Nat Borchers lets you know when his team has had a good day at the office. After Portland's win in Vancouver in the playoffs last year, he tetrissed with the Timbers Army. Earlier this year, he leapt into Jake Gleeson's arms after the goalkeeper's heroics preserved a rope-a-dope 2-1 win over Toronto FC.
Sunday was no different. Borchers' fist pumps told the story as the Timbers' held the New York Red Bulls to a 0-0 draw at Red Bull Arena in Harrison. The point was the team's fourth straight draw on the road, and seventh consecutive result without a loss.
More importantly, Borchers' unit, the defense which went fourteen games without pitching a shutout, now has clean sheets in consecutive games for the first time this season. Since the beginning of June, the Timbers are conceding less than a goal per game.
More than any other stretch of 2016, this is the one that has suggested the Timbers will have a shot at defending their crown. Portland's 2015 championship, after all, was built on defense. It was defense that kept the Timbers afloat through the first seven months of the season, and defense that limited the Columbus Crew to a single shot on goal in the final.
This year, defense has meant Jake Gleeson. The Timbers have had players who have taken good advantage of opportunity before — Jorge Villafaña, Ben Zemanski, and George Fochive all come to mind — but no one in this team's MLS history has done with a chance what Gleeson has done with his.
The goalkeeper was terrific again on Sunday, coming up with a massive one-on-one save on Felipe to buttress another impressive display. Adam Kwarasey will, in all likelihood, return to training this week without a job.
Portland also benefited from the return of Liam Ridgewell to the lineup. The captain, out injured for the Open Cup loss to LA last week and the draw against Colorado on July 4th, put in an assured play next to Borchers — who is playing his best soccer of the season — in central defense.
It was a satisfying result for the Timbers defense. The Timbers' attack, however, had less to smile about. Porter lost a key component of their game-plan — the counter-attacking pace of Darren Mattocks — after just 30 seconds.
The coach, sorely lacking attacking depth, turned to Ned Grabavoy to replace Mattocks. But Grabavoy on the wing has never been and never will be a pretty proposition, and the Timbers labored through a mostly unwatchable first half.
Moving Grabavoy to the middle — and an unusually myopic Darlington Nagbe wide left — improved things, especially the veteran's mood, but without Diego Valeri for a second consecutive game, the Timbers hardly threatened.
Returning to Portland with a point — on a chartered plane, no less — was always priority number one, and the Red Bulls never quite mounted a case for themselves to deny the Timbers a share of the spoils.
New York ran circles around Portland at Providence Park last September, but they never approached that level of attacking cohesion on Sunday. Jesse Marsch's trademark high press caused problems for the Timbers in possession, but the fact that the Red Bulls' best two chances came via deflections just about told the story.
Portland now enters a three-game homestand as crucial as it is mouthwatering. If the Timbers aren't above the red line in the Western Conference after they play Montreal, Seattle, and Los Angeles at Providence Park in the space of two weeks, there is will be legitimate reason to worry.
Facing the Impact on two days of rest — with a cross-country flight to boot — will be a stiff opening test. The law has finally caught up to Diego Chara, who will be suspended on Wednesday for yellow card accumulation, while the injury to Mattocks will force Porter to be far more creative with his tactics and personnel than any manager wants to be at this stage of the season.
It's been a tough road this season. The Timbers have, so far, scored and conceded the same number of goals as Orlando City — a club which just fired its manager Adrian Heath in the midst of broader turmoil last week.
The confidence Portland can draw from a result like one against the Red Bulls — and from the events of 2015 — isn't insignificant. The Timbers are racking up valuable points, but they're also ensuring for themselves a margin for error and the benefit of the doubt for the stretch run.
As long as the Timbers continue to improve defensively, they'll be in games. The return of Valeri, be it on Wednesday or Sunday against the — get this — last-placed Seattle Sounders, will kickstart the offense. Nagbe's impending emergence from a fairly common post-tournament slump will help as well.
Sunday was another positive step. Borchers told us as much, and real fireworks, you'd expect, are just around the corner.