For 55 minutes on Sunday afternoon at Providence Park, the Portland Timbers had New York City FC on the ropes.
Jack Jewsbury was flying around like it was 2006. Diego Valeri created six chances in the first half alone. Even NYCFC's handball-induced opening goal didn't really dampen the spirit of a team that looked like it had a point to prove after dropping two consecutive road games in Vancouver and Dallas.
Finally, after some twenty shots, the Timbers broke through. Fanendo Adi got the goal — and then, just three minutes later, limped off feeling his hamstring. It'd be the end of the charge.
Soon after, Tommy McNamara scored a fabulous goal to give NYCFC the lead, and, with their most famous MLS victory on the horizon, Patrick Vieira's team clamped down to send Portland spiraling to its third straight defeat for the first time in the Caleb Porter era.
The Timbers started the game with an urgency unusual since Porter's tactical rethink ahead of 2015, dominating both territorially and physically. After two languid displays, it was more than appropriate to see Portland high-pressing — especially considering NYCFC's astounding commitment to playing the ball out of the back.
But it was the visitors who struck first, when RJ Allen took advantage of his handball to stop Darlington Nagbe by springing a gorgeous seeing-eye pass to goal which David Villa finished unerringly.
Portland continued to pile on the pressure, with Jewsbury — positioned further up the field thanks to Ben Zemanski's presence — throwing darts on both sides of the ball. Both Nagbe and Valeri had their chances, but more than anyone, Lucas Melano's profligacy was the reason the Timbers failed to score before the break.
In short, Melano had a damaging game. His inefficiency on the ball — and total lack of understanding of spacing on the field — killed attack after attack. In many ways, he's the opposite of Rodney Wallace. Physically gifted, but doing as little as possible with the tools at his disposal.
Still, Portland had a goal — or several goals — coming. NYC was finally burned for their instance on passing out of defense, with Frederic Brilliant giving the ball away cheaply and then letting Adi get behind him off of a Nagbe pass. The Nigerian, tying Villa for the Golden Boot lead, made it 1-1.
But the goal, along with Adi's injury, blunted the Timbers' momentum. McNamara's brilliant curling effort to give New York City the lead may have been aiding by a handball from Andrea Pirlo — who had an absolutely exceptional game — but it didn't feel as undeserved as Villa's opener.
And as NYCFC's belief grew, Portland's fizzled. It didn't help that Porter's three subs were an ineffective McInerney, the guileless Jack Barmby, and the feckless Ned Grabavoy. Out of rhythm, and missing Adi's holdup play, Portland's last fifteen minutes were, statistically, it's worst. Vieira's team killed the game off with enthusiasm.
Think it meant something to NYCFC? David Villa, World Cup, Champions League, and two-time European Championship winner, doubled over in celebration at the final whistle. Old man Jason Hernandez, who summoned Carlos Puyol for a night, was similarly enchanted with his team's success. Even Pirlo was smiling.
NYCFC grew up over the ninety minutes. They played with more conviction than they showed throughout all of 2015, and the beginning of 2016. It's possible that the Providence Park atmosphere, which Villa called, "so far... the best [in MLS]" had something to do with it. The Timbers, meanwhile, were left scratching their heads.
Whether this was "the best performance of the year, bar none," as Porter opined afterwards is highly debatable. But it certainly wasn't the bloodless loss the Timbers suffered at Vancouver, nor the gutless one they took at Dallas.
What the Timbers have, though, is some holes. Jorge Villafaña hasn't been appropriately replaced. Melano is Kalif Alhassan with some pace and no dribbling ability. And without Dairon Asprilla, and for the time being Darren Mattocks, the bench behind the Argentine DP is looking extremely thin.
The Timbers aren't a bad team. Had Sunday played out differently — or had Hilario Grajeda brought his 2013 form — they'd probably have won. Porter mustn't panic. His frustration with and ultimate removal of Nat Borchers was not a good sign. Jermaine Taylor is no friend of this coach's.
Portland is another offensive piece and Villafaña away from being at or near the top of the league. They've also been on the receiving end of a number of dreadful refereeing decisions this season. Clearly, this team has plenty of fight. They're just missing a little bit of quality, and a little bit of luck.
Injuries have hurt this team immensely. If Adi misses even a single game due with this hamstring problem, it will be a crushing blow. Had Diego Chara been fit to start this match ahead of a wayward Zemanski, even, the Timbers' landscape could be looking very different right now.
Football will find ways to test you. Porter's last line of defense throughout his first three MLS seasons was his ability to rally his team after losses. Now, though, that power has vanished.
Having won MLS Cup just five months ago, Portland and its world-class support would have traded all of Sunday night's charms — the rain, the bright lights, the stars, and the terrific competition — for a victory. But the game doesn't work that way either. Winning is as much a privilege as it is a reward.
Sunday night was a big one NYCFC. The Timbers can relate. They've had similar nights in recent times. And with a few tweaks, they'll be back for more when it counts this fall.