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Refereeing complaints take focus as Portland Timbers rally against Kansas City

Both Giovanni Savarese and Peter Vermes criticized the ref in a game that had big playoff implications.

Sep 7, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Timbers celebrate a game winning goal by Portland Timbers forward Brian Fernandez (7) during the second half against Sporting Kansas City at Providence Park. The Timbers won 2-1. (Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports)

PORTLAND, Ore. — Somehow, neither coach was happy after the Portland Timbers waged a comeback Saturday to beat Sporting Kansas City. Both the Timbers’ Giovanni Savarese and Kansas City’s Peter Vermes raise concerns that refereeing had ruined a game with major playoff implications.

The Timbers felt aggrieved twice by calls in the first half. In the 10th minute, a Diego Valeri cross hit the arm of Kansas City’s Luis Martins and referee Alex Chilowicz pointed to the spot for a penalty. But after a video review, referee Alex Chilowicz reversed the call, judging Martins’ arm to have been in a natural position.

Right before halftime, a similar incident happened. The ball hit the hand of Kansas City’s Matt Besler and the Timbers appealed for a handball, but the referee waved it off without video review.

By the time Savarese was interviewed at halftime for the local television broadcast, the coach was fired up and demanded answers from the Professional Referee Organization. The Timbers have been on the wrong side of several borderline handball calls this year that Savarese has complained about.

“The referees are screwing us all the time because this too could’ve been a PK,” Savarese said. “We don’t understand the rules anymore when in some other places these are called PKs, this should be called a PK as well for us. So, I don’t understand. They need to figure it out because the referees don’t understand anything that they are doing. From PRO, they need to communicate this.”

After the game, Savarese doubled down and said the referees didn’t seem to know what they are doing.

“It’s confusion. They don’t know what is a handball and what isn’t a handball,” Savarese said. “We saw today two handballs that could’ve PKs.”

“I’m not saying it’s something against us,” he added. “I think they are confused. They need to figure it out and make sure they stay steady. If they stay steady, then if this is the rule, they need to follow. Not all of them are on the same page so there’s confusion among them.”

But Vermes wasn’t thrilled with the refereeing either.

Vermes was the beneficiary of the refereeing decisions that Savarese felt hurt the Timbers, but he said mismanagement from the referees made the game choppy and neither team could get into a rhythm. He took issue with the delay for the VAR check on the reversed penalty call but said there were other instances where the referee failed to control the match.

“It had a major impact on the flow of the game,” Vermes said. “I’ll give you an example. If the referee calls a foul, let’s say, and then he calls a player over and he’s talking to the player, and whether it’s our player or their player, and the other players start playing the ball, the simple thing is you blow the whistle and say, ‘Hey, hold on a second until I’m finished and he’s back in position. I’m having a conversation here.’ Those are little things and there was play after play where that happened in the game. It doesn’t help either team and it wrecks the flow of the game.”

With the win, the Timbers (12-11-4, 42 points) move into seventh place and the last playoff spot in the Western Conference standings. Just nine points separate the second-place Seattle Sounders and ninth-place Sporting Kansas City (10-12-7, 37 points) with one month left in the regular season.

While the first half had few good chances for either side, the second half saw the floodgates open.

In deep stoppage time, Diego Valeri chipped a ball across the face of goal that Brian Fernandez headed into the goal from the opposite post for the game-winner.

Jeremy Ebobisse equalized in the 83rd minute on a quick counterattack. Diego Chara crossed the ball in front of goal and Ebobisse finished with a one-time tap past SKC goalkeeper Tim Melia.

“It’s only our second comeback win of the year,” Ebobisse said. “In that fashion, to be down for so long, so late in the game, and still believe that we are going to find the win, that’s a testament to the growth of our team.”

The Timbers are now 2-11-3 when they concede a goal first this season.

Sporting Kansas City struck first in the 65th minute on a long-range effort from Benny Feilhaber. From outside the penalty box along the right sideline, he fired a blast that curved inside the opposite post of the goal and out of the reach of goalkeeper Steve Clark.

Ahead of Saturday’s game, some members of the Timbers Army fan group were banned three games for displaying flags with the anti-fascist Iron Front symbol, which MLS says violates a new policy prohibiting political signage. In protest of the bans and the policy, the fans did not wave flags during the game or set off colored smoke for goals as they normally do.

Previous protests from the group over the new policy include staying silent during a rivalry match and waving the banned Iron Front flags. The supporters unfurled a banner that read, “You can’t stop us.”

The Timbers did not have enough players to fill the 18-player game roster due to several injuries and international duty.

The injured players were Sebastian Blanco (calf), Modou Jadama (left foot), Larrys Mabiala (left thigh), Julio Cascante (left thigh), Zarek Valentin (left upper leg), Marco Farfan (left knee) and Kendall McIntosh (right foot).

On international duty were Andres Flores (El Salvador), Cristhian Paredes (Paraguay) and Renzo Zambrano (Venezuela).

Zambrano is suspended for his next two MLS games due to “aggressive behavior” toward a referee.

Fernandez, who the club said was dealing with illness, started on the bench and came on in the second half.

“It was difficult, but these are the moments we see the character of a team, and we saw it today,” Savarese said. “The guys stepping on the field performed very well and they had the ideas clear. We had to change our system a little bit to make sure we handled things in the way we felt would be best with the group that we had.”

Sporting Kansas City was also missing several players. Injured were Rodney Wallace (hip) and Adrian Zendejas (back). On international duty were Felipe Gutierrez (Chile), Botond Barath (Hungary), Krisztian Nemeth (Hungary), Nicolas Hasler (Liechtenstein), Johnny Russell (Scotland) and Gianluca Busio (United States).

The Timbers win snapped a three-game winning streak for Sporting Kansas City. Up next, Sporting KC heads to Los Angeles to face the Galaxy Sept. 15.

The Timbers host D.C. United Sept. 15. Portland will play five of its last six matches of the season at home. The Timbers played their first 12 games of this season on the road due to an expansion of Providence Park, which added around 4,000 new seats.

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