The Portland Timbers and New York Red Bulls made an excellent case for the potential outlawing of the defensive midfield position in Major League Soccer on Sunday. The poor play of central defenders Jamison Olave and Mikäel Silvestre will be what this match is most remembered for, but their managers and teammates put them under extensive pressure in the thrilling 3-3 draw between the two teams.
It only took nine minutes for Silvestre to make an absolutely disastrous error. He had plenty of opportunity to clear a ball in his own penalty area, but instead chose to play a backpass to his goalkeeper, Donovan Ricketts. At first, Ricketts bent down to pick up the ball, then realized that would have been a bad idea. Unfortunately for Portland, his delayed reaction made it difficult to clear, and he did so unsuccessfully. His 'clearance' fell to Fabian Espindola, who poked home a debut goal.
Diego Valeri, who was arguably the man of the match on the night, offered up a nice introduction to MLS fans five minutes later with a debut goal of his own. He did brilliantly to pop the ball up to himself on the edge of the area, surge past a statuesque Olave, then calmly finish past Luis Robles.
And then, more defensive errors for Portland. The next two goals were even more inexcusable than the first. In the 24th minute, Silvestre completely misplayed a hopeful, but harmless against a competent defense, ball forward to Espindola. As the ball bounced past Silvestre, Espindola ran by him with it and finished off his second goal of the night. New York made it 3-1 just four minutes after that, with both Silvestre and Jean-Andrew Baptiste looking bad on the goal. Baptiste lost Jamison Olave after an initial corner was cleared out, and Silvestre failed to deal with a ball back into the box that he should have got something on.
Caleb Porter didn't make any substitutions or changes to his formation at halftime, but clearly something was said (or not said) that changed his team's mentality. They pressed high up the pitch while getting their central midfielders and fullbacks into attack, pinning back the New York defense.
Mike Petke and Robin Fraser screamed at their side from the sideline, begging them to push back and hold a higher defensive line, but they couldn't get their message across before the Timbers got one goal back. Olave was at fault again, choosing to stand still instead of either closing down a shot by Valeri or tracking a late run on the rebound by Darlington Nagbe, who finished on the rebound. Portland probably should have had a goal a minute beyond that, but had a penalty shout denied when Tim Cahill pulled down Baptiste by the arm in the box on a set piece.
At that point, New York conceded that they were going to have to bunker and play on the counter. They tested Ricketts a couple of times on the break, but Baptiste and Silvestre improved in the second half and contained the Red Bulls' forwards. New York's best chance of the second half came in the 65th minute, when Ricketts had to come off his line to deny Henry, who gave Ricketts a chance to clear what looked like it was going to be a dangerous breakaway with a poor touch.
The equalizer came just seconds after a surprising sub that turned out to be a stroke of genius. Porter surprisingly introduced attacking fullback Rodney Wallace into central midfield, bringing him on in what became a like-for-like sub for Diego Chara. Within seconds of coming on the pitch, he won a 50-50 ball to start an attack. Nagbe picked up that ball and dribbled forward before ripping a shot that Robles tipped wide. Jose Valencia found the rebound and put in a low cross that deflected off Olave, who wasn't paying attention, and dribbled into the goal for an equalizer.
Portland nearly scored a winner on two separate occasions, with Ryan Johnson getting onto the end of both of them. Robles made a spectacular save on what looked like a sure goal in the 90th minute, and Johnson just barely missed wide with a bicycle kick in the 93rd as the Timbers were forced to settle for a draw.