Portland proves it's not about the money

Posted by Jeff Carlisle

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Even in the parity-driven world of MLS, money can buy a lot of things. One only had to look at the Seattle Sounders roster ahead of the second leg of their playoff series against the Portland Timbers on Thursday to see how much talent could be amassed.

There was Clint Dempsey, the $5 million dollar man. Then there were the Sounders' other two Designated Players, Mauro Rosales and Obafemi Martins.

But there are some key ingredients in building a championship squad that money can’t buy. It can’t buy chemistry. It can’t buy cohesion. It can’t buy unselfishness. And the gap in these areas was the biggest reason the Timbers defeated the Sounders 3-2 on the night to clinch a 5-3 aggregate triumph.

This isn’t to say that Portland isn’t talented. Without question, manager Caleb Porter and GM Gavin Wilkinson -- who frankly doesn’t get enough credit for the job he has done this year -- have constructed a side that plays as entertaining a brand of soccer as there is in MLS. But that style isn’t possible without teamwork as well, and it's evident that Portland has that trait in abundance.

“When we play together, we have great chemistry, they enjoy each other,” Porter said. “We’re like a family. Not to sound cheesy but, in the end, you can create that even at the pro level.”

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The difference was certainly visible to Seattle manager Sigi Schmid, who, ever since Dempsey’s arrival in August, had spent countless brain cycles trying to figure out a way to bring some semblance of balance to his squad.

With Lamar Neagle suspended for Thursday’s match and his team trailing 2-1 from the first leg, Schmid drafted in Shalrie Joseph as the third member of an attacking triumvirate that included Dempsey and Eddie Johnson. It didn’t come close to working as planned. In the first half, Seattle’s midfield was overrun and Joseph was clearly not in sync with his teammates.

“What we wanted to do was get Shalrie in there and play a little more advanced and at least physically be able to battle with their center backs,” Schmid said during his postgame news conference. “But he ended up dropping [into midfield] too far and taking spaces that Dempsey normally gets the ball in. As a result we were disjointed in the first half.”

It raised the question of why Rosales wasn't on from the start, but Schmid explained that the recent success the team had enjoyed playing out of a midfield diamond, limited as it was, was something with which he wanted to persist. Plus, Rosales' defensive frailties made him ill-suited to be on the field with that approach.

But Seattle's problems weren't just down to selection issues or tactical conundrums. Schmid conceded there was something deeper at work.

“Being able to play as a team is something we have to be able to become better at,” he said. “In terms of that unselfish running for people at times, that’s something we have to become better at as well.”

It was evident from the opening whistle that this is an area of strength for Portland. The Timbers came out flying and nearly went ahead through Rodney Wallace with the game just two minutes old, only for him to hit the side netting with the goal gaping.

No matter. Portland continued to go about its task and took a 2-0 lead into halftime thanks to Will Johnson’s 29th-minute penalty and Diego Valeri’s superbly taken goal just a minute before halftime.

“I’ve never seen a player or team that has played poorly when they’re happy, playing well and liking what they’re doing,” Porter said. “Tonight that was what it was about. Going out and just enjoying it, loving their football, playing together, working hard obviously and digging in when you need to.”

When Futty Danso netted in the 47th minute, the tie was essentially over. Or at least it should have been, only for Seattle to score twice in two minutes through DeAndre Yedlin and Johnson. The finish would have been positively nerve-wracking had Dempsey converted from inside the box in the 88th minute, but he contrived to put his shot wide.

"We almost lost sight of, 'OK guys, there’s still a soccer game here. Let's not just get carried away and get too cute,'" Porter said. "I think it's the best thing that could have happened to us. If we walk out of here 3-0 then I'm worried about the next game. We probably leave here a little bit more grounded."

Seattle meanwhile will leave Portland without another game to play to this season, and speculation is already running rampant that Schmid will be the first casualty. Certainly the Sounders’ spectacular late-season flameout, which saw them throw away a chance at the Supporters Shield and stumble into the playoffs with a seven-game winless streak, raises some questions.

Granted, Dempsey did everything he could to help the team and a full offseason should see him start strong in 2014. But it's also obvious his arrival upset the balance of the squad. When injuries struck as well, no amount of tinkering by Schmid could get the team out of its funk.

Without question Schmid deserves some blame for that, but the fact that so much money was spent on attacking players is a fault that has to be shared throughout the organization. Whether that's sufficient grounds to be fired will be revealed in the coming weeks, but the Seattle manager made it clear he has no intention of stepping down from his position.

“I don’t want to walk away,” he said. “I know there's people out there that would like me to walk away. The press, you guys like that. It's a situation of I think there's a good base of talent, there's a good base of people that we can work with for next year.

“But there's improvements and changes that we have to make. At the end of the day, my job security is in the hands of [owners] Adrian Hanauer and Joe Roth. I feel secure, but you have to ask them.”

Regardless of who manages the team, it's clear that it isn't enough just to spend money. It has to be spent wisely and with an eye toward how the various pieces fit together. That's a problem that the Timbers have solved and Porter's men will now carry a ton of momentum into the Western Conference finals.

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