SEATTLE — It was Clint Dempsey’s debut, but for Sounders FC it was Eddie Johnson and goalkeeper Michael Gspurning who starred.
Johnson scored the game’s only goal — giving him four in three games against the Timbers — and Gspurning turned away every serious Portland threat as Seattle won 1-0 on Sunday in front of a record crowd of 67,385 at CenturyLink Field.
Portland (nine wins, 12 ties, four losses) is tied for third in the Western Conference with 39 points from 25 games. Seattle (11-4-8) moved into fifth place with 37 points from only 23 games.
The Timbers were left feeling like they missed an opportunity for their own special moment. They didn’t look overwhelmed by the stage, or by the Sounders FC talent.
“You look at chances created, we had just as many as they did. We just didn’t find a play,” Timbers coach Caleb Porter said.
And the Timbers didn’t get in Johnson’s way on the play that decided the match. It came in the 60th minute from a free kick created when Portland’s Pa Modou Kah fouled Johnson to halt a Seattle counter attack. The Seattle forward got his revenge with a beautiful flick header of Mauro Rosales’ free kick after Johnson shook free from coverage.
“We’re still playing well. We’re in all these games,” said Jack Jewsbury, who played as a lone defensive midfielder. “We’ve got to lock down (defending set pieces), because those are going to be crucial, crucial moments, especially in tight games like these. This had a playoff feel, and that’s what it comes down to.”
Portland had its share of chances, especially in a high-tempo first half.
The best was a breakaway for Ryan Johnson in the 16th minute that Gspurning smothered. Also before halftime, a 30-yard shot from Diego Valeri that caught the post, and a Jewsbury header from an early corner kick that was cleared from the goal mouth by DeAndre Yedlin.
Gspurning made all of his saves after Seattle scored. He dove to stop a Kalif Alhassan shot in the 62nd minute, tipped away a Darlington Nagbe blast in the 88th, then handled headers from Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Kah in stoppage time.
“In the end, everything went as planned,” Porter said. “If Valeri hits the goal that hit the post, different story, right?”
With Diego Chara suspended, and with Will Johnson and Ben Zemanski injured, Timbers coach Caleb Porter made a formation change. Jewsbury returned to the lineup as a lone defensive midfielder. Alhassan supported Valeri in central midfield, with Rodney Wallace left and Nagbe right. Ryan Johnson opened as a lone striker.
“I thought it gave us a lot of ability to keep the ball against them,” Porter said of using Jewsbury as a single defensive midfielder. “I thought they struggled to figure out the numbers. We wanted to create numerical superiority in the middle of the park, which we did.”
Dempsey — making his home debut for Seattle — was involved in several plays within the penalty area. In the 26th minute, Jewsbury appeared to get a piece of Dempsey as the Sounder went after a loose ball, but no foul was awarded. Goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts smothered another Dempsey chance in the 37th minute.
But, aside from attracting a crowd that was the largest to watch a soccer match in Seattle, Dempsey wasn’t the difference maker.
“This is a game of moments,” Porter said. “You lose a moment, you lose the game. You get punished. It’s cruel.”