MLS Cup 2015: Portland 2 Columbus 1

By Paul Gardner

No, it wasn’t a dream final -- these days we don't see many of them -- but it was a game with plenty of drama and enough good soccer to prevent it from ever lapsing into banality.

I’m interested here only in what happened on the field, during those 90-plus minutes of action. I decidedly am not interested in the buildup, all that fatuous theorizing and expertizing and “this is the guy to watch” and “team A has never lost when leading in the 63rd minute” and so on. Nor am I that interested in the tactical details.

Right before the game, the TV screens informed us that Columbus would play a 4-2-3-1, while Portland would shape up as a 4-3-3. Which was immediately contradicted by a graphic showing Portland with a 4-1-2-3 lineup. As has been said: Those who like that sort of thing would find that the sort of thing they like. Let them have it.

Those diagrams, which at once suggest -- almost demand -- strict positional discipline have long struck me as a contradiction of soccer’s marvelous fluidity. What saves those lineup numbers, I feel, is that they are known to be myths, fallacious formulae that are not to be taken too seriously.

Portland gave us a huge reminder of that almost as soon as the game started, when Diego Valeri swooped down on Columbus goalkeeper Steve Clark and hustled him into an appalling error. So, in under 30 seconds it was 1-0 Portland.

Formation-wise, that should have been one of the front-three -- probably Rodney Wallace or Fanendo Adi -- harrying Clark. But it was midfielder Valeri, with his tremendous ability to really play this game, to envisage it, to anticipate, to see the patterns, simply to sense -- (a soccer sense, for sure) -- the moves, who got there first.

Drama indeed -- and tragedy for Clark. Goalkeeper’s errors are always likely to be colossal. This one was, for sure -- because, looking at that final 2-1 scoreline, you could say it decided the game. But that is being too cruel to Clark. After all, the Crew now had the whole game to repair the damage. Though, of course, it was confronted with a different game from the one it had planned for.

Suddenly the home-field advantage, which is often thought to be worth a goal, had been snatched away from Columbus. Portland, you could be sure, would not turn defensive, definitely not their style. So an open game beckoned. That’s what we got, and with neither defense looking comfortable, pretty exciting it was for the next 20 minutes.

Columbus buckled first -- on the right wing, Lucas Melano was allowed to measure an uncontested cross from which Wallace, also not really challenged, headed in from seven yards. This did not look like the solid defense that Columbus had shown in the games against the Red Bulls.

Just as it was beginning to seem that this was not the Crew’s day, it got back into the game. Thanks to another pretty bad goalkeeping error, this one from Portland’s Adam Kwarasey, who made an embarrassing mess of trying to punch the ball away. The ball stayed in the goalmouth, and Kei Kamara took over. His confidence and superb footwork enabled him to find the smallest of openings and to smash the ball into the net, the power of the shot being too much for defender Alvas Powell who, standing on the goal line, was in its path.

The rest of the first half belonged to Columbus, though if this was domination, it was a rather tepid version. We’ve seen this before -- plenty of possession but no shots on goal. In fact, Portland had the best chance when Adi pounced on a loose ball and forced Clark into a terrific low save.

The second half opened in much the same style, Columbus with a lot of the ball but a lot of incoherence too. Things were not working for their playmaker Federico Higuain, who showed several nice touches on the ball -- moments that ought to have led to danger for Portland, but never did. Higuain covered plenty of ground -- was allowed to by Portland, which did not man-mark him -- but found it difficult to spring a teammate loose against the increasingly effective Portland defense. Effective, that is, in getting numbers in front of Columbus players.

Having a particularly good game was left back Jorge Villafana -- almost a career breakthrough game. He completely -- and cleanly -- snuffed out Ethan Finlay, and dealt quickly with any other threat down the Columbus right flank.

