PORTLAND — Hearts were in stomachs, and throats, as the Seattle Sounders bounced around the goal, desperately trying to score a tying goal.
But, even when the ball bounced off of defender Pa Moudo Kah and then the crossbar, even as Jack Jewsbury had to clear away the follow up, Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter believed Sunday would be his team’s night.
Thanks to a strike from Kalif Alhassan moments before halftime, more hard-nosed defending — and, yes, some good fortune — the Timbers beat the Sounders 1-0 at sold-out Jeld-Wen Field to climb atop the Western Conference standings and move into a tie with the New York Red Bulls for the most points in Major League Soccer.
“We dodged some bullets, for sure. But, in the end I think it was our game to win,” Porter said.
With two games left in the regular season, the Timbers (13 wins, five losses, 14 ties) are on the verge of their first playoff berth and challenging for the Supporters’ Shield trophy as the best team in the regular season. Portland has 53 points, one more than Real Salt Lake, the team that visits Jeld-Wen Field on Saturday.
Seattle (15-11-6) is two points back of Portland, in third place. By beating the Sounders for the second time in MLS competition, the Timbers sent the 2013 Cascadia Cup north to Vancouver.
“To go up to the top of the league against your rival, that makes it even sweeter,” Kah said. “We had some (uncertain) moments. But I feel like we controlled the game.”
The only goal on Sunday came from a perfect Alhassan blast. The midfielder was in the right spot and didn’t hesitate on his 45th-minute drive.
A cross from the right delivered by Jack Jewsbury was headed down by defender DeAndre Yedlin. The ball fell right for Alhassan to strike cleanly inside the left post beyond the reach of a diving Marcus Hahnemann.
“You can’t put a price on a guy who can finish like that in the box,” Portland captain Will Johnson said. “That’s the ultimate prize in the game that we play.”
Alhassan’s goal was enough to give Portland a prized victory because the Timbers posted a third consecutive home shutout, extending their unbeaten string to six games overall and to 14 games at Jeld-Wen Field.
But, against a desperate Seattle team that had lost its previous two games by a combined 9-2 score, this shutout required some big saves and good luck.
On a Seattle free kick in the 13th minute, goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts made another first-class save, diving to his left to block a flicked header by Lamar Naegle.
“It wasn’t being blocked or screened by anyone so I was able to move across and make the save,” Ricketts said.
Off the resulting corner kick, a Clint Dempsey header found the crossbar. The designated player and one of the most successful American soccer players, Dempsey is still looking for his first goal since signing with the Sounders to much fanfare in July.
After the early push from the Sounders, the Timbers were more consistent through the middle phase of the match. Alhassan and Darlington Nagbe were especially effective on the attack. Before the Alhassan goal, Nagbe forced Hahnemann to make a save, and later was turned away on a breakaway chance.
The tension mounted as the second half progressed, in part because Portland couldn’t score a second goal. Jose Valencia and Will Johnson each missed the target at the end of quick counter attacks early in the second half.
The drama increased in the 74th minute, after Seattle’s John Kennedy Hurtado fouled Nagbe near midfield. Johnson and Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso tangled up field in a battle for the ball. Alonso appeared to throw an elbow to shake off Johnson, catching the Timber in the head. Johnson’s reaction caught the attention of linesman Corey Rockwell, and Alonso was ejected.
“You get hit in the face, you usually take a step back,” Johnson said of his reaction to Alonso’s elbow.
Playing down a man didn’t keep the Sounders from surging forward. The heart-stopping moment came two minutes into stoppage time when two shots by Steve Zakuani and one from Andy Rose were deflected by desperate defenders. Rose’s effort caught a sliding Kah in the hip and deflected off the crossbar.
“It’s difficult,” Ricketts said of the chaos around him. “Sometimes you just hope for the best. Anybody can get the ball, it can go anywhere so that’s one of the bad moments of the game.”
“Your heart goes in your stomach,” Porter said, recalling the sequence. “But, I believed we were going to win the game. There are times when you just know you’re going to win it. It was one of those days. I just knew we were going to win the game.”
TIMBERS 1, SOUNDERS 0
Seattle FC 0 0—0
Portland 1 0—1
First half—1, Portland, Alhassan 3, 45th minute.
Goalies—Seattle FC, Marcus Hahnemann; Portland, Donovan Ricketts.
Yellow Cards—Moffat, Seattle FC, 26th; Alhassan, Portland, 45th+; Hurtado, Seattle FC, 72nd.
Red Cards—Alonso, Seattle FC, 74th.
Referee—Hilario Grajeda. Assistant Referees—Corey Rockwell. Greg Barkey. 4th Official—Ricardo Salazar.
Seattle FC—Marcus Hahnemann, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, DeAndre Yedlin, Patrick Ianni, Leo Gonzalez, Adam Moffat, Osvaldo Alonso, Mauro Rosales (David Estrada, 57th), Lamar Neagle, Alex Caskey (Andy Rose, 81st), Clint Dempsey (Steve Zakuani, 77th).
Portland—Donovan Ricketts, Mamadou Danso, Michael Harrington, Pa-Modou Kah, Will Johnson, Jack Jewsbury, Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Kalif Alhassan (Sal Zizzo, 86th), Maximiliano Urruti (Frederic Piquionne, 84th), Jose Valencia (Ben Zemanski, 67th).