The Portland Timbers are starting to roll.
Back in the friendly confines of a gray, drizzly Providence Park, the Timbers beat the Philadelphia Union 2-1 on Saturday to move into fifth place in the Western Conference — a full six points clear of the red line that has loomed so large for so much of 2016.
Said Caleb Porter afterwards, "We smell the postseason, and you can see it." True enough. The Timbers, as is their fall pattern, seem to be rounding into form at the most opportune time. It's a movie we've seen before.
Whether this team can gather momentum with the speed and force of last year's team remains to be seen, but on Saturday, against a decent Union side, the Timbers were at ease. Darren Mattocks had his best game for the club, Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi were on the scoresheet again, and Portland played on the front foot. It was a simple, effective day at the office.
The foremost reason to feel good about where the Timbers are at? On Saturday, Portland started with an unchanged lineup for the first time all season — and, for the first time all year, they've beaten playoff teams in back-to-back league games.
This victory wasn't particularly memorable in and of itself, but coming as it did just two days after the Timbers returned from a brutal CONCACAF Champions League trip to Costa Rica, it had its impressive qualities nonetheless.
First among those qualities was the start turn of Darren Mattocks. The Jamaican turned in a relentless display, turning over Philadelphia right back Keegan Rosenberry twice and turning those steals into assists on both of the Timbers' goals.
Rosenberry, it should be noted was an MLS All-Star and is — or was — a Rookie of the Year contender. On this afternoon, he looked like Mattocks' kid brother.
It was a comet of a performance — and in the rain, on the turf, on short rest, Mattocks' fierce defensive work-rate and sheer athletic force made all the difference. No matter his lack of polish, he gives the Timbers more from that wing spot than they've gotten from Lucas Melano all year long.
In his post-game comments, Porter — buoyed not just by the three points but by one of his guys being so chiefly responsible for them — took something of a victory lap.
The coach has wanted Mattocks in Portland since the moment he joined the club four-and-a-half years ago, and he waited all year for him to break through like he did on Saturday. For Melano, who didn't appear for the second consecutive league match, there was little quarter.
"We feel like right now we’ve got 11 guys that are all defending and 11 guys that are all attacking," Porter said. "There were some games this year that we didn’t have that. We had some guys attack and some guys defending."
The direction of the message was clear enough. Melano's days in Portland are numbered. Not because of Mattocks, and not because of a lack of time or opportunity. Melano has made forty-five MLS starts for the Timbers. He's just not that good.
And at this point in the year, on this team, you're either good or you don't play. Porter only made one substitution on Saturday, and it came in the 90th minute. The coach is clearly comfortable with his first team, and those first team players, it would appear, are starting to get comfortable with one another.
Portland had their opportunities in the first half of this game — as did Philadelphia — but the all the scoring would come in a flurry right at the beginning of the second half.
Mattocks set up the first goal not thirty seconds after the restart when he stripped Rosenberry in the corner and fed a streaking Valeri in front to make it 1-0. The Union would then draw level not a minute later, with Chris Pontius latching onto a loose ball on top of the box and lashing it past Jake Gleeson for 1-1.
Then, six minutes later, Mattocks again — turning over Rosenberry and driving him towards goal where his cut-back shot would be redirected past Andre Blake by Adi, who, in classic fashion, was waiting on top of the six yard box after posting up on Richie Marquez.
It was an instinctual finish from a player who has, predictably, rediscovered his form. Adi, who now has now struck fifteen times in MLS play this year and thrice in the last seven days, continues to be one of the best things that has ever happened to the Timbers. His value cannot be overstated.
Portland's close out wasn't without its share of tenuous moments, but the Timbers never really looked like letting their lead slip — and, when the Union went down to ten men after Georgetown product Josh Yaro saw a second yellow card for clattering into Mattocks, the defending champions were secure.
Diego Chara, once again, had plenty to do with that. The Colombian is playing his best soccer of the season, aided in no small part by the freedom afforded him by the positional discipline of the ageless Jack Jewsbury.
The Union started Brian Carroll and Alejandro Bedoya together in central midfield for the first time on Saturday, and it showed in an uneven performance. In contrast, the easy balance and familiarity of partnership between Chara and Jewsbury was easy to appreciate.
Portland's defense, so often a circus this year, is beginning to gather momentum as well. Aside from several first-half hiccups out of Ridgewell — and some truly embarrassing antics from Steven Taylor — the unit turned in a solid ninety minutes. Alvas Powell, for one, continues to get better and better.
It's the Timbers' time of year — and with the teams around Portland starting to fade en masse — a home Wild Card game isn't out of the question. Winning on the road remains the final hurdle, and in Houston next weekend, the Timbers will have a golden chance to right that wrong.
This team is starting to look the part. It's starting to carry itself with a little bit of swagger. It's been a long, winding road, but with Mattocks on board, it feels like the puzzle that has been the 2016 season is nearing completion. Now, with just four games to go in the regular season, the fun part begins.