I suppose inevitably, the tide began to turn against Columbus. It had tried everything, and nothing had worked. Portland, all the while, had never given up its attacking intentions, and was a constant threat. Melano had a great chance in the 53rd minute, but was slow to fire off a shot, allowing Michael Parkhurst to block it. In the 60th minute, Portland swarmed all over the Columbus goalmouth, and twice almost had the ball in the net -- the second time it rebounded off a post on to Parkhurst’s arm, a hand ball, yes, but surely not intentional, so referee Jair Marrufo was right to ignore it.

Ten minutes later an Adi header hit the bar and the ball bounced back and hit goalkeeper Clarke who somehow swatted it away without deflecting it into the net. Darlington Nagbe had a good chance but blasted way over.

Higuain at last came close to sparking a goal with an expert turn and touch that sent a volley across the Portland goal -- but j-u-u-u-st out of Jack McInerney’s reach.

The final 10 minutes were high on desperation -- desperate but ineffective attacking from Columbus, desperate but successful defending from Portland. A ragged, scrappy ending -- not without its nail-biting moments.

Portland deserved its win, a team always looking to attack, even in those final desperate minutes. In Diego Valeri they had the man of the match -- from that extraordinary moment of goalscoring opportunism in the first minute, through the whole game when his possession of the ball always carried the threat of trouble for Columbus.

Not a dream final, but a pretty good one. Though there remains a question as to whether it could have been better. What may have stopped it from developing into a more open, more skillful game, was the refereeing of Jair Marrufo. Certainly, I’d rate Marrufo one of the best referees in MLS, and have no doubt he deserved to be in charge of this final.

The one decision in the final that stands out as just plain wrong came in the build up to Portland’s second goal, when the ball clearly rolled out of play by about a yard -- it was hooked back in by Portland’s Powell, and play was allowed to continue. But the decision -- a really, really, bad one -- was the assistant referee’s, not Marrufo’s.

The problem I have with Marrufo starts with his opening whistle at the final. We hear a lot about the peculiarities of “playoff soccer,” but we hear very little about “playoff refereeing.” Yet such a thing clearly exists. The logic is clear. It’s a final, it should be played with 22 players on the field. Limit the cards, and if possible hand them out only in the second half.

We saw playoff refereeing at its worst during the Kansas City-Real Salt Lake final two years ago. At its worst, because it blatantly favored one team. Referee Hilario Grajeda’s perverse decision not to eject KC’s Aurelien Collin by giving him a second yellow card (which he abundantly earned) openly favored KC.

Marrufo did not favor either team on Sunday, but -- particularly in the first half -- the lenient approach was there for all to see, unapologetically visible, in Marrufo’s reluctance to call obvious fouls, and to issue obvious cards. He let far too much go -- an approach that always seems to please TV commentators -- “letting the game flow” said Adrian Healey, approvingly.

The most obvious incidents came when: at 5 minutes, the Crew’s Waylon Francis inflicted a crude physical foul on Adi that should have been yellow-carded; at 24-minute mark Portland’s Nagbe heavily barged Justin Meram off the ball, a tactical foul for which the rules mandate a yellow card and which Nagbe escaped. The worst moment was in the 11th minute when Nagbe chased Meram into the Portland penalty area and clumsily brought him down. That should have been a penalty kick to Columbus.

Marrufo was slightly more active with yellow cards in the second half -- he gave three. But two of them were for time-wasting.

When a referee displays a lenient attitude, it is very quickly picked up by the players, and the fouls increase. What commentator Healey identifies as “letting the game flow” is really nothing more than allowing teams to foul more. And that definitely has an effect on the game itself, it determines what sort of game is played. Thus, when a team knows that tactical fouls will not be yellow-carded (despite what the rules demand), then tactical fouls there will be, to the disadvantage of a team that wants to play, or is good at, a fast-breaking or counterattacking game.

Whether or not regular -- as opposed to playoff -- refereeing would have helped either Portland and Columbus is not my concern here. Respect for the rules is. The pressure on the referee of a big game not to eject a player, not to be seen as too active a part of the game, is no doubt intense. But for the referee to attempt to lessen that pressure by failing to apply the rules should never be acceptable.

17 comments about "MLS Cup 2015: Portland 2 Columbus 1".
  1. Ric Fonseca, December 7, 2015 at 9:43 p.m.

