With playoffs on the line, the Portland Timbers scrapped and pushed their way through Kansas City — both literally and figuratively — but a 2-2 draw Sunday to a lame duck Sporting Kansas City means the Timbers’ postseason fate will be settled on Decision Day next week. The Timbers could’ve clinched with a win but, in a wild match that saw three players ejected with red cards, they still put themselves in the position to decide their own fate.
Sunday’s game devolved into a shoving match toward the end of the first half, with both Timbers striker Brian Fernandez and Kansas City midfielder Roger Espinoza being ejected with red cards — an indication of how much was at stake for Portland.
Fernandez ran up to Sporting’s Felipe Gutierrez and got in his face, and referee Allen Chapman showed Fernandez red after speaking with his assistants. The red card was given because Fernandez made contact with Gutierrez’s neck after the initial confrontation, Pro Soccer USA has been told.
After a video review delay, Chapman also gave Espinoza a red card after seeing footage of Espinoza aggressively grab Sebastian Blanco by the neck, putting both teams level at 10 men. The red card was Espinoza’s 11th, making him the league record-holder in most career red cards.
“We need to be smart,” Blanco said afterward. “We need everybody, all 11 players. We need to be calm.”
The coaches for each side got into their own quarrel in the technical area as Kansas City’s Peter Vermes and Portland’s Giovanni Savarese were seen loudly yelling at each other about whether the players deserved to be carded.
— Caitlin Murray (@caitlinmurr) September 30, 2019
At halftime, Savarese said he was glad the referees punished Sporting Kansas City as well, saying: “I’m glad that finally the referee was able to rectify giving two red cards because it was fair.”
Before the fracas erupted, it had been an open back-and-forth game with both teams level at 1-1.
The Timbers struck first in the 29th minute after Sporting’s Graham Zusi tried to keep a wild pass in play and knocked it into the path of Blanco in the midfield. Blanco laid the ball off to Marvin Loria, who crossed it past the face of goal — it then bounced into the path of an unmarked Blanco, who fired it home from the middle of the box.
But less than a minute later, Sporting Kansas City leveled the score. Johnny Russell whipped a cross to the past post and Krisztián Németh ran onto it, heading the ball in. Replays on the television broadcast seemed to show Russell was well offside, but the video assistant referee did not apparently raise any concerns that it was an blatant or obvious error.
“I think maybe the first goal was offside for them and it’ll be reviewed later in the week,” Savarese said afterward.
After the break, Sporting Kansas City took the lead just 25 seconds into the second half. A shot from 17-year-old Gianluca Busio went off the post, and Daniel Salloi knocked the rebound back into the goal.
But the match had a bit more craziness left as it neared full time. In the 83rd minute, second-half substitute Jeremy Ebobisse was fouled by Sporting’s Ilie Sánchez, who was sent off with a red card for it. Dairon Asprilla, a late sub, buried the kick from the spot to put the Timbers level.
“In those moments, we need to be a little sharper,” defender Zarek Valentin said of the goals conceded. “We shoot ourselves in the foot coming out of halftime and giving up a goal immediately — then we have to battle back. In saying that, kudos to the dudes for putting in the effort.”
Sporting Kansas City had nothing on the line as they had already been eliminated from the playoffs on Wednesday with a loss to Minnesota United, although it was their final home match of the season. For the Timbers, a loss could’ve put their playoff hopes in peril, but the draw gives them the chance to clinch next week with a win or draw against the San Jose Earthquakes.
Aside from the flared tempers and high stakes, it was a thrilling game with plenty of chances for either side.
In the sixth minute, Busio caught Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark flat-footed on a rocket from the top of the box, but it ricocheted off the crossbar.
The Timbers got their own lethal chance in the 25th minute on a Fernandez breakaway. Renzo Zambrano lofted a direct ball way upfield for Fernandez, but his top-of-the-box chip over goalkeeper Tim Melia, who way off his line, went wide. In the 33rd minute, Portland had another chance to pull ahead. Fernandez managed to get himself one-on-one against Melia again with some slick dribbling past defender Botond Barath, but Fernandez’s shot went off the face of Melia, who positioned himself well.
Savarese opted to rotate his lineup as Sunday’s match was the Timbers’ fifth in 15 days. Diego Valeri, who is amid a contract impasse with the club, started on the bench, along with Ebobisse — both players made significant contributions to the Timbers’ midweek match against the New England Revolution days earlier.
The Timbers were without starting centerback Larrys Mabiala, who was suspended due to yellow card accumulation.
Meanwhile, Fernandez made his return to the starting lineup in Kansas City. He has been in and out of the Timbers lineup over the past few weeks with an unspecified stomach illness, which Savarese declined to discuss when asked earlier this week by Pro Soccer USA.
Next week, the Timbers return home Sunday for Decision Day, the final day of the regular season, when they host the San Jose Earthquakes in a match that should decide which of the two teams makes the playoffs. For now, Fernandez will be suspended for that game but Pro Soccer USA understands that the Timbers are mulling an appeal.
Kansas City, meanwhile, will head to FC Dallas where, again, nothing will be on the line for the visitor, but Dallas could clinch their playoff spot. If Dallas loses, it would guarantee the Timbers a spot in the playoffs.