PORTLAND, Ore. — In a hot, muggy visitors’ locker room at halftime Sunday night, the Sounders worked hard to shake off what hit them right at the end of the opening 45 minutes-plus.
They’d outplayed the Portland Timbers in front of their hometown fans at Providence Park, only to collapse in the final 3 1/2 minutes by allowing two goals and losing defender Brad Evans to a red card. But in that locker room, the Sounders regrouped, pressed the play throughout the second half and scored a Clint Dempsey equalizer deep into injury time to salvage a 2-2 draw and a critical road point that appeared lost.
“We wanted to show character,” Dempsey said after his ninth career goal of this Cascadia rivalry. “Go back out there and show fight. Get something from the game even though we had a man down. Credit to the guys. They fought hard and we were able to do it.”
The Sounders and Dempsey have been down this road before in this stadium. They trailed 4-0 at halftime in a game against the Timbers last August before rallying for a pair of second-half goals in a loss that often is credited for starting the team on its MLS Cup run.
And Dempsey, according to his coach, simply loves scoring against Portland. Dempsey couldn’t resist a postgame smile when asked about the 94th-minute snap-header from the box he put on a Roman Torres cross that beat keeper Jake Gleeson to his right.
“It definitely feels good,” he said. “That must be what it feels like to slam dunk in a game.”
Dempsey hadn’t even started this derby match, a rarity for a player who thrives in rivalry situations. His energy level had looked so depleted toward the end of a draw against Orlando City FC on Wednesday that coach Brian Schmetzer sat him out for the first half of this one, with temperatures hovering in the low-90s at kickoff.
The Sounders looked anything but sluggish the first 40 minutes, pressing the play with unusual aggressiveness for a road game and managing to take the rabid home fans out of it early. Joevin Jones opened the scoring in the 27th minute by slotting home his own rebound past Gleeson and things looked good indeed for the visitors.
But it all fell apart in one 3 1/2-minute sequence starting in the 45th minute.
The half had been physical, as expected, throughout, with bodies tumbling left and right. But then, Evans stuck his leg out and tripped Darlington Nagbe as he raced for a loose ball near keeper Stefan Frei.
“It’s either I don’t make a play and he scores and everybody asks why I didn’t make a play on the ball,” Evans said. “Or, I make a play on the ball and live with the consequences.”
Evans disagreed he deserved the red card on top of the penalty kick that Fanendo Adi promptly blasted by Frei to his right to tie things 1-1. The Sounders defender says players were told in preseason that red cards wouldn’t be awarded in such situations.
But referee Ricardo Salazar saw things differently.
With the Sounders down a man and three minutes added before the half, Jones, struggling to play with tendinitis in his leg, misplayed an attempted pass back to Frei and saw it go over the end line. A corner kick was awarded and Dairon Asprilla headed the cross home behind Frei to send the Sounders to the locker room down 2-1.
Evans said the halftime mood was nonetheless resilient.
“My mistake changed the game but the guys regrouped at halftime,” Evans said. “We felt that this is a game we could get a point out of or snag three points. And that carried on to the field. … We had better parts of the possession and they (Portland) did not look like they wanted it tonight.”
Schmetzer thrust Dempsey up top alongside Will Bruin and allowed the Sounders to press the play. Dempsey nearly scored in regulation on an attempted chip from midfield that sailed over Gleeson and just above the cross bar.
The crowd breathed a sigh of relief. But with five minutes of stoppage time added, Dempsey didn’t miss when the Torres ball gave him a second chance. It was the fourth time this season the Sounders have either scored or surrendered the tying goal in the final minutes of a match.
Orlando City did it to them last Wednesday in extra time for a 1-1 draw that Schmetzer said felt like a loss. This time, he said, the tie felt like a win.