    Really now, PG gives us an almost blow-by-blow description of the game? What about that ball that went out of play several meters from the AR but was not ruled OUT OF PLAY that resulted in a goal for Portland? True the Crew should have played on, then again, master of the diatribe PG doesn't even mention it, that is and unless he did and I didn't read it? Marruifo was still out to lunch, but just think had he called for a hand ball hence a PK, then PG would be ranting and raving about it, but since it was "accidental", but heck, wait what do I know?

  2. R2 Dad, December 7, 2015 at 10:19 p.m.

    No mention of the handling inside the goal by Columbus that was not called? Of course, a red card and PK would have changed the match, but top officials should be up to calling that foul.

  3. Scott Johnson replied, December 8, 2015 at 4:12 p.m.

    It was an unintentional handball, so a red card would not have been warranted. But it was a handball--the ball caromed off the arm which was away from the body, and likely may have landed in the net otherwise, so a PK was warranted. But as Paul notes, the bad (non)-calls evened out; so neither team can claim to have been robbed.

  4. Kent James replied, December 14, 2015 at 10:37 a.m.

    Scott, if you call handling, you have to give a red card, since it pretty clearly denied a goal scoring opportunity.

  5. Gus Keri, December 7, 2015 at 11:30 p.m.

    Guys, both points were mentioned. Either you were not reading carefully, or PG has edited his article after you had read it.

  6. Ginger Peeler, December 8, 2015 at 1:20 a.m.

    Thanks, Gus. I, too, wondered if they had read the same article you and I did. Also, I saw 2 separate occasions where the defenders jumped on the backs of the offensive players and rode them "piggy back" style to the ground...surely they had to be yellow card fouls at the very least! I've been watching soccer for almost 40 years and have never seen anything like that before. Well...maybe in American football or rugby, but never soccer! Tackles from behind, arms wrapped around the offensive players' necks? I personally thought both instances deserved red cards, but the ref called nothing at all.

  7. R2 Dad, December 8, 2015 at 1:22 a.m.

    What about the home fans throwing bottles and cans onto the field at the Portland players? Stay classy, Columbus! I thought we'd only see that in CONCACAF south of the boarder. Shame!

  8. Ginger Peeler replied, December 8, 2015 at 11:09 a.m.

    Amen to that! I hope they caught the people throwing the bottles/cans on video and those fans are banned from the stadium for life. Watching the Portland player ducking was something I never thought I'd see in the States! I was surprised that neither guy in the booth mentioned it...nor did they replay ANY of that particular footage. Pretending it didn't happen? It was outrageous!!!

  9. Kent James, December 8, 2015 at 11:04 a.m.

    PG gets this right. An intense final with a lot of action. He should have mentioned that one of the reasons Columbus was behind on the 2nd goal was that the ball had been out of bounds (he mentioned it later in his general criticism of the refereeing, which may be why Ric missed it). But his general point, permissive refereeing allowed the game to be much more physical than it should have been, is warranted. "Letting the game flow" is not the same as "letting the players get away with stuff". Even if you want to play fairly, if the referee allows the other team to bend the rules beyond recognition, you are at a disadvantage unless you do the same. That being said, this was not an easy game to ref (though not calling stuff early made it harder). I disagree with PG's suggestion Columbus deserved a PK (I would argue that the Portland player (Chara?) got his leg between the Columbus player and the ball, who then tripped over him; since Chara had a right to shield the ball, no foul). The handling call against Columbus was also exceptionally difficult; the ball clearly hit Parkhurst in the arm, and he didn't seem to know much about it except that his reaction was to try to keep the ball out of goal with his hand, but I think he missed it on that attempt; had he hit it on that 2nd attempt, PK and red card, but short of being sure that's what happened, no call and hope for the best...

  10. beautiful game, December 8, 2015 at 11:45 a.m.

