Jack Jewsbury, Clint Dempsey

Alhassan goal, ‘let them play’ officiating defines ugly Portland-Seattle derby (video)


PORTLAND, Ore. — As a sports culture, we seem to be evolving away from a “let them play” attitude. Rules are rules, a foul in one game should be a foul in the next, and there shouldn’t be a separate rulebook for every match. Twenty years ago, this may have been anathema, but after years of fan conversation and media debate, we’re starting to realize: Letting officials decided when to use ‘big game’ rules is inconsistent, at best; potentially harmful, at worst.

That’s what makes tonight’s game in Portland so unfortunate. Hilario Grajeda, the referee in charge, abdicated his responsibility. As play intensified throughout the second half and the fouls (whistled or not) became harder and more frequent, the spectacle of what could have been an enticing match was ruined. Instead of witnessing what a talented Sounders team would do against Caleb Porter’s dogmatic approach, fans were subjected to a series of anarchic collisions; as if Grajeda had just seen Gravity and sought to replicate the calamity of a tidal wave of orbiting shrapnel. When that unfettered tension caused the game to be paused for near-five minutes in the second half, the match had reached its natural climax: Chaos.

Along the way, Kalif Alhassan had put the Timbers up shortly before halftime, blasting a ball from 16 yards out inside Marcus Hahnemann’s right post. Seattle had hit the crossbar, closed the first half on the back foot, but then resumed control coming out of halftime. And after going down a man after Ossie Alonso’s dismissal, they nearly stole a point when Steve Zakuani shook the woodwork. Portland won the game 1-0, went first in the West, and sent Seattle crashing to their third consecutive defeat.

[MORE: Oh, Osvaldo Alonso, what have you done?]

Footnotes, all of it. Within the context of an event that couldn’t end until its actors left the stage, the final act’s tension lingered. Instead of Portland players celebrating their triumph and fans immediately exploding at full-time, everybody paused for a beat and wondered: Would the conflicts that’d boiled over during the match erupt once the game had faded? Thankfully, they did not.

“Obviously in the second half, it got a little more physical, because we realized that they weren’t going to call stuff,” Sigi Schmid said after the match, the Seattle coach also noting no card was given to Portland midfielder Diego Chará on a play that dislocated Clint Dempsey’s shoulder in the first half (Dempsey would play on).

“We talked about it. We had to be a little more physical,” Schmid confessed, “which we did in the second half.”

source: AP
Osvaldo Alonso (right) was dismissed in the 76th minute of Sunday’s match after his left elbow struck the face of Portland’s Will Johnson (not pictured). (Photo: AP Photo.)

We hear about referees losing control of a match. On Sunday, we saw an example, the main illustration coming just after the 70th minute. A hard foul. Players go chest-to-chest. Playground pushing matches unfold, each man seeing baiting the other into a punch. Then a player throws an elbow, is sent off, and seen being pulled away from officials as the match becomes farce.

Five minutes have to be added at the end of the match because the men officiating the affair allowed players’ emotions to become insufferable. Were it not for a handful of Sounders restraining their teammate, Alonso would have done something truly stupid.

Not that the possibility of this type of event is shocking, given the nature of the Portland-Seattle rivalry. It’s the most intense in Major League Soccer, one where two huge sets of supporters fuel innate regional and cultural rivalry. Now, with the ascent of the 2013 Timbers, the rivalry’s taken on new, competitive implications.

That the winner of Sunday’s match would go first in the West was enough to make this a particularly charged match, something that both teams knew before the opening whistle.

“No, not surprised,” was Portland captain’s Will Johnson’s reaction when asked about the match’s physicality. “They’d lost two in a row. They got embarrassed twice in a row. They’re fighting for their lives. We know they were going to come in, try to fight us, try to turn it into a scrum from time to time. We were ready for that. We’d expect nothing less.”

“That was the most intense atmosphere I’ve ever played in,” Johnson later explained. “That leads to two teams competing really hard.”

It also leads to increased pressure to keep the match under control.

