When Diego Chara flattened Benny Feilhaber not two feet away from referee Baldomero Toldeo just twelve minutes into the Portland Timbers' crucial Sunday afternoon matchup against Sporting Kansas City at Providence Park, the odds facing the Timbers verged on insurmountable.
Portland was staring at an eighty-minute slog down a man against a team that it had not scored a regular season goal against since April 2013, trying to keep a clean-sheet for just the fourth time in twenty-four games this season with a backline that was starting its first MLS game together.
So what we saw from Chara's red card on has to be considered the pièce de résistance of a Timbers season that has frequently cascaded into the surreal.
Portland survived, then thrived, then flourished — TKOing Kansas City 3-0 for the biggest margin of victory that this series, perhaps the most competitive and hard-boiled in MLS, has ever seen. The Timbers have launched themselves back above the red line in the Western Conference, and they might just be there to stay.
The match — marking Sporting's first trip to Providence Park since last year's Double Post Wild Card game — was the latter leg of a home-and-home series that began last Sunday in Kansas City in brutal style, with Fanendo Adi knocking out Ike Opara with an elbow and the two teams combining for 34 fouls.
This was always going to be a battle, and Chara was already working on two fouls when he engaged with Feilhaber off the ball. The Colombian is good for one unmitigatedly idiotic moment per season, and this was it — striking Feilhaber in the head while literally standing in Toldeo's shadow.
As Chara jogged down the tunnel underneath the Timbers Army, his team faced a monumental task. A loss in this game would been Portland's third straight in MLS play, and it'd have put Sporting out of sight in the playoff race.
But the Timbers only clinched their first clean-sheet of the season after playing a second half with ten men in June against San Jose, and their response here was similarly tenacious. With Kansas City attacking conservatively, and lacking a creative force outside of Feilhaber, the Timbers didn't yield a single shot on goal for twenty-six minutes after losing Chara.
It was commendable defending, it kept the Timbers afloat, and it'd be rewarded just before halftime when Soni Mustivar flew through Diego Valeri like an eighteen-wheeler as the Argentine charged onto a long Jake Gleeson throw.
Toldeo, only too happy to even the scales, went to his back pocket again and could only grin as Dom Dwyer, a typically pedestrian force against Portland, remonstrated in a familiarly histrionical manner.
For the Timbers, it was a get out of jail free card. It was the sixth consecutive first half between Portland and Sporting to finish scoreless, but considering how the second half unfolded, the Timbers left it a changed team.
That said, it was always going to take something special to break the seal between to teams that had split just three goals in their last 540 minutes of soccer.
Enter — of course — Valeri. The playmaker ran onto a Vytas cross deflected by Ike Opara, and sliced an inch-perfect volley across Sporting goalkeeper Alec Kann and in to give the Timbers the lead.
It was a sublime finish by an otherworldly player — and that with the paint barely dry on Valeri's goal to bail the Timbers out in the Champions League on Wednesday night. We're running out of superlatives to describe the Maestro, but make no mistake: the Timbers will be in the playoffs, and they'll be there on his coattails.
Still, as last season showed, it takes everybody. The Timbers got plenty of worthwhile performances in this one. Caleb Porter led off by dropping Lucas Melano and moving to a 4-4-2 to start the game, in an effort to jumpstart the offense.
It was a change meant to get more goal-scorers on the field and more traffic in the box, and while that plan was mostly scuppered by the normally inscrutable Chara, its residual effects were certainly felt on Valeri's opener. What's more, Jack McInerney — who has been fantastic all season long — did much more defensively on the wing than Melano would have done when the Timbers were pinned in.
Plenty of praise, of course, has to flow the defense's way. Alvas Powell was fantastic before coming off injured, and while Amobi Okugo and Jermaine Taylor probably won't see the field much more this season, both were very good in this one — Okugo's quickness nicely complimenting Taylor's bluntness.
The pair were only really undone twice even as the Timbers tired late. Graham Zusi fired over from the top of the box ten minutes from time, and then, just a minute later, last week's match-winner Jacob Peterson slid a golden chance wide from seven yards out.
The early red card was a positive for the Timbers in one sense — it forced Darlington Nagbe to drop centrally next to Jack Jewsbury, and, just as it did at the end of last season, the switch brought out another gear in the US international. Porter must figure out how to keep him in the middle going forward.
Nagbe got the hockey assist on Valeri's goal, springing Vytas down the left, but his magnum opus was truly a sight to behold: A mazing tour of the Sporting penalty area that corkscrewed Feilhaber into the ground and set up Jewsbury to salt the game.
The old captain didn't disappoint, finishing with all the class that Zusi had failed to summon from an identical spot not ten minutes previously. It was vintage Jewsbury — a late-arriving run from midfield punctuated by an instinctual strike.
Fittingly, the goal came just seconds after Jewsbury had taken the armband from a substituted Valeri — and as if that wasn't enough, Fanendo Adi kicking and battering his way through four defenders to ram home the third goal in quintessential fashion in stoppage time added another exclamation point.
The galvanizing effects of the two red cards notwithstanding, there came a point on Sunday afternoon where the Timbers clicked into second gear. Man for man, pound for pound, they got stuck in. Adi made that point abundantly clear. He celebrated in the stands, and was joined by Ned Grabavoy — who himself was involved on both the latter two goals.
Porter spoke afterwards about his team's toughness and heart, and while those traits haven't been available in abundance this year, this game certainly could prove a turning point. We just saw the performance of a season that is still very much yet to be defined.
This much is clear: The Timbers aren't ceding MLS Cup without a fight. Backs to the wall in every possible way on Sunday afternoon, they showed again that they still have plenty of championship moxie to call on when its needed most.