The coldest game in Major League History
Nineteen-degree temperature readings before kickoff had already put the game in the discussion, but when mid-first-half measurements had that number dropping three points, history was made. Colder than Atlanta United FC’s visits over the last two years to Minnesota – both of which went into the record books at 19 degrees – the Portland Timbers’ 2019 season-opener in Colorado was the coldest game in Major League Soccer history at 18 degrees.
Initially, it didn’t look like the snow would derail the match, with each side ready to persevere through the frost. As the first half went on, though, flakes settled into players’ hair, moisture began to overtake the field, and what was once a sheet of brown and green reflecting a Rocky Mountain winter became a surface more suitable for the NHL.
Luckily for us, the players fought through the conditions, giving us more goals and chances than we had any right to expect. Overall, though, we received another reminder as to why soccer isn’t best suited as a winter sport.
The season’s first big break
Colorado was in position to leverage the conditions after scoring an early opening goal, with the impending downfall bringing the potential to slow the game to a standstill. Axel Sjöberg, however, delivered his guests a gift, taking a moment in the 26th minute to give his best impression of Tim Howard, even though he wasn’t wearing the goalkeeper’s gloves.
Howard did his part to cover for his Colorado teammate, initially saving Diego Valeri’s ensuing penalty kick before the rebound was converted, but his Sjöberg's red card undoubtedly changed the match. The Rapids put in a commendable performance to eventually earn a 3-3 draw, but within the context of their season’s home opener, Colorado may wonder what could have been without their defender’s poor choice and dismissal.
Corner after corner, until they pay off
The earliest effect of Portland’s man advantage was seen in one statistic: corner kicks. The Timbers had 12 in the first half, few of which generated a chance on goal before the last of the half.
Then, in the period’s added time, Valeri’s near-post inswinger from the right of Howard’s goal appeared to curl directly into goal, finally giving Portland some payoff for their arsenal of restarts. When replayed showed Sebastián Blanco got a head on it, however, it became clear why the star winger raced for the ball, slide it under his jersey, and celebrated with some baby announcement news for the Timbers faithful.
The Timbers finished the match with 17 corners.
Benny putting a scare into the Timbers
It didn’t take long into the second half for the Rapids to equalize, thanks in part to a standout effort from Benny Feilhaber, and in part to the ice beneath the feet of Diego Chara and Larrys Mabiala. After the former U.S. international intercepted a Portland clearance to keep play in his team’s attacking third, the Rapids midfielder dribbled away from Chara and around Mabiala before releasing a shot from near the penalty spot. Thanks to a sprawling effort from Julio Cascante, though, Feilhaber’s try proved harmless.
Yet the snow acted again, settling the rebound right in front of Feilhaber. And behind Cascante, Jeff Attinella had to react to the initial shot, leaving him out of position for what was to come. When Feilhaber slotted the ball inside Attinella’s right post, the question was less what the goalkeeper and Cascante could have done better than why Feilhaber was allowed to get to that spot in the first place.
The déjà vu goal
The slow start to the 2018 season is still fresh in fans’ minds, so fresh that most remember the two stages of it: the reality-check losses at the LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls; and the so close, maybe should have done more games at FC Dallas, Chicago and Orlando.
Today’s game felt like Chicago. It was a game that the Timbers played well enough to win, had plenty of chances to see the game out, yet somehow left two points on the field. When 2019 MLS draftee Andre Shinyashiki finished into an open net in the 94th minute, the déjà vu felt too real.
The draw in Chicago, as well as the coming loss in Orlando, ended up being formative moments for last year’s team. They provided an early lesson: to not take any scoreline for granted. It’s disappointing that lesson needed to be repeated in 2019, but it’s a lesson the team can yet take to heart.
Lessons for another day
Beyond that psychological lesson, though, there isn’t much to take from Saturday’s game. The circumstances were so aberrational, the moment-to-moment adjustments so extreme, there’s only so much you can worry about the details. How many times in a club’s history, let alone a single season, will a team be asked to perform in those conditions?
Still, over the next six days, players will undoubtedly dwell on the obvious. Colorado only had 10 men. They came back, twice. They took two points which every player in the Portland locker room will feel should be in their column. And they did so two minutes from the final whistle
That has to become motivation. There’s nothing else to do. If there’s any desire to break down techniques for defending in a snowstorm, the team’s energies could probably be put to better use.