When football becomes really good theater. Timbers v SKC

Timbers Fell KC


Saad Abdul-Salaam is about to take the 18th penalty of a night where a shoot out was the inevitable dramatic conclusion to a game that rode on energy, drama, desperation and funny feeling of fate. Abdul-Salaam marches up to the spot with a swagger of youth but with a wholly understandable hint of uncertainty. This has been a night where the actors have been majestic, the sound from the Timbers Army hammering – giving shape and vibrancy to the stage, complete with two directors on either side who have been influential with their plotting and alterations. But the standout component of this Providence Park thriller is the script.

The full spectrum of emotion has been felt by spectators tonight. Timbers fans might be accustomed to some travesty and disbelief to supplement their moments of joy, but nothing could have prepared them for this. And as central defender Abdul-Salaam prepares for his starring moment, his backstory is befitting. The 24 year old is a former college player for Univeristy of Akron, where he was managed by current Timbers head coach Caleb Porter. Akron Zips embarked upon a phenomenal rise to win the national championship, which followed for Abdul-Salaam with a stint with Portland Timbers U23s. He is every inch (6 feet and 4 to be exact) the appropriate villain. Salaam stands 5 yards and mere moments from striking the ball that eliminates his former team and coach, and having seemingly thrown the game away again, Timbers are trying to shake that ‘here we go again’ feeling.

Salaam strikes it firm and hard with the inside of his foot. He drags it a little to the left, a late adjustment in his body that succeeded in sending Kwarasey the wrong way and it is almost the perfect penalty. Almost. The ball zips off the inside of the left post and continues its seemingly inbound trajectory. Timbers goalkeeper Kwarasey is recovering from his save now. The ignominy of diving the wrong way for the decisive penalty is largely inconsequential for the spectator, but excruciating for a goalkeeper. But the crowd still holds it breath and time stands still. Kwarasey spins around to see the ball rebound off the inside of the second post and veer away from his goal.

It made sense that Salaam missed. Not the boring old formulaic kind of sense. No, this was that ethereal intangible ‘I’ve got a feeling it’s a girl’ kind of knowledge. Off the back of a game where KC tied the game with 3 minutes of the regulation 90 left on the clock, then score an improbable other to take the lead in extra time, before throwing it all away once more to a tie seconds from a KC victory, it was sense as clear as mud.

And alas it made further sense that the game should be settled then in turn by Kwarasey. He was the blue eyed boy of the narrative we over looked at the start, dismissed as a good but inconsequential support actor. We were swamped by the technical sublime of Nagbe and Zusi, convinced they would steal the acclaim. A belief challenged only by the decisive attacking light of Nemeth and then Urruti who looked certain to have tipped the contest and thieve the narrative. But as we rattled through 20 penalties, all outfielders having taken their shot (and many missed) we stood tête-à-tête with the life-or-death but always faintly farcical prospect that both goalkeepers now had to take one.

Kwarasey’s opposite number, KC’s Kempin is a good goalkeeper. A good shot stopper and a player whose personality you felt interacting with his team. All without mentioning how the 22 year old is actually the back-up. Kemplin had been looking for the edge (the advantage, not the U2 guitarist) in this shootout by the darker arts. Rattling the crossbar with the palms of his hands as his opposite numbers stepped up, and patting his palms together threateningly were two choice behaviours that would not look out of place in a David Attenborough documentary.

Goallkeeper shooting past goalkeeper jars the aesthetic of the conventional penalty shootout. There is no long walk from the half way line. No well wishes or words of encouragement from team mates. And no never-ending teeming of thoughts over and over as the crowd groans with anxiety and hope. Just a lonesome but swift, so swift, spin around having just faced a penalty, to now step up and take one.

Kemplin stepped forward to Kwarasey to extend his sequence of gamesmanship and stall a player unfamiliar to the situation – the goalkeeper’s union feeling a small dent in the process. When it came to the kick, Kwarasey blasted his shot before Kemplin could react. Match point Timbers. Faced with a do-or-die moment in which Kemplin had to score to keep KC in the game, Kwarasey punched the penalty away from the goal and rapture ensued in Providence Park. The customary conciliatory gesture from the winning goalkeeper was shelved – albeit momentarily – and the end credits rolled with Kwarasey punching the air and screaming. Was Kwarasey asserting his power and jubilance with this thump, or merely enacting a repetitive motion that had now become involuntary – it was not clear.

But in this mess of uncertainty, emotion and a plot that twisted inside out and then back again, Timbers are certainly the winners. And they certainly advance. And they play again in 3 days.



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