The US Open Cup draw had — finally — set up perfectly for the Portland Timbers. Beat the Los Angeles Galaxy at home on Wednesday night, and the Timbers would face the rival Seattle Sounders in a mid-July showdown at Providence Park with a place in the semifinals on the line.
But they couldn't get it done. An early goal from Raul Mendiola was enough for LA to see Portland out of the cup by a scoreline of 1-0, and deny them the chance to host what would have been one of the biggest games of the year.
It's a loss that ranks as one of the most disappointing Open Cup exits of the Caleb Porter era — the first time since the Cal FC game that the Timbers have exited the competition at home, the team's first loss in a month and a half, and the first time they've been shut out in competitive play since October of 2015.
The goal that sunk Portland came after just four-and-a-half minutes, with the 22-year-old Mendiola finishing smartly after a cutback from Emmanuel Boateng. It was a low-point of another slow start for the Timbers, who conceded twice in the first half hour against Houston on Sunday.
But as Porter pointed out post-game, the first bad break that the Timbers got in this tie happened Sunday at Stanford Stadium when Jelle Van Damme and Ashley Cole picked up yellow and red cards respectively and were suspended for LA's traditional July 4th game against Vancouver.
With those looming bans in mind, Bruce Arena — who no doubt enjoyed knocking Porter out of the competition on his home turf — played the pair of veteran defenders in a game he certainly wouldn't have otherwise.
It had a tangible impact. Although they had plenty of talent and pedigree in their front six — including the returned Darlington Nagbe — the Timbers struggled to break the Galaxy down.
Portland controlled the run of play in the first half, with Nagbe, Jack McInerney, and Jack Barmby all seeing chances. But LA marshaled the game with all the nous their experience required — and by the time that Porter had thrown on Diego Valeri, Fanendo Adi, and Lucas Melano in search of the equalizer, the Timbers' grip on the game was gone.
The Galaxy weren't particularly troubled in seeing proceedings out at 1-0. The performance, among other things, might have indicated that the Timbers' offense is down to Diego Valeri even more than we already know.
The manager was circumspect after the game — frustrated at his team's poor start, but mostly happy with how they played. In a broader footballing sense, Portland's loss in this game may have been a residual effect from their hugely lucky comeback victory against the Dynamo.
And though they've mostly gotten good results over the last month, what we're seeing is very much a team in flux. The majority of the players who started against LA — rookie goalkeeper Wade Hamilton, Jermaine Taylor, Zarek Valentin, Ned Grabavoy, Barmby, Darren Mattocks, and McInerney — weren't part of the 2015 championship team.
Their lack of familiarity showed. Although they played well in stretches, especially when getting Nagbe and Grabavoy involved, Portland didn't have the cohesiveness or consistency required to unlock the Galaxy's stingy back six.
The Timbers, about to lose another member of their MLS Cup winning side in Dairon Asprilla and possibly another in Adam Kwarasey, are turning over at an unsettling rate. That's not to say that the team hasn't made some good moves this year, but it's not entirely surprising that they aren't hitting their 2015 heights. This isn't the same team.
And things are only going to get crazier in the next month. There's a new left back on his way in, Asprilla and likely Chris Klute on the way out, and the future of the goalkeeping position to settle at a minimum.
It's an important stretch for Porter and GM Gavin Wilkinson — a last chance to set up a fall run that, with this current group of players, probably isn't happening. Teams who start Jermaine Taylor every week don't win championships.
Porter needs to settle on either Jake Gleeson or Kwarasey in goal, Alvas Powell or Valentin at right back, and find a new left back. He needs to figure out whether the team is best served by starting Ben Zemanski, and whether Melano — who was back to his haphazardly meandering self in his cameo on Wednesday night — is worth the trouble.
It's not a bigger job than Porter faced last year. But unlike last year, the backbone — a dependable defense — isn't in place. Beyond that, the Timbers are, on the whole, less reliable in a number of positions than they were last year.
It goes without saying that this team is missing Rodney Wallace — who scored his first goal in Brazil over the weekend — and Jorge Villafaña, but, interestingly enough, the Timbers could also use Will Johnson right now.
The captain, who is playing well and was scoring a dramatic Canadian Championship winner for Toronto at Vancouver as the Timbers were losing to LA, would be starting next to Diego Chara in the higher-pressing 4-2-3-1 setup he thrived in during 2013.
It's plenty to chew on right now. The Timbers have flirted with being good this year, but they've all too often let themselves down like they did on Wednesday night.
This was, it could be argued, the team's first truly damaging loss of the year. Watching the Galaxy host Seattle in the quarterfinal in a month should hurt. July and August, with a number of marquee Western Conference games, will have more lasting impacts.
As we enter the second half of the year, the Timbers' sense of urgency should be kicking in. Porter knows what a championship team looks like, and he knows that this isn't it. At least not yet.