Cascadia chaos: Fieldside view of Sounders-Timbers a feast for the senses

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

From afar, you look at tactics. But up close, you get a true appreciation for the nuance of the game.

SEATTLE -- At field level, the game moves so much faster than you can get a real sense for watching on TV, or up in the boxes, or from all but the very best seats.

It was curiosity more than anything that led me to take in Sunday night’s 1-1 draw between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers completely from the sidelines. For more than three seasons now, I’ve taken in matches at CenturyLink Field only from the press box, paying way too close attention to Twitter and not enough to the events unfolding right in front of me.

I wanted a fresh perspective; I hadn’t quite realized just how different the experience would prove to be. Up close, you lose some of the sense for the tactics but gain a greater appreciation for the sensory thrill.

Rookie Sounders left back Nouhou Tolo, for example, is an exhilarating force out on the wing. The 20-year-old Cameroonian is still maturing – see: his high elbow that earned him a red card late in stoppage time – but his raw athleticism was obvious from the first time he touched the ball. If he can ever add defensive discipline to those thundering bursts up the sideline, look out.

Seattle center backs Roman Torres and Chad Marshall might not be as feared around the league as they were a few years back, but they’re still both dominant in the air. The Sounders cleared out Portland’s first corner kick so emphatically that it was obvious any set-piece goal was more likely to come at the other end of the field. That came to pass in the 18th minute, when Torres caused enough of a nuisance in the Timbers’ box to allow Cristian Roldan an opening to poke home from close range.

Portland midfielder Darlington Nagbe uses space so intelligently. He seems to forever find himself in little pockets within which to create, and he’s calm even when surrounded by multiple harassing opponents.

Diego Valeri was grumpier in action than I thought he’d be. Widely renowned as one of the nicest guys in MLS off the field, the Timbers playmaker was brusque and demanding on it. He made his displeasure with his teammates (especially Darren Mattocks) known, and it was a glimpse into a competitive spirit that burns beneath his otherwise happy-go-lucky persona.

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Clint Dempsey is a master at what is referred to in pick-up basketball as “old-man game.” What the 34-year-old joint-top-scorer in U.S. men’s national team history has lost in explosiveness he’s made up for in wiliness. He is an expert at using his body to protect the ball, swiveling his hips with his head up and looking for runners.

Body language is obvious the closer you get to the action. Evidence of Portland’s summertime struggles was in the collective shrugging of shoulders when Seattle went ahead. Jordan Morris looked like the saddest man in the world when he twice spurned chances to restore the Sounders lead in the second half.

Some players look better from this angle. Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso is omnipresent. He covers so much ground, comes out on the winning end of almost every individual dual and sees passing lanes most others miss. Alonso would complete 98.4 percent of his 63 passes on the night.

Other guys fare more poorly up close. Sounders forward Will Bruin never really got engaged with the game. He touched the ball just 17 times in more than an hour of action, and most of those went awry.

The aforementioned Mattocks also looked out of rhythm. His passes and runs always felt a split-second too early or too late. He won the penalty that tied the game right before halftime, but that is more a credit to Valeri’s pinpoint pass more than anything else – and from my vantage point just a few feet away, I’m not even entirely sure there was much actual contact.

It was hard to know for sure. Again, everything transpires so quickly from the sideline.

I felt a twinge of empathy for referee Mark Geiger. Later, he would walk off the field at full-time to a shower of boos from the home crowd. The job he and the rest of his ilk are tasked with, though, is not an easy one. In real time, Mattocks’ run and Kelvin Leerdam’s slight shove and Stefan Frei’s lunging dive all rushed together in a blur.

Down here, there aren’t any replays to call up and slow down. You’re fully immersed in the moment, emotions heated and stakes palpable.

I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

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