fans demanding goals.
But this looked like one of those games where the players have taken over -- and those are always the best games. None of that tedious tactical stuff from the coaches, no attempts to turn the white-heat of a soccer game into a calculated chess match. In which case, I guess it’s fair to congratulate Porter and Petke for being savvy enough to let their guys get on with it.
I’d love to see more of this rampant attacking soccer, with its goals and its saves and its misses and its thrilling brilliance and its equally thrilling mistakes. MLS could certainly do with more of this. But we all know that goals scare coaches. I’m wondering how many more Timbers games, or Red Bulls games, will feature six goals?