The way the season has gone for the Portland Timbers, it could easily be said that they had the Seattle Sounders right where they wanted them.
Darlington Nagbe had just scored his first goal of 2014 to tie the game at 1-1 at the death of regulation in their Wednesday night US Open Cup quarterfinal matchup at the Starfire Soccer Complex in Tukwila, Washington, and the momentum seemed firmly in Portland’s camp.
With all the late-game dramatics for the Timbers through the first half of the MLS season, pulling out a result seemed almost assured. But then, according to Timbers head coach Caleb Porter, head referee Chris Penso got involved. Penso sent off Timbers midfield enforcer Diego Chara in the ninth minute of extra time, and Seattle took advantage with two goals in the final period to pull out a 3-1 victory and advance to a semifinal game against the Chicago Fire.
“That turned the game," Porter told the media in his postgame comments. “That call. It was one of the worst officiating performances I've ever seen since I've been around the game.”
It was a scissor-like tackle from Chara on Sounders midfielder Marco Pappa that drew the attention of Penso, adding more fuel to an already combustible Cascadia rivalry that will only receive three days to simmer down before the same teams meet again in a nationally televised league showdown Sunday at CenturyLink Field.
Porter did, however, credit Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who made seven saves, for what he called a "man of the match" performance in swaying the result.
Timbers veteran Jack Jewsbury, who has been a part of the rivalry since Portland joined the league in 2011, said he has seen worse fouls.
“It could have been avoided if a couple of fouls before that were called,” Jewsbury told the media. “At the end of the day, is it really a red? I personally don’t think so, but it is what it is, and we kept battling even down a man. … It felt like we were still creating some chances down a man.”
From a Timbers perspective, the red on Chara spoiled what turned into another thrilling version of one of the league’s best rivalries, seen for the first time in the Open Cup since Portland joined MLS and played in front of an overflow crowd at the Sounders’ intimate training facility.
“That call was the difference in the game,” Porter said. “We were 1-1. We had them on the ropes, and the momentum turned.”
Nagbe and former Sounders winger Steve Zakuani teamed up on a pretty goal in the third and final minute of second-half stoppage time that negated an equally impressive goal by Sounders midfielder Osvaldo Alonso in the 69th minute.
But once the Timbers were cut down to 10 men, it proved to be too much to overcome. Former Timbers forward Kenny Cooper provided the winning goal, and Pappa turned in insurance against the undermanned side.
“Coming in, we knew the confines here: It was going to be tight, it was going to be a battle,” Jewsbury said. “It wasn’t always going to be the prettiest soccer in the world, but I thought we came in and matched and exceeded their intensity in exceeding their fight. … I felt we were really going at them and could get the win in overtime.”