Last night's 2-1 Portland Timbers victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps was an odd game for a variety of reasons. For one thing, Portland had won only one of their last 17 matches at Swangard Stadium and hadn't won there in six years [Prost Amerika]. The victory also allowed Portland to retain the Cascadia Cup [Simon Fudge, WhitecapsFC.com]. Furthermore, the result was probably pretty fair given the overall flow of the game, but it came in a highly unexpected way.
The Timbers dominated the first half of play, but didn't come away with much to show for it. Vancouver had a few early chances as well, but they looked disorganized at the back at times and not terribly dangerous in attack. George Josten really should have opened the scoring for Portland; he had a tremendous chance in the 26th minute that was nullified by an offensive foul, and had another chance in the 29th minute, but drilled a rebound wide from five yards out.
The second half was a different story. The Whitecaps were fired up coming out of the break, and they took the lead six minutes in when Phillipe Davies ran down the right flank and picked out Nizar Khalfan in front, who blasted a tight-angle shot home from close range. It was Davies' first-ever point for the Whitecaps [Marc Weber, The Province] and Khalfan's second goal of the year.
The weirdness continued from there, though. For a while, it looked like Vancouver would take over the game, but momentum abruptly shifted when the ever-dangerous Ryan Pore broke away from the pack. Greg Janicki went after him and brought him down from behind, receiving a red card for his efforts and conceding a penalty. Pore stepped up and clinically drilled it into the bottom-left corner to tie the match; Vancouver keeper Jay Nolly guessed right, but couldn't quite get a hand on it. The call changed the landscape of the game, and it stirred up some controversy.
Whitecaps' captain Martin Nash said after the game he understands the foul being called, but he didn't think it should have been a penalty or an ejection.
"You're going to get that call pretty much all the time, but, for me, I think he was outside the box when it happened," Nash said.
Vancouver head coach Teitur Thordarson said he also didn't agree with the decision to award a penalty.
"I don't think so," he said. "It happened outside the box from where I was standing."
Thordarson said the call knocked the Whitecaps off balance.
"After the penalty, we were a little irritated and lost focus a little bit," he said.
That lost focus proved critical. Only six minutes later, Portland sent a free kick in towards the top of the box. There appeared to be a communication mixup on the defence, causing Nolly to come a long way out for it. He couldn't collect, and the loose ball eventually fell to Timbers' defender Mamadou Danso, who put the winner home.
Nolly took the blame afterwards, saying a goal like that was a tough way to lose.
"I took a bad run at it, I think two or three of us missed it and it was just a scrum ball," he said. "It's just tough to lose like that."
Nolly was particularly disappointed to lose the last second-division Cascadia Cup competition. Vancouver, Portland and Seattle will all compete for the trophy again in MLS next season, but that didn't take the sting out of this one for him.
"We lost the Cascadia Cup at home and it's frustrating," he said. "As a player, you want to win every cup that's out there."
What frustrated Thordarson more than the loss of the cup was a late Bright Dike tackle on Takashi Hirano that only earned a yellow card, although it capped off an evening of tough tackles and rough play.
"I usually do not criticize referees, but there were a lot of things that weren't called," Thordarson said. "That last challenge on Taka was a straight red."
There were positive signs for the Whitecaps, though. Only a few days after shipping out a pair of highly-regarded veteran midfielders in Jonny Steele and Ricardo Sanchez, they didn't appear too much worse for the trade. Nash and Luca Bellisomo continued their strong play in central midfield, with Blake Wagner and Phillipe Davies threatening on the wings. Alex Elliott, Ethan Gage and Justin Moose also appeared impressive in relief. The trade means the Whitecaps' reliance on young players has gone even further, but Thordarson said he isn't too worried about a lack of experience on the bench.
"Those guys who were on the 18-man roster today, we feel that they are good enough," he said. "We could have had a bit more experience out there, but young and fresh is always good."
A pair of young players who have been particularly impressive lately are striker Cornelius Stewart (who left thanks to injury in the 79th minute) and midfielder-turned-striker Nizar Khalfan. Thordarson said he likes the strike-force pairing the two have formed.
"They have been very good together, and very important to our team," Thordarson said. "They help each other out all the time, and hopefully they'll just keep getting better."
The Whitecaps will need them and their other young players to keep getting better quickly, though. Vancouver is still in first place in the NASL Conference, but losses like Thursday night's will be significant setbacks. They don't have a lot of turnaround time, either, as they host Minnesota Sunday night at 7 p.m. Pacific (10 p.m. Eastern). I'll be live-blogging that one here and at The 24th Minute; come join me then!