There was nothing all that remarkable about the Portland Timbers' sixth straight road loss on Saturday night in Commerce City, Colorado. Even Caleb Porter's post-game comments were unusually circumspect. Get punched in the face enough times, the logic goes, and you stop feeling anything at all.
The Colorado Rapids did what the Rapids do. They played physical, tough defense, kept the Timbers off the board, and then, just when the altitude started to kick in, popped up and grabbed their goal. It's what they've done at home all season, and it was good enough for a 1-0 victory.
It's not complicated. It's not pretty. With John Spencer involved, how could it be? But it certainly does work. Colorado, with this victory, has clinched its spot in the postseason.
Which is a whole lot more than we can for a seventh-place Timbers team that will, if they don't make the playoffs, have little to complain about. After a sixth straight road loss and sixteenth straight road game without a win, Portland's season is — as it should be — hanging by a thread.
It wasn't all doom-and-gloom on Saturday night. The Timbers, coming off of a fairly improbable and hugely important CONCACAF Champions League win in El Salvador on Tuesday, started this match with their best half of road soccer since the first half of the Seattle game more than a month ago.
Portland mostly controlled proceedings through the middle of the field, with Diego Valeri going close on several early shots and Fanendo Adi — soft as Charmin when he arrived in MLS three years ago — conducting a WWE match with Rapids center backs Axel Sjoberg and Jared Watts.
But the Timbers' best chance would come less than ten minutes before the break when Alvas Powell picked out Valeri on the righthand side of the box and watched as the Argentine controlled, turned, and rifled his shot off the far post.
It was the third time the Timbers have hit the post at Dicks' Sporting Goods Park this year — more than they've hit the post at Providence Park — and it'd be the turning point.
Pablo Mastroeni, with the assurance of someone who has seen this very movie play out in Colorado many, many times, said as he emerged from the locker room for the second half that the Timbers' would "peter out in the next fifteen to twenty minutes."
He wasn't wrong. Eighteen minutes after the restart, Marlon Hariston would skip through Vytas and Diego Chara, and cut a ball back for Sebastian Le Toux to slide beyond Jake Gleeson. It was Le Toux's first goal for Colorado, and the only cushion the best defense in the league would need.
Portland never mustered a response. Fatigue, both from the altitude and from the travel of the last week, took its toll. It'd be the Rapids who'd have the better chances down the stretch, with Gleeson doing extremely well — as always — to keep the Timbers in the game.
Portland had no one to freshen it attack, as Porter predictably fired blanks with all three of his substitutes. Lucas Melano had zero impact off the bench in his return from injury. Ditto for Jacks McInerney and Barmby.
The game remained physical until the final whistle. In that regard, it felt like a playoff match. Alan Chapman's turn-the-other-cheek approach to refereeing the game wasn't at all unhelpful to a Rapids team that seemed intent — certainly in the first half — on kicking everything that moved.
The foul count would finish 26-11, with Chapman eventually doling out six yellow cards in the game's final fifteen minutes. For Rapids midfield hard-man Sam Cronin, it took a foul that literally flipped Darlington Nagbe onto his head to draw a caution.
But the truth is that, even with a different referee and a different schedule in the last week, this game played out exactly how Colorado wanted it to. Getting an early goal against the Rapids is crucial. They want to take games into halftime at 0-0. That's where they're comfortable.
Had Valeri's shot hit the inside of the post and gone in, and not the middle of the post and out, this might have been a different story. Said Porter, "That's the way the season has gone. We haven't gotten any breaks."
But in the bigger picture, that's hardly true. It's been a tough year, no question. But the Timbers haven't been snakebitten. They have — increasingly and especially down the stretch, when it's mattered most — just been bad away from home.
Some of the breakdowns have been easy to spot. The difference in this game was simple enough. Porter said his team went down "because we los[t] a moment defensively," and the truth, of course, is that Jorge Villafaña doesn't get skinned the way Vytas did on Colorado's goal.
That the goal was created with an incisive bit of wing play told its own story. Portland's crossing in this game was mostly atrocious, and as the Rapids took the upper hand in the middle of the field in the second half — with Diego Chara having an uncharacteristically subpar outing — the Timbers' attack was finished.
Villafaña has now been replaced twice and not at all. Rodney Wallace is badly missed. So yes, this Portland team is worse man-for-man this year than they were last year. But not this much worse — and along those lines, some of the breakdowns have been harder to see.
Porter said that Colorado's "belief" swung the game in their favor. Does that make the Timbers soft? Does it speak to a leadership problem? It's hard to say — we don't usually associate those traits with this team — but it might be worth noting that Portland hasn't gotten a single road point since Nat Borchers got hurt.
Even if the Timbers win out, this will finish as the worst regular season of the Caleb Porter era. Portland can finish with a maximum of 47 points. They had 57 in 2013, 49 in 2014, and 53 last year, and while the injuries have been tough this year, it must be said that the Timbers have dug their own grave.
They're not dead yet, mind you. Portland returns home to play these Rapids next Sunday, where they'll likely look like a completely different team. It's not unforeseeable that a win in Vancouver on the final day of the season could get them into the playoffs.
But don't hold your breath. This has been Porter's worst team for a reason. Saturday was yet another blow, and now, there's likely just one more fatal shot yet to come.