    PG neglects to factor in that Parkhurst's hand was outstretched and above the waist in a position begging for a PK. Marrufo swallowed his whistle early and it came back out in the second half; the normal Walton dictate for MLS referees throughout the season. The pre-game analysis is and continues to be worthless nonsense. MLS physicality and rugby rules is going to be part of the game until Brit Walton, chief of refs, is dismissed, better sooner then later.
    The 'missed' AR calls were due to total incompetence and the Walton rule that ARs restrict themselves to corners/out of play calls only.

  11. Kent James replied, December 8, 2015 at 1:30 p.m.

    Calling Parkhurst for a PK (and ejecting him) would have been exceptionally harsh. I don't even think he knew it hit him until after it did so (down off the crossbar) so it clearly was not intentional, and his arm was not in an unnatural position. This link has a good view of it:

  12. Tyler Wells, December 8, 2015 at 1:52 p.m.

    I think that PG got it right. I totally agree with him that "letting the game flow" is the same thing as saying them "letting them hack and kick and dive." I was disappointed in the lack of calls for physical plays and obvious tactical fouls.

  13. Daniel Clifton, December 8, 2015 at 4:45 p.m.

    I think PG pretty much got it right on this one. I don't see where Columbus had a complaint on the second goal. It was a Columbus player who dribbled the ball from out of touch to the playing field. There was no whistle so why stop playing. I don't think Parkhurst committed a handball. The no call on I believe it was Nagbe when Merano (spelling?) went down in the box looked like the correct call although they only gave maybe one replay of that situation. I really thought Portland got away with mugging Merano (I hope I am spelling his name right). He was the left wing for Columbus and he was very active. There should have been a yellow card in all of that fouling. Other than that it was an exciting match to watch. It certainly was not defensive. Valeri's play at the beginning was incredible. For years I have been waiting for someone to pull that off. It seems to me there are plenty of opportunities for guys to make that kind of play if they sell out like Valeri did. He closed on Clarke like a maniac. What a great replay from behind Clarke. He made a heavy first touch right in front of his own goal and you can see Valeri smell blood in the water. I couldn't believe that was the beginning of the game. I thought: am I watching a replay or something?

  14. Kent Pothast, December 8, 2015 at 7:28 p.m.

    Okay we talked about playoff refereeing and playing but how about quality broadcasting. A ball goes into touch by inches and the announcir is yelling that it was TWO YARDS out of bounds. He kept lessenig the distance but he still lost credibility.

  15. Ginger Peeler replied, December 9, 2015 at 10:12 a.m.

    Yeah, that was Taylor Twellman. Later on, he amended it to feet, but never apologized to the audience for mixing the two up. How hard can it be to say, "Whoops! I meant feet!"?

  16. Ric Fonseca, December 8, 2015 at 7:56 p.m.

    OK, folks, for one of the few and rare of times PG does sort of get an article "right" BUT, in reference to the officiating aspect of the game, and as I've asked on numerous occasions, just how many of you ever officiated a game at ANY level regular game or play off or whatever? I ask this simply and because I've done so and was a state "Referee Assessor" (in quotes 'cause that is what we were called then) in the 80s. As for having read the same piece as most of you, goodness gracious me, I believe I did, but since English is my second language, pues quien sabe amigos mios.... Saludos cordiales Feliz Navidad y Prospero Ano Nuevo a todos Ustedes!!!

  17. Kent James, December 10, 2015 at 2 p.m.

    As Ric pointed out, refereeing is difficult. To defend the AR who made the error (who is actually from our state association), at that level, watching the offside and the out of bounds at the same time is essentially impossible (since one requires looking down the line while the other across the field to see who is offside, and since you have to be watching the player when the ball his hit, if the ball is near the line, you have to make a choice). And in a pro game, players are bouncing offside and back all the time, and since that can be a game critical call, that takes most of your attention. And finally, many times when a ball is 99% out (so it really looks out), it's not (many more errors are made calling balls out that are not, but they tend to be less controversial). That being said, while they never showed a good shot that showed how far the ball was out, I don't doubt it was. On the other hand, usually a missed out of bounds call at midfield does not result in a goal, and that's on Columbus for letting it happen.

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