Until last night, the Whitecaps had not lost in their last ten matches and not lost at home for the entire 2010 season. It's easy to forget with their completely horrifying scoring totals but the Whitecaps aren't a bad team. One of the three or four best in the USSF D2, certainly, and a side that ought to make some noise come playoff time.
But Portland? God, it had to be Portland.
It all started out so well. We had history in our corner, with Portland going winless at Swangard Stadium since May of 2004. The team was playing well whereas the Timbers were no longer the lead pipe cinch as "best team in the second division". Oh, sure, they have Ryan Pore, who is so far and away the league's most valuable player they're probably saving time and engraving his name on the trophy right now. But that's one man against the best defense in the division. I was quietly confident as I sat down to watch the webcast on my dinky little laptop.
(Okay, that's a lie. I was terrified. I'm always terrified when we play the Timbers, particularly of late, because they're better than we are. It's not the same as playing the Impact or Toronto FC, but the Timbers were for years the whipping boys of the Cascadia Cup and to see them incarnate as a USSF D2 powerhouse makes me quiver in fear.)
Teitur Thordarson was continuing his odd "we don't need no stinking strikers" experiment and, with Randy Edwini-Bonsu on the limp due to a minor leg injury, took it even further than usual. Cornelius "All Smoke No Fire" Stewart was the only true striker in the lineup, getting the start up front with converted midfielder Nizar Khalfan. The bench was equally offense-deficient with not a single striker at Thordarson's disposal. Don't get me wrong, it was nice to see Ethan Gage recalled from exile, and Alex Semenets is a fine Residency midfielder with some finishing chops, but Teitur had apparently decided to win this one 0 - -1.
For the first fifty minutes, Vancouver and Portland just traded body blows. Even on a little laptop screen in Edmonton it was something to watch. It's an axiom that the players never take a rivalry as seriously as the fans, but I can't remember ever seeing Vancouver and Portland face each other and play any way other than their best. Portland, as you'd expect, had more possession but did less with it than Vancouver, which was able to penetrate the Timbers defense slightly more easily.
Although why I criticized Teitur's selection I don't know, because Khalfan was a dynamo. He brings pace and power, if nothing else, and that's a pretty formidable conversation. Philippe Davies was playing on the right wing and had another of his increasing number of terrific games, but his most important play was rather a limp one. He tried a cross, probably to Stewart, but misplayed it and it skipped rather weakly to Khalfan. No problem, though. Nizar buried it. 1-0 Whitecaps, and one more goal for Vancouver than I thought they were going to get.
In the end, it was a feat of individual talent which swung things. Ryan Pore, that devilish son of a bitch, caught a nice through ball and went for a run. Greg Janicki has been one of Vancouver's most reliable defenders all season but he was caught flat-footed on this one and was well behind Pore as he streaked in on a breakaway. Desperate, Janicki dove out and tripped Pore from behind, leaving the Timbers star to fall ass over teakettle and leaving referee Michael Edmunds no option but to call for a penalty and send Janicki off.
The only thing worse than a red card offense is a clear red card offense. Dammit, Greg, you couldn't have given us some controversy? But no. Pore took the penalty, of course, and scored, of course, and it was 1-1.
Down to ten men, the Whitecaps kept their spirits up. Once again the game started to ebb and flow between the two goals, with the Timbers trying to press their advantage and Vancouver giving them everything they could handle. Vancouver played a slightly more chippy style, with Davies picking up a yellow card and very nearly grabbing another soon after (an astute Thordarson replacing the young Canadian midfielder with another young Canadian midfielder Alex Elliott), and conceded more free kicks than any of us would like to see. Ryan Pore took one of them in the seventy-first minute, lobbing a little ball into the area, easy enough for the defenders to deal with, and no! Jay Nolly! Get back in your goal! What are you doooooiiiiiiiiing? and it was 1-2.
Seeing Jay Nolly screw up, and screw up so egregiously, was a shock to the senses. Pore's ball was uncharacteristically tame, from him, but Nolly had come thundering off his line to try and grab it. He never came close, never could have come close, and the ball kicked off a Whitecaps defender towards Portland centre back Mamadou "Futty" Danso. With some surprising power and precision for a player at his position Danso slammed it into the Whitecaps goal with Nolly out of the picture, and the Timbers had it won.
Oh, there were some last formalities, of course. The Whitecaps seemed to have had a bucket of cold water dumped on their heads and played their balls out looking for an equalizer. Nizar Khalfan (again) had the best chance, forcing a remarkable save out of Steve Cronin on a hard-struck low-driven ball. But here is where Teitur's defense-heavy bench burned him. When Stewart was flagging, as he always does late in matches, there was no possible way to get more offense on. Thordarson ended up bringing in guys like Justin Moose and Takashi Hirano, players with some knowledge of how to move the ball up but none whatsoever on how to finish it off. It wasn't enough.
So the Timbers won, again. They retain the Cascadia Cup, which they won last year under similarly heart-breaking circumstances. It'll almost be a relief to get to MLS next season and have Seattle re-join the competition, because that way if Portland whips us again we might be able to blame a third club for the standings turning out badly, Montreal Impact-style. Because there's no silver lining here. We lost because we do stupid things sometimes, and the mortal enemy got to keep his silverware in his last appearance on our home grass.