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

Oct 14, 2013, 1:12 AM EDT

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.

  1. lunasceiling - Oct 14, 2013 at 1:35 AM

    The first half was well officiated. The teams were playing intense but fairly clean soccer (yeah, Chara could have gotten a card for that hit on Dempsey), with Seattle coming out strong but the Timbers asserting their possession game at about the 20 minute mark (and really, “dogmatic” Really?).

    Where I think Grajeda got caught out was in not responding to the increased physicality that appeared pretty much from the start of the second half. The teams both ratcheted up the contact, and Grajeda needed to adjust. It’s something he should have seen coming )particularly with this rivalry, which is very real, not some PR gimmick).

    That was a legit straight red, though. Will may have embellished a bit, but as was pointed out, there’s no reason for Alonso’s elbow to be up there. It was a punk move.

  2. dfstell - Oct 14, 2013 at 5:46 AM

    It drives me nuts when refs let games get this way. I really don’t understand why it is so hard. You can hear players from either team muttering amongst themselves on dead balls or swearing at players from the other team. You can see the guy who “got away” with a foul previously get kicked in the ankle the first chance the other team has to retaliate.

    Once that stuff is going on, I really think the ref needs to start calling a LOT of fouls. Get the players on both sides angry at HIM and distract from the animosity between the teams.

    The other thing is that this carries over. These teams know each other well and they remember who was a nasty jerk the last time they played and the picky stuff will start within a few minutes of kick-off.

  3. seanmorr - Oct 14, 2013 at 11:50 AM

    Wow, overly dramatic and crappy article IMO

    Is MLS officiating terrible? yes. is it consistently inconsistent? yes. I was at the game and felt it was very normal MLS officiating but overall, at least in the 1st half decent officiating on the MLS scale of badness. Both teams were chippy and both teams had 2 destroyer mids in – chara/johnson and alanos/moffat. I think both teams were fouling about the same with Seattle mugging nagbe everytime he got the ball. Should Chara have gotten an early yellow…maybe as much as it pains me to say it.

    My main problems with this article

    1st – “Porter’s dogmatic approach” really? have you watched many Portland games or just bought the ‘porterball’ narrative? He’s been very pragmatic over the last 5 games or so. We’ve been grinding out results and been hit by call ups and injuries. There have been spells of heavy possession but overall he has done a very good job of being un-dogmatic going down the stretch. Those with longer memories will remember that he came under fire after the USNT Olympic qualifying for not changing his tactics. I think he has done a great job of managing games and rosters in MLS’ version of ‘squeaky bum time’.

    2nd – “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.” Are you just making this up? I was at the game and I don’t remember anyone pausing with bated breath once the whistle blew. What I remember is 19K fans exploding in cheers, happy that the game was finally over. I really feel like you’ve created a false narrative with this commentary, as if the whole stadium was nervous for fight after the game. The end of this game from a fans point of view didn’t feel any different from any other cascadia win or other big win(see LA Galaxy), You’re projecting.

    3rd – I think you do a real disservice by not talking about the mass confrontation in a larger context. MLS stated at the beginning of the season that they were going to crack down on mass confrontation. Has it happened? Not that I recall…seems only coaches are getting dinged for that kind of behavior. And what happened 2 weeks ago at Jeld Wen? When Keane was called offsides the Galaxy exploded in a very similar fashion to Seattle last night. Keane especially went nuts going after the linesman twice and then again after the game. Arena was outside of his box and berating the linesman (who was later proved correct on replay) Was anyone disciplined? Nope. So who’s fault is it now when this happens in a big game, a game that is both a cascadia match, the most heated rivalrly in MLS and a game with huge playoff implications? The league is not doing the refs any favors by not following through on discipline for mass confrontation. They need to seriously crack down if they want it to change. Those players all saw that there was no fallout for the Galaxy two weeks ago, so who’s really worried about the effects of a mass confrontation. The teams know they can overwhelm the refs and not be disciplined.

