At the end of regulation play last Saturday night, Barry Watling, the Seattle goalie by way of Hartlepool, England, was wondering if his dolls had begun to lose their magic. With just 35 seconds to play, a desperation Portland shot had ricocheted off one of his Seattle teammates and into the net. That locked the score at 2-2 and the two North American Soccer League powers were heading into sudden-death overtime. Sadly, Watling picked up the two dolls he tucks away in one corner of the goal before every game and carried them to the sideline.
There, John Best, the Seattle coach, quietly began to rally his stunned troops. In the stands of the picturesque high school stadium where the Sounders play their home games, a sellout crowd of 17,925 moaned over the misfortune. This was the third meeting between the two rivals, with each having won once. Seattle needed a victory to stay in contention for the Western Division championship.
The Portland Timbers, in their first season, had come in with a record of 16-4 and 136 points. Seattle was in second place, 13-6, with 112 points. In the NASL you get six points for every victory, plus a point for each goal scored up to three per game. With three regular-season games to play, the Sounders still had a chance. But even if they lost to the Timbers, they were virtually certain to make the playoffs. "But it's not the same," explained Sounder General Manager Jack Daley. "True, all we need is one victory in our next three games and we'll be in the playoffs as one of the wild-card teams. But then we'll have to play all our games on the road. Only the division champions are assured of at least one home game."
The bitterest blow, though, would be finishing behind Portland, a group of yeomanly Englishmen who assembled just a few days before the season opened and have since taken great delight in thrashing almost everyone, especially Seattle just a week earlier.
The Timbers won that one by a score of 2-1 before a crowd of 27,310 in Portland. Three nights later 23,005 Portland fans turned out to see their heroes beat San Jose 3-2. (In between, 5,076 fans watched Portland Thunder of the WFL play an exhibition game against Philadelphia.) " Seattle playing Portland has become as heated as any neighborhood-division rivalry they have in England," said Best. "It's Liverpool playing Everton. After they beat us, Portland celebrated all night. It was a victory for the whole town. And in Seattle everyone has been saying how they'd show Portland who had the best team next time. It's what real soccer should be."
And now, with overtime about to begin, Best began to prime his athletes. "Heads up, lads," he said quietly. "They can't stay lucky forever. You've devastated them all night. Just keep playing as you have been. One of our shots has to go in sometime." He shook his head. "The way we've played, we should have won 5-0 by now."
By 5-0 at least. For one thing, four of the Timbers were slowed by injuries. And then there is the width of the Sounders' field, which is six yards narrower than the Timbers' home pitch. Portland has two fine wingmen, Jimmy Kelly, a 5'6" magician from Belfast, and Willie Anderson, 5'8", from Liverpool. The narrower field took some of the sting out of their speed.
But the man the Sounders had to neutralize was Peter Withe, the big, strong striker who had scored both goals against them in their last game. Withe, who was just sold for $150,000 by Wolverhampton to Birmingham City in the English first division (he plays year round), is the target man in Portland's attack, and he terrorizes goalies. A favored Portland play is a long flier to Withe, who butts the ball back to Barry Powell, who in turn deals off to Kelly. Then it's right back to Withe, and—wham—a 60-mph bullet flying at some hapless goalie.
"If we stop those three," said Jim Gabriel, Best's assistant and a skilled defender with 12 years' first-division experience, "the rest cannot beat us."
The job of stopping Withe fell to Mike England, a legend in English soccer. A 6'2", 184-pound Welshman, England was more than equal to the task. He simply placed all that muscle in front of Withe and there it stayed. Then Seattle put two men on Kelly, and Hank Liotart, normally an offense player, on Powell—and Portland's potent offense never really got going.