After Sporting lifted the US Open Cup midweek, I enthused that they have a puncher's chance at winning MLS Cup. Well, Krisztian Nemeth landed one hell of a punch against the Timbers last night.
Portland is a hard team to get a handle on--they have a talented lineup and an incredible home field advantage, yet they've managed to flirt with missing the generous redline of playoff qualification. The Timbers needed a win last night, and they almost played good enough to get one--but not quite. Instead, Sporting got the win and the Timbers got a lot to worry about as they push for a playoff spot at the end of the season.
The Timbers should have won last night. Sporting started two center backs who played 120 minutes midweek. Those tired legs had to go against the raw athleticism of Portland's Adi and Nagbe, and it looked like a recipe for disaster to me. Vermes began the match with his entire first-choice forward line of Nemeth, Dwyer, and Zusi on the bench. With Mustivar freshly injured, Espinoza still injured, and Nagamura facing a yellow card suspension, Sporting's midfield featured Benny in the defensive role with the youthful Mikey Lopez and Jordi Quintilla in front of him. Sporting started two rookie fullbacks and a rookie winger in what may be the most hostile road environment in MLS. An injury to Kevin Ellis required Sporting to finish the match with the 18-year old Erik Palmer-Brown in the central defense. That injury to Ellis meant that Dwyer didn't get to see action. Facing a desperate Portland Timbers team on the road with a lineup full of kids and a few exhausted veterans ought to have given Portland the win. It didn't work out that way.
If you watched the game or read anything about it, you know that Tim Melia stood on his head in goal. Besler and Ellis played well in front of Melia, but credit for keeping Sporting in the game has to go to the man between the pipes--yet again. A team with a solid defense and a keeper who can make the needed saves is a lot like a boxer who can absorb blows until he has a chance to land one knockout punch. Melia absorbed the blows last night. Then Nemeth landed the punch.
The ball was well within the Timber's side of the half line when Zusi (subbed on at halftime) played a simple pass to Nemeth (subbed on in the 73rd minute). I was hoping that Nemo would maintain possession and give Sporting a chance to hold on for a goalless draw, but Nemeth had other ideas. He dribbled half the length of the pitch to get off a shot that has to be a Goal of the Year contender. He beat 4 Timbers 5 times to score, with poor Diego Chara whiffing twice. That was all it took. Sporting battened down the hatches, and they're leaving the Rose City with all 3 points and a 1-0 win.
Even more than Sporting's dramatic wins this season, last night's result has to be striking terror into the hearts of coaches of potential playoff opponents. The home team outplayed Sporting's hodgepodge lineup for most of the match, but Sporting still won thanks to timely defending, spectacular goalkeeping, and a sublime individual effort. A team that can hang on in a match and then win on a freakish play is a terror to face, and Sporting looks pretty terrifying right now.
Nemeth is the most obvious game-changing talent on this roster--having struck twice with stunning goals in the span of four days this week--but Feilhaber, Zusi, and Dwyer have shown that ability as well. If Ike Opara can return, he's both an improvement in the defense and a nightmare to defend on set-pieces. That would be four players capable of finding a goal against the run of play for Sporting with their individual talent. That's a lot of punching power.
I don't think Sporting is anywhere close to the favorite for MLS Cup--but I don't think anyone will want to face them in the playoffs, either. Sporting isn't the most likely team to win MLS Cup, but they have one hell of a puncher's chance.