The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is a proud tournament. Started in 1914 as the National Challenge Cup, the tournament is modeled after European cup tourneys such as the F.A. Cup.
At Jeld-Wen Field Tuesday night, the U.S. Open Cup qualifier between the Portland Timbers and the San Jose Earthquakes was more like a junior varsity scrimmage than a normal MLS match.
In the end, the Timbers lost 1-0, on Earthquakes defender Ike Opara's header in the 120th minute, averting a penalty-kick shootout before an announced crowd of 11,412.
The story was as much the players who were not on the pitch as the players who were. The Timbers sat 10 starters from Saturday night's match against Real Salt Lake, with goalkeeper Troy Perkins the only holdover. The Earthquakes started only six regulars.
'If you have half a brain in your head, you'll understand there's a game on Friday (against the Philadelphia Union), which is a massive game for this club,' Timbers coach John Spencer said. 'It's Major League Soccer, there's points on the table to be had. That's the reason why we had so many guys not starting this game tonight.'
Opara's goal came after the players for both sides left their hearts out on the pitch for 90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of overtime.
As the clock ticked toward the end of extra time, San Jose's Sam Cronin lined up for a corner kick on the right side. Cronin sent the ball into the box. It was cleared by Timbers defenders but bounced back to Cronin. Trying his luck with a cross into the box, Cronin found Opara, who headed the ball into the back of the net, to the near post.
Opara received a yellow card for ripping off his shirt in triumph, but he did not seem to mind.
'I just remember right when it went out, I tried to sprint out as fast as possible to block the cross,' Timbers defender Steve Purdy said. 'I gave everything to get out there, they got it in and one of their guys out-jumped our defenders and was able to slid it into the corner of the goal.'
San Jose held on for the remaining 2½ minutes and advanced to the next round's meeting with the Chicago Fire.
The Timbers had avoided conceding a goal in the 103rd minute, when Cronin took a free kick from 30 yards on the left side. It appeared that San Jose's Steven Lenhart knocked in a header, but the goal was disallowed when the referee said Lenhart had used his hand.
To play for almost two hours only to lose in the final seconds was a bitter pill for Purdy to swallow.
'Very heartbreaking,' he said. 'But that's the way soccer is sometimes. You've got to learn from it and just remember that, in this case, it takes 120 minutes to get through a game and one second to lose a game.'
Just because the match was played with mostly reserves did not make it an unpleasant event to watch. The lack of cohesion on the back lines combined with well-rested legs on the attack meant that the ball went box-to-box far more than it does in most MLS matches.
'It was up-and-down,' Timbers defender Kevin Goldthwaite said. 'I don't think sloppy is the right word. The first 15 minutes we were playing very well. Two and three touches (for) everybody. Toward the end of the game, our players started searching for that killer pass in the final third of the field. That ends up stretching the game.
'Maybe we can do better in making it a little bit tighter. It was just a free- flowing game where both teams were going out there to get the victory.'
The Timbers' best chance for a goal came in the eighth minute.
Midfielder Rodrigo Lopez took a free kick from 30 yards on the left side, sending the ball into the box. Goldthwaite leaped up and sent a header straight into the body of San Jose goalkeeper Andrew Weber. Striker Spencer Thompson tried to get a boot on the rebound, but he was capsized over Weber as the keeper pounced on the ball.
' 'Roro' put in a good ball,' Goldthwaite said. 'I got my head on it, and Weber made a good save. I'm happy with the finish I tried to put on it. Probably could've put it a little bit more to Weber's right. That's the way it goes. Unfortunately, we didn't get the rebound.'
The Timbers had numerous other opportunities to score. They were credited with four shots but also had several attempts at goal that were not counted as shots. Each of the chances fell just short, or wide, or high.
'We were just lacking the final shot or the final product,' midfielder Ryan Pore said. 'We were creating chances. Unlucky for us not to get one. But that's the game of soccer. Sometimes you dominate play, but for a minute you kind of go on a lapse and you get punished. And that's what happened tonight.'
On Friday, Spencer will find out if keeping his top horses in the stable against the Earthquakes was worth it.
'It's a game tonight, it's a big game on Friday,' Spencer said. 'If you were to ask me before the game, 'You're going to win one game out of the two, what would you take?,' I'd definitely take the game against Philadelphia, the three points. Because in the long run of the season it means a lot more to us to get the three points against Philadelphia. That may be three points that might stop you from getting into the playoffs.'