It took a heavy dose of Argentine magic and a whole lot of luck, but when the dust settled at Providence Park on a scorching hot Sunday afternoon, the Portland Timbers had conjured a great escape: Three second half goals to beat the Houston Dynamo 3-2 and vault above the red line in the Western Conference.
For sixty minutes, the Timbers veered from frustrated to frustrating and back. Houston, under an interim coach and sitting in last place in the West, started the game by pushing the defending champions around to the tune of a two-goal lead inside a half hour.
But a potentially crucial strike from Lucas Melano and two brilliant penalties from the peerless Diego Valeri were enough for Caleb Porter's men to dig their way out of a hole they never should have been in — in a game that we will not quickly forget.
Whether it was due to complacency, a poorly balanced starting eleven, or a key absence, the afternoon couldn't have started much worse for the home team. The Dynamo, playing with new direction and purpose under new manager and former player Wade Barrett, came out with intentionality and poise.
The Timbers weren't at the races. That notion applied quite literally to Jermaine Taylor, who got done like an invalid by Andrew Wenger and could only watch as Wenger finished past Jake Gleeson at a tight angle to give Houston the lead midway through the first half.
It'd be too just a moment later as Liam Ridgewell, perhaps bothered by the Brexit, or the heat, or some combination of the two, whiffed on a lofted ball from Boniek Garcia to allow Will Bruin — who has always loved playing against the Timbers — to steal in and slot smartly past Gleeson for 2-0.
It was a lead that the Dynamo deserved. Houston looked the part — especially in a tight midfield, where Collin Warner's close attention to Diego Valeri frustrated the Timbers going forward and gave Barrett's team a base with which to play.
Portland, meanwhile, looked lost. Without the shuttling ability of Darlington Nagbe to rely on, and with Valeri made invisible by Warner, the Timbers had all kinds of problems transitioning the ball from defense through midfield.
The result was a number of turnovers by an extremely frustrated Ridgewell, few touches for the forwards, and an attack that hardly threatened.
The first half, in part, was on Porter. Ben Zemanski was surplus to requirements defensively and unable to offer anything going forward, while both fullbacks — Taylor and the recently returned Alvas Powell — were disasters. The manager's failure to include Zarek Valentin, or Ned Grabavoy to shuttle in Nagbe's role, hurt immensely.
Personnel-wise, Porter's record with the Timbers is mixed. It's tactically where he's shined — and that's where he redeemed himself at halftime by switching to a sort of hybrid 4-2-2-2 and, by dropping him infield and pushing him wide, freeing Valeri from the grasp of Warner.
That move turned the game. Portland, aided by the newly energetic efforts of Darren Mattocks, worked its way into the second half. By the 60th minute, Houston was out of steam. They'd put plenty into the first half, and, on a decidedly Houston-esq day, they were shot.
It was, of course, Valeri who set up the first Timbers goal — with a lovely through ball to Lucas Melano. Melano, who had, once again, been an affront to soccer in the first half, fired meekly at Houston's substitute goalkeeper Joe Willis. But the ball squeezed through Willis' legs, made it a one-goal game, and dramatically changed the trajectory of the goalscorer's afternoon.
Suddenly, Melano was everywhere. Porter said post-game that similar displays in Argentina were the reason Portland forked out $5 million for the player in the first place.
A Melano scoop pass eight minutes from time was the Timbers' lifeline when David Horst, bless his soul, a penalty waiting to happen, ran at the ball and trapped it with his arm. Valeri stepped up and thundered the penalty past Willis to make it 2-2.
Five minutes later, a give-and-go with Jack McInerney sent Melano chasing after a ball in the box. He was brought down by Willis — more on the call in a moment — and Valeri, simply toying with the young goalkeeper, chipped his penalty down the middle to win the game.
Simple as that. From disaster to triumph, in a matter of ten minutes. It was a strange, sticky game — but, judging by his intense reaction at the final whistle, one that Porter badly wanted to win.
He could thank Valeri for saving his blushes. The Maestro was at his swashbuckling best down the stretch, packing two halves of work into one and corkscrewing the Dynamo into the ground. Valeri is the best to ever represent the Timbers, a player of truly special vision and attacking tenacity. His class told.
The midfielder, along with his compatriot Melano, finally playing with a little confidence, on a painful footballing day for their country, won the game for the Timbers. But they got help. A ton of it.
To start with, Hilario Grajeda — a man Porter has rightly praised in the past as an "excellent referee" — had an absolute shocker. Grajeda, forever etched into Timbers lore for sending off Osvaldo Alonso at what was then called Jeld-Wen Field in 2013, likes to let games breath.
To an extreme. There were fewer fouls in Portland's game against NYCFC at Providence Park in May, a match Grajeda refereed, than in any other MLS game this season. You could see his philosophy at play when he failed to give Diego Chara a yellow card for persistent infringement despite his having committed five fouls in the first half.
Grajeda has given a penalty in fewer than 20% of the MLS games he has officiated. So it was how he blew this game that was so stunning — giving the Timbers a 90th minute on a play where Joe Willis clearly won the ball from Melano. It was a terrible call, and it will haunt Grajeda all week.
The assistant referee on the KeyBank side knew Grajeda had gotten the call wrong — to the point that he called him over to conference before the kick could be taken — but neither man was ready to rescind a penalty call to win the game for the Timbers in the 90th minute at Providence Park.
For the Dynamo, who played with real spirit, it was heartbreak — to the point that Barrett had his entire squad huddle up some five minutes after the final whistle at midfield for a rather extraordinary team talk. For what is, after all, a last place team, holding a first-half lead in Portland proved a bridge too far.
It's the second time in less than a year that Houston has been unable to hold a two-goal lead in Portland. Last August, when Owen Coyle's Dynamo went two up on the Timbers here, it was Melano who grabbed the late equalizer at 2-2.
That game, in so many ways, aligned with this one. Did the Timbers deserve to win? Probably not. Did the three points mask serious issues with mentality, with inconsistent wing play, and with a defense that still hasn't shown up in 2016? No question.
But considering the margins in this league, it's the result that matters. A win is a win. However it came, the Timbers won't turn this one down.