After breezing past Minnesota and LA to start the season, it looked as if the Portland Timbers might cruise again on Saturday night at Providence Park against the Houston Dynamo after a Diego Valeri goal gave Portland an early lead.
But then the Timbers took two punches. Cubo Torres converted a penalty to tie the game, and then, just before halftime, Romell Quioto scored to give Houston the lead. The Timbers went into the locker room at halftime trailing 2-1, and facing their first real adversity of the 2017 season.
Their response was a sight to see.
Portland answered the bell in the second half with a vengeance — outshooting Houston 13-1, outscoring them 3-0, and taking such total control of a game they once trailed that manager Caleb Porter didn't deem a single substitution necessary en route to a hugely impressive 4-2 victory.
Last year, it took the Timbers just under two months to reach nine points. This year, with their third straight win in tow, it's taken them three weeks — and if Saturday night's second half was any indication, this team is has a gear that most can only dream about.
This result was no foregone conclusion. Porter had high praise for Houston all week, and, sure enough, the Dynamo were unrecognizable from the team that was rooted to the bottom of the Western Conference in 2015 and '16.
The game crackled immediately. Houston, behind a dangerous front three spearheaded by the seemingly reborn Cubo Torres, came to play.
But it was the Timbers who would take the lead inside of ten minutes thanks to a gift of a penalty call from Alan Chapman, who whistled the evergreen DaMarcus Beasley for a handball just inside the area when a Sebastian Blanco cross struck his elbow at close range.
Diego Valeri slapped the spot-kick down the middle, and the Timbers drew first blood for the third straight match.
From there, though, it was Houston's half. While the Timbers' attack struggled to generate dangerous possession, the Dynamo were generating all kinds of pressure on Portland's back six in all three channels — and, at the end of the half, that pressure told.
A Roy Miller foul on the edge of the area set up a great free kick opportunity for Torres ten minutes from halftime, and that's when Chapman would strike again — his makeup call for the first penalty an even bigger stretch, as Diego Chara was called for trying to protect his face as the free kick flew at it.
Jake Gleeson guessed the right way on Torres' resulting penalty, but he couldn't get to it. Houston were level, and, in first half stoppage time, they'd take the lead — Alberth Elis gobbling up forty yards on a counter attack and slipping a seeing-eye pass through to Quioto, who needed just two touches to finish around Gleeson.
It was an ugly moment for the Timbers' patchwork central defense. Miller gave Elis far too much space to pick out his pass, and Lawrence Olum failed to properly track Quioto's run.
The Dynamo deserved their lead. For 45 minutes, they were the sharper, hungrier team. But the story was what happened next. Because when the Timbers came out for the second half, Houston had no answers.
When Christian Ramirez scored for Minnesota on opening night to briefly make that game 2-1 with ten minutes to go, the Timbers responded by pounding home three goals. Similarly, the halftime deficit against the Dynamo produced a frenetic, overwhelming response.
From the opening whistle of the second half, Portland lived in Houston's defensive third. It'd take them just twelve minutes to tie the game, with Zarek Valentin whipping an excellent cross in for Valeri to head in his fourth goal of the season.
It was a superb moment for Valentin, who, pressed into duty as a right-footed left back with Vytas still out injured and Marco Farfan battling the stomach flu, had understandably struggled early.
But the journeyman fullback worked himself into the game well, and, when it was all said and done, he had delivered the Timbers' best-looking left-footed cross since Jorge Villafaña moved to Santos.
Portland took the lead for good eight minutes later. Beasley sliced at a Valeri through ball, Adolfo Machado headed it straight up in the air, David Guzman directed down towards Darlington Nagbe, and Nagbe somehow got it back to Guzman who had continued his run to bundle over the line for 3-2.
It was Guzman's first goal for the club, and it capped a period of utter domination. Houston — in such control in the first half — didn't connect two straight passes for twenty straight minutes.
The comeback was aided by a smart tactical adjustment from Porter, who shaded Valeri towards the Timbers' left wing and got Valentin higher up the field, but the ultimate difference was simpler than that that. The Timbers flicked the switch, and the Dynamo were toast. There weren't any two ways about it.
Houston didn't generate a single meaningful attack in the second half. The likes of Torres and Elis were quietly withdrawn, and the biggest point of intrigue in the last twenty minutes was whether Fanendo Adi — having missed two gilt-edged chances earlier — would score for a seventh straight home game.
He did, of course, and in typical fashion: Latching onto a sumptuous ball over the top from Guzman, dribbling past Dynamo goalkeeper Tyler Deric, shouldering off Beasley, shrugging Deric again, and firing the ball off the post and in.
It was the icing on top of a thunderous performance. Every Timbers player on the field — from Miller, to Guzman and Chara, to Nagbe and Valeri — was markedly better in the second half than they were in the first.
Houston is a playoff team this year. And Portland, when they locked in, played them off the field. A few more games like this one against quality opposition, and it will be impossible to quell the notion that, not only are the Timbers MLS Cup contenders again, but they're likely MLS Cup frontrunners.
Porter said after the game that he told his team he'd use the word hunger with them "about ten thousand times this year" — and you get the feeling, as it seems he does, that the only thing that can stop the Timbers this year is the Timbers. Injuries, last year's death knell, have already been overcome to a degree.
Three games in, this team shows no signs of slowing down. Portland is, once again, at the center of the MLS universe.