As bad as they've looked at so many different points in 2016, Saturday night felt good for the Portland Timbers from the moment they opened the gates at Providence Park.
With the club celebrating its 100th consecutive sellout in the MLS era ahead of another crucial game in the Western Conference playoff race against frequent foil Real Salt Lake, the Timbers came out firing — and then, in increasingly fractious conditions, held on for another massive home win.
This one — which lifts Portland four points clear of the red line — didn't come with a deluge of goals. It was tough sledding, and yet another reminder that the Timbers are, at least at home, still very much a force to be reckoned with.
Portland's best thirty minutes were its first thirty minutes, and that was mostly due to the exploits of one man. Darlington Nagbe, as is his wont to do just every once in a while, grabbed the game by the scruff of its neck.
In the twelfth minute, Nagbe would be partially responsible for the icebreaker — dancing around Kyle Beckerman and unleashing a shot that cannoned off of both RSL center backs, and fell to a man in Fanendo Adi who scores goals against Salt Lake like it's his birthright.
Adi calmly collected the ball in the box, took a look up, and slotted the ball into the right corner. Nick Rimando never even moved. It'd be all the cushion the Timbers would need.
The goal was Adi's seventh in seven games against Salt Lake — and fourth in three games this season — but the opening stanza of the game was all Nagbe's. After a quiet month, and quiet international window, it was a reminder that no matter his position, and no matter the opponent, Nagbe can decide games almost whenever he pleases.
Despite being deployed on the wing, Nagbe was everywhere — both physically and metaphorically — in a first half in which he single-handily out-shot the entirety of Real Salt Lake. He never got in the boxscore, but Nagbe ended up drawing two yellow cards, missing on just two passes, and making several crucial defensive plays in and around the Timbers' penalty area.
It was a tour de force, and it wasn't just Nagbe. From back to front, the Timbers played excellent soccer in the first half. Portland was immediately unrecognizable from the team that lost to Dallas last weekend. This team can play with the best of them. Why they don't do so more often is anyone's guess.
Just behind Nagbe, the Timbers' outstanding performers were two men who have been around almost every single one of the 100 home sellouts: Diego Chara and Jack Jewsbury.
Chara, even more than usual, looked like he had been shot out of a rocket launcher. The Colombian was typically excellent defensively — for all intents and purposes ending Jordan Allen's day after 45 minutes — but he was also a menace going forward.
Jewsbury, for his part, hardly put a foot wrong all night. Jewsbury, it seems has hit that zone that made him such an integral part of the 2015 championship and 2013 playoff run. There's a job to do, and he's simply going to do it. He's an automatic starter from here on in.
Meanwhile, starting one player in Chris Schuler who hadn't played an MLS match in over 400 days, and another in Sunny who hadn't started since suffering a facial fracture in June, RSL was always fighting uphill in this game — but they eventually joined the fight.
Fight, of course, being the operative word. With Javier Morales only seeing the field for a somewhat bizarre thirty minute second half shift, and both Alvas Powell and Vytas playing terrific games against Burrito Martinez and Joao Plata, Salt Lake created very little from the run of play.
They did, however, throw their weight around. Both teams would be whistled for 21 fouls — the first time that has happened since Opta started tracking MLS in 2011. Adi was involved in a nasty collision at the end of the first half, but things didn't truly boil over until the very end of the game.
Portland's biggest chance to put the game away came midway through the second half, when Rimando made a huge one-on-one stop on Diego Valeri. Some ten minutes later, Powell would go down injured. He'd eventually come off, but before then, an absurd situation unfolded.
With Powell sitting on the turf, Jake Gleeson got a yellow card as he waited for the game to be stopped for Powell to get treatment. He then kicked the ball out of play, in furtherance of that expectation, only for RSL to take the throw-in quickly and draw a questionable foul on the left side of the penalty area.
As Timbers players surrounded hapless referee Drew Fischer, Salt Lake took the free kick and put the ball in the back of the net. Fischer, of course, ordered the set piece retaken — and after it was, and Gleeson saved Plata's take, the diminutive RSL man fouled Nagbe and dangerously rifled the ball into the Key Bank section.
It would be RSL's final salvo, a quite fitting ending to a contentious and altogether sour performance. Despite Jeff Cassar's post-game remonstration that his team is, in fact, "classy," RSL's disposition — along with a fantastic Saturday night crowd and the stakes involved — made this feel like a playoff game. The Timbers rose to the challenge with some force.
Holding serve at home, considering the foibles of the teams around them, may be good enough at this point for Portland to get into the postseason. But this win, even more than the victory against Seattle two weekends ago, was especially heartening.
It was just the Timbers' third clean-sheet and second 1-0 victory of the season, and it was the kind of win that has made Porter the best fall coach in MLS over the last three years: A focused, tough performance for all ninety minutes.
Everyone was good. Porter has to be heartened that Darren Mattocks had a bright start, and Ned Grabavoy, against his former team, was very good off the bench in his place. If the Timbers can figure things out on the road, all bets are off.
It's with wins like this one, though, the Timbers are keeping themselves in the game. All the while, that familiar fall feeling is starting to sink in again.