During the Caleb Porter era, no team has played the Portland Timbers tighter at Providence Park than has Sporting Kansas City.
Sporting has won here in 2011, 2014, and 2015. As we well know, they came within a post of knocking the Timbers out of the playoffs here two years ago. In fact, Sporting is the only team currently playing in the Western Conference that has more wins than losses against the Timbers in Portland.
It's no secret why SKC has had so much success in the league's loudest arena. For years, there has been no team in MLS as organized, as tough, or as incredibly hard-working.
Saturday night was no different. With the Timbers slightly off their best, Kansas City came in, played superb defense, got a Dom Dwyer goal on a counter attack, and ran out as 1-0 winners. For Portland it was a disappointing — albeit familiar — night at the park.
Porter knew that this game was going to be a significant test. After a soft schedule to open the season — an expansion team, four teams that missed the playoffs last season, and the weakened LA Galaxy — this match came against a team that had given up just two goals, both in second half stoppage time, all season.
The Timbers, through their first six games, had scored sixteen. But if this was a clash of styles, it was Kansas City that dominated.
From the opening whistle, this was a typically physical, biting, intense affair. The first half yielded just a single shot on goal between the two teams, and was underwritten by spats between Fanendo Adi and Ike Opara and then Sebastian Blanco and Benny Feilhaber.
It was a rough 45 minutes from the Timbers, with David Guzman — recovering from a bout with the flu — looking noticeably off the pace. Kansas City, high-pressing and hard-running, had 56% of possession and all but shut off Portland's service into the likes of Adi and Diego Valeri.
SKC had come ready to play. It was an entirely different level than the Timbers had seen all season.
That said, Kansas City was aided by the performance of referee Drew Fischer — who, midway through the first half, had called four times as many fouls against Portland as he'd whistled against Peter Vermes' team.
Porter, who was given a talking to by Fischer midway through the second half, said after the game that "they [Kansas City] had the perfect ref for how they played today." He wasn't wrong. Fischer was a fairly odd choice by PRO for a game that always portended to be as pressurized as this one was, and he was erratic throughout.
But the referee didn't decide the game. What did was a moment of real quality from Kansas City.
Five minutes after the restart, Feilhaber found a pocket of space and rolled the ball into the right channel for Jimmy Medranda to stab an excellent first-time cross back across for Dom Dwyer, who, having slipped inside of Marco Farfan, nodded the ball past Jake Gleeson to give Sporting the lead.
Kansas City had several good chances to double their lead in the following minutes — with Feilhaber miscuing on a cutback from Dwyer and Gleeson making a fantastic kick-save on Gerso — but they couldn't put the game to bed, and, as good teams always do, the Timbers rallied.
The introduction of Darren Mattocks for the laboring Guzman gave the Timbers attack some added pop, and, just over ten minutes from time, the chances started to flow.
Mattocks was met by SKC goalkeeper Tim Melia after being played through by Adi, and, on the resulting corner, Alvas Powell's looping header was cleared off the line by a combination of Dwyer and Roger Espinoza.
The closest the Timbers came, though, was two minutes later when Darlington Nagbe trapped a Valeri pass up into the air, and, from 35 yards out, hit a thunderbolt of a volley — only for Melia to tip it onto the crossbar in what will surely be a contender for Save of the Year.
Considering that it was on that south end goal against this Sporting team that Nagbe scored his MLS Goal of the Year in 2011, it would have been quite a moment.
But this wasn't the Timbers' night. Kansas City shut up shop, and, after six minutes of stoppage time, clinched their third win against Porter's Timbers in Portland in just their fourth regular season try.
It was, despite the late flurry from the Timbers, plenty deserved. Opara and Matt Besler did as good a job on Adi as a pair of MLS center backs have in recent memory, while the crispness and combativeness throughout the entire Sporting team — starting with Dwyer up top — was truly a marvel.
By moving Graham Zusi to fullback and swapping Ilie Sanchez for Soni Mustivar in midfield, Sporting also had more quality on the ball than they have in recent years. Despite scoring early in the second half, they still won the possession battle. It was an impressive showing.
The good news for the Timbers is that this was as good as Sporting is going to get — and, if their late-season woes since their Cup-winning year of 2013 are any indicator, the sheer amount of physical exertion their style of play demands will take its toll.
Portland, on the other hand, will improve. It's worth remembering that the 2015 Timbers got shutout three straight times by Sporting. But when they absolutely had to in the playoffs, they got the goals they needed.
That 2015 team was always in these games, it might be added, because it had an exceptional defense. The backline the Timbers are rolling with now — as good as the likes of Roy Miller and Marco Farfan have been — isn't even close to what that team had.
The Timbers have just one clean-sheet in seven games this year, and with Liam Ridgewell and Vytas likely set to return to the lineup next weekend — and a new center back reportedly signed — that number should increase shortly.
Saturday night was a measuring stick, and there's no shame in saying that the Timbers have room to improve. After a tip of the cap to Kansas City, that's exactly what we all should expect they'll do.