It wasn't pretty, and had it been, it wouldn't have been worthwhile.
For the Portland Timbers, Wednesday night was about guts. It was about responding to adversity, about commitment, both individual and collective, and about we-have-to-get-a-clean-sheet-if-it-kills-us.
And when it was all said and done, the ten men standing for Portland had done a fine, fine job. A dubious first half red card to Dairon Asprilla made things interesting, but an early goal from Liam Ridgewell stood up as the Timbers got their first shutout of 2016 on the night that they absolutely had to have it for a feel-good — and hugely important — 1-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes.
With San Jose missing half their starters to injury and international duty — not to mention their head coach, who was in a minor car accident on Wednesday morning and didn't travel — it was always going to be a cagy, one-goal affair. For the Timbers to have success, they were going to need total buy-in.
It started from the top. Caleb Porter set the tone early by benching both Chris Klute — more on him in a minute — and Lucas Melano for their aggressively indifferent performances against Chicago on Saturday.
It was a strong move from the manager, who, in handing surprise starts to Taylor Peay and Ned Grabavoy, sent all the right signals to his team about work ethic and trust. Unsurprisingly, neither man let Porter down.
And after an early hiccup from Nat Borchers and resulting save from Jake Gleeson, the Timbers were in front after just ten minutes — with Ridgewell rising at the back-post to head in a Diego Valeri free-kick. The goal was the skipper's first of the year, and the country's best celebration — the Ridgy Roll — wasn't far behind.
With their goal in tow, the rest of the first half was quiet. Portland dominated possession as the 'Quakes packed their half of the field, with neither team willing to risk committing players forward. But thanks to a familiar and cunning culprit, the game wouldn't be mundane for long.
It was Chris Penso who took charge — and then lost control — of the last game between these two teams, played in April at Providence Park. But for reasons passing understanding, Penso was handed this rematch by PRO as well.
The extreme unusualness of assigning a referee to the same fixture twice in two months notwithstanding, Penso's performance in the last game merited anything but a recall. It wasn't hard to figure out that officiating would, sooner or later, be an issue.
And sure enough, the issue came in first half stoppage time when Jordan Stewart and Dairon Asprilla went up to challenge for a header. Stewart went down in a heap claiming an elbow, and, after a long consultation with his fourth official, Penso sent Asprilla off.
The irony was rich and unflinchingly ludicrous. Last year, it was Stewart who cold-cocked Asprilla with an elbow vicious to the point that the MLS Disciplinary Committee suspending Stewart for "violent conduct." In comparison, Asprilla's offense — a middling, soft elbow to clear space before the header — was a grandmotherly.
But the red card only served to crystalize the challenge for the Timbers. More than anything, the second half would be a mental test. The Earthquakes clearly didn't possess the talent to break Portland down. All the Timbers needed to do was focus, run hard, and get stuck in.
There wasn't a player on the field who rose to the challenge like Grabavoy did. In his first three months in Portland, the distinctive midfielder has looked like something of a cuckold. But on Wednesday night, he looked reborn. Grabavoy's tenacity defensively and adroitness on the ball worked the Timbers out of a number of jams. It was an impressive display.
Porter noted after the match that it was Grabavoy's vigor in training that got him on stage on Wednesday night — and that's important. A player like Grabavoy, an accomplished veteran who played just eight minutes in the last month, easily could have checked out. But he clearly hasn't.
It was more than just Grabavoy. Diego Chara and Ben Zemanski were both excellent defensively after some shaky early moments, while Peay grew into the game with the kind of assured and athletic display that the Timbers have gotten so rarely at full-back this year.
Zarek Valentin, meanwhile continues to be nails. Especially encouraging was that he played a terrific game on Wednesday night from left-back, suggesting that when Alvas Powell comes back after the break, he'll still be an automatic selection.
Of course, without Jake Gleeson — and most notably his tremendous stop on Shea Salinas right at the start of the second half — the Timbers would have been in serious trouble. The 'keeper, now with a clean sheet to his name, continues to make his case for the #1 job day after day.
And once they survived that early scare, the Timbers never looked like conceding. The Earthquakes, in a collectively sour mood as usual — Stewart would eventually come off slightly injured after bickering with Victor Bernardez — didn't have a goal in them and even if they did, Portland wasn't about to let this one slip away.
The first half of the Timbers season has been a rope-a-dope. The team has struggled with injuries, struggled at certain key positions, and struggled on the road — but each time they've needed to win, they've won. Against this Earthquakes team in April, against Toronto on the first of May, against Vancouver two weekends ago, and again against San Jose on Wednesday night.
In MLS, you don't have to be great until the fall. All you must do in the spring and summer is hang around. Stay connected to the pack. So as long as this Timbers team, with this coach, is in striking distance come September, there's no need to worry.
With this win, Portland heads into its summer break just a point off the playoff places in the Western Conference — and considering how they started the season, that's not nothing.
This game also means the end of the clean-sheet curse. It's a huge weight off the backs of the defenders, and, considering it was Ridgewell who got the goal, it's fair to say that the team's most-maligned unit did more than enough for the three points on Wednesday night.
They say 1-0 is every coach's favorite scoreline, and Porter was clearly pleased post-game. He knows that his team has put itself in position to make noise again this year. Now, riding a hard-earned win into their break, it's worth betting that his team knows it too.