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.
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.”
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.