It’s impossible to know what would have happened if Grajeda called Sunday’s game differently, but his lax officiating certainly played a part. Had he called the fouls we see in normal games, the second half’s carnage would have been avoided. And while that doesn’t guarantee Osvaldo Alonso keeps his cool, it almost certainly means we’d have a better game. Instead of something that resembled what Portland and Seattle are capable of, the referee left us with a game we could have seen 10 years ago.

In the sense, perhaps Grajeda let the occasion get to him. It’s one thing to say in big matches players should be allowed to play. It’s another to realize the potential consequences. Grajeda’s paid to know that difference.

Forty-five minutes of decent soccer gave way to a second half of blunt anarchy. Whatever you ultimately want to call that, Portland won, 1-0.

Serie A: Napoli go top for first time in 25 years; Inter a close 2nd

Gonzalo Higuain, SSC Napoli
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A quick roundup of Monday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

Napoli 2-1 Inter Milan

For the first time since the final day of the 1989-90 season, Napoli are top of Serie A all by themselves after a top-of-the-table clash with previous leaders Inter Milan.

Gonzalo Higuain bagged both goals for the Azzurri, the first of which came after just 65 seconds. His tally on 62 minutes held up as the game-winner after Adem Ljajic pulled one back for Roberto Mancini’s side in the 67 minute. The opener (below video) was a powerful finish from inside the penalty area which served as a strong reminder as to why a club like Arsenal is consistently linked to the Argentine striker.

Sassuolo 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina, who had a chance to stake their own claim to the top spot, dropped two points away to seventh-place Sassuolo earlier in the day, opening the door for Napoli to go top with their victory. After shooting out of the gates red hot (6 wins in their first 7 games), the Viola have now drawn back to back games — to Empoli and Sassuolo — and find themselves third, two points behind Napoli.

Borja Valero put Fiorentina ahead after five minutes on Monday, but Sassuolo equalized through Sergio Floccari just before halftime to keep their own dreams of European qualification alive.

Serie A table

Matchup by matchup: Picking a favorite for MLS Cup 2015

Portland Timbers FC
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We’re T-minus 137 hours to the kickoff of MLS Cup 2015, between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

When the two sides meet at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday (4 p.m. ET), the general public will have picked a slight favorite to hoist MLS Cup, just like any other game. Only, this one’s a bit tougher to call — there’s no clear-cut favorite as is usually the case in MLS Cup, so we’ll do our best to explore a few key matchups that might slant Sunday’s title tilt in one direction or the other…

Crew SC width (Waylon Francis, Harrison Afful, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay) vs. Timbers width (Jorge Villafana, Alvas Powell, Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla)

  • Pinning the wingers back — There’s two ways to beat Crew SC: 1) sit with eight or nine men behind the ball and frustrate them through a lack of space to attack; or, 2) pin Finlay and Meram deep inside their own half, defensively, by getting your full backs forward and forcing them to defend. It’s doable, but it’s not easy. On the other side, best of luck to Wallace and Asprilla with the tracking back they’ll be forced into with perhaps the best attacking right back in MLS, Afful, and Francis overlapping on either side. Fanendo Adi could find himself on an island very quickly if the Crew SC full backs get forward as often as they’d like.
  • Where the help comes from — That’s the biggest issue for Portland, who ever since dropping Darlington Nagbe into midfield, play with a lone defensive midfielder, Diego Chara. He’s great at covering the entire field and providing help to blow up an opposing attack, but he can only be on one side of the field at a time. This means Borchers and Ridgewell will be stretched wider and forced to defend Finlay and Meram in space, where they’re oh so deadly.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Crew SC announce MLS Cup sold out 15 hours after qualifying ]

Kei Kamara vs. Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell

  • All it takes is one chance — Neither one of Borchers or Ridgewell can physically compete with Kamara’s rare combination of speed and athleticism — to be fair, few center backs this side of the world can. Therefore, 90 percent of “defending” Kamara will be staying tight to the 22-goalscorer during the regular season and, with any luck, not losing track of him once the ball gets out to the wings. Once Kamara gets that yard of space in any direction and the ball goes up on the cross, the center backs’ chances of winning the next ball are much, much lower. That said, Kamara will find far less space against Borchers and Ridgewell (and Diego Chara) than he enjoyed against Montreal and New York thus far in the playoffs. There’s very few center back duos with the experience and nous of the Timbers’ backbone.
  • Advantage: Timbers