    So Farley…boooo
    Poor article that doesn’t really shine any new light on MLS officiating (which should be getting more of a look, the officiating has to improve for the league to be taken seriously) and describes the stadium atmosphere totally and completely wrong…. and stop making bad movie analogies

    • Richard Farley - Oct 14, 2013 at 1:15 PM

      1: Dogma isn’t necessarily about results as much as it is about doctrine, so although Portland’s results have been of a different ilk of late, that doesn’t mean Porter’s approach has significantly changed. He has admitted that he’s throttled down slightly, but Portland is still the most dogmatic team in the league.

      2: From the stands, huh? Well, agree to disagree. Of course, there were a number of people, particularly in the north end, that started celebrating. But last night was slightly, if momentarily, different from other nights. And while a fan might have seen it differently, it’s not my mandate to see things through that lens. I would argue it’s about the least-objective view in the house.

      3: Not every article can be about what you want. It’s one of the worst things about the internet, IMO.

      So seanmorr…boooo … just kidding. Thanks for the feedback. I imagine my movie analogy would be better if you liked the article, but really, I haven’t found many Timbers fans that liked this post. No team wants the officials in focus when they win, and the Timbers certainly deserve a lot of credit for overcoming it all to win last night.

      • seanmorr - Oct 14, 2013 at 1:39 PM

        I appreciate the response…really

        More dogmatic than RSL? I still consider them the most principled team in MLS since they have been doing it so much longer. They’ve remained so committed to their 4-4-2 diamond.

        If you were in the press box I guess you would have had a different view of the whole stadium (I admit I was distracted by hugging and high fiving everyone around me) but I haven’t talked to a single fan who described any sort of pause or worry after the whistle blew.

        I maintain that you can’t really complain about the officiating in this game and him losing control during the mass confrontation without mentioning that MLS has not supported the refs enough by cracking down after the fact. I love the innovation of the disciplinary committee but they need to take a harder line across the board on mass confrontations if for no other reason than it really turns off the casual fan or someone new to MLS/Footy. I’m not just saying that to get more sounders suspended(although that would be great). I hate watching Barcelona or any other Spanish team mob a ref when they disagree. The Galaxy debacle 2 weeks ago set the precedent that the league wouldn’t do anything…are we surprised it happened again? If they had cracked down on LA, Alonso probably still would have gone nuts, but I doubt you would have seen Dempsey, Moffat and especially Rosales going after the Official and Linesman.

        I hope at some point we have at least 1-2 Howard Webb level refs with enough gravitas to handle one of the big games in MLS.

    • mlsconvert88888 - Oct 14, 2013 at 1:37 PM

      I just gotta say, I watched the game on TV and I strongly agree with your 2nd point.
      Making it out like the brawl scene from “The Outsiders” was about to go down seems a little heavy handed to me. If you were shocked by the rough, physical play last night, my question would be, “Did you watch the last SEA v. POR match?”

      Point of interest on your 3rd point though; I thought Bruce Arena did get disciplined (1 game suspension?) for his confrontation antics after the last LA v POR game.

      • seanmorr - Oct 14, 2013 at 1:40 PM

        you’re right about arena, forgot about that. My point was more about players getting disciplined but I did forget arena was suspended. Thanks for correcting me :)

  4. buckyball77 - Oct 14, 2013 at 12:09 PM

    To the extant that refs pay attention to their press reviews for particular matches, Grajeda was likely to get panned either way. Your and other columnists’ alternate version of this match’s refereeing was going to be, “The constant stoppages for niggling fouls kept this match from fulfilling its real promise.”

    At least in this match, the ref did not become that worst of all things, a sort of random event generator that throws a monkey wrench into the works just so game outcomes are less predictable.

    Seattle was less able to keep their emotions in check as much because this looked to them like part of their late season slump that started a few games ago.

  5. socamr - Oct 14, 2013 at 12:35 PM

    Did you watch this match? The ref was totally a random event generator. Moffat gets booked in the first half for the exact same foul – and even a less dangerous one – than Chara who did not get booked. That type of inconsistency is even worse than his continual failure to call clear fouls. I lost count of how many handballs he decided not to call. That led the Sounders to decide at halftime to become more physical (see Schmid’s comments) – if you don’t know which fouls are going to be called, why not commit a lot of them?

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