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Timbers midfield three (Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri) vs. Crew SC midfield three (Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain)

  • Nagbe the key to balance — Darlington Nagbe will, one day, be an MLS Best XI central midfielder. Today is not that day, though. He’s still a work in progress, and probably the most exploitable individual on the field in Crew SC’s eyes. Tchani and Trapp are, in my opinion, the best deep-sitting midfield duo in the league, and they’ll press, harry and harass Nagbe for 90 (0r 120) minutes, probably starting a fair few of those deadly counter-attacks in the middle third of the field.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Timbers reach first MLS Cup | Crew SC to host MLS Cup 2015 ]

Gregg Berhalter vs. Caleb Porter

  • Lineups set themselves — Neither coach is likely to throw out a huge surprise before kickoff — dance with one that brought you, or something like that. Up until recently, I was completely convinced that Porter was vastly overrated and didn’t understand the constant adoration that surrounded the man his first two or three years in charge. Everything was a bit stale and rigid, organized, but lacking flair. Then he moved Nagbe into midfield to allow his biggest game-changer more opportunities on the ball to affect the game much more. This leads me to believe Porter is a bit more flexible in seeing his team and system operate in slightly different ways, but only barely.
  • Advantage: Timbers

Crew SC announce MLS Cup 2015 sold out 15 hours after qualifying

Wil Trapp, Columbus Crew SC
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The building formerly known as Crew Stadium has hosted its fair share of famous soccer games since it opened in 1999 — dos a cero, anyone? — and Sunday’s MLS Cup 2015 looks set to rank right up there among them.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Roughly 15 hours after advancing to this year’s MLS Cup, which they will host this Sunday (4 p.m. ET), Columbus Crew SC announced on Monday that MAPFRE Stadium is officially sold out.

Crew SC president of business operations Andy Loughnane addressed the fanbase in a blog post on the club’s official site Monday afternoon and said, “As of late this morning we are sold out of the extra capacity seating that was created for MLS Cup at MAPFRE Stadium. While there is a small chance that additional seats could be released for purchase as a result of MLS holds being returned, we are sold out of all known available seats.”

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Crew SC, making their second MLS Cup appearance in club history (2008 champions), will host first-time MLS Cup contestants, the Portland Timbers, on Sunday.

PL clubs combined to pay out $200 million in agent fees in 2015

Liverpool Unveil New Signing Christian Benteke
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What a time to be an agent in the footballing world, eh? The rich just keep getting richer and richer and richer.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

The steady increase in transfer fees being paid for players — bad, good, great and amazing alike — has made quite a few “selling” clubs rich reach over the last decade or two, to be sure, but it’s also made another group of people obscenely rich: player agents.

As the soccer world has gone crazy with its “now, now, now” approach — managers must win now, or they’re fired; new signings must become stars now, or they’ll be sold; etc. — agents are the ones making out like bandits — no losses to be sustained on players who turn out to be flops; no future loss of wages due to taking “too long” to settle in and being labeled a flop — at the expense of clubs and, most cruelly, the players.

More than $195 million was paid out agents by Premier League clubs across the January and summer transfer windows, with Liverpool — ever the club in constant change — paying out $21.5 million in agents fees to remain top of the table for a second straight year. Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal were the four other clubs to top $15 million.

[ MORE: Premier League Payback — The Diego Costa era over at Chelsea? ]

Agents not only receive a fee when players change clubs through transfers, but can only be compensated again and again when one of their clients signs a new contract with their current club.

For instance, Wayne Rooney has signed at least four new contracts since joining Manchester United in 2004, the latest of which came barely three years after he was given a new five-year deal in Oct. 2010 upon handing in a transfer request in an attempt to force a move to Manchester City. Rooney’s current weekly wage is reported to be in the neighborhood of $450,000. His agent, Paul Stretford, will have received a sizable payday upon negotiating the deal in Feb. 2014.

At the end of the day, sports are little more than a business, and it’s the ones who play the game — the political game, that is — the best, and most ruthlessly, who are making out like bandits.