The occasion promised much. The Portland Timbers, back at home after two weeks away, squaring up for the first time to MLS' newest club — high-flying expansion side Atlanta United — for a nationally televised Mother's Day tilt.
In the end, though, the game sizzled more than it popped. Atlanta was slick — controlling a whopping 70 percent of possession — but the Timbers ground out the better chances. In the end, two goals early in the second half cancelled each other out en route to an intriguing, unusual 1-1 draw.
It was a game that left neither side wholly satisfied. For the Timbers, who now have just one win in their last five, the game isn't coming as easily as it did at the start of the season.
From the opening whistle on Sunday afternoon, it was clear that Portland was in for a battle.
The opening stages were all Atlanta — and with Tata Martino's team pumping the ball down the Timbers' righthand side at will, Alvas Powell and Dairon Asprilla, in again for the injured Darlington Nagbe, struggled mightily to settle into the game.
The pair held their own defensively, but were terrible — Powell especially — when it turned over. The fullback completed just six passes in the first half, and went 12 for 27 over the 90 minutes.
The result was that the Timbers couldn't hold the ball. Atlanta controlled a whopping 72 percent of the first half possession, an extraordinary mark for an away team at Providence Park. There wouldn't be a single five minute interval during the entire afternoon in which the away team didn't have the majority of possession.
But despite their chokehold on proceedings, Atlanta created precious little against the Timbers' retooled defense. Miguel Almiron — who was nearly unplayable — created several excellent chances, but, when the opening 45 minutes were in the books, the visitors team was sitting on just a single shot.
That would change not thirty seconds after the restart. After a cheap giveaway from Asprilla, a Jeff Larentowicz passed skipped through to Julian Gressel on top of the box. The German took a touch, and fired past Jake Gleeson at his near post to give Atlanta the lead.
Coming so soon after one of the team's best defensive halves of the season, it was a disappointing letdown. But Atlanta wouldn't have the lead for long.
Five minutes after Gressel's opener, David Guzman's excellent free-kick bounced across the face of goal to the back post and was headed down and in by an unmarked Liam Ridgewell.
From there, the Timbers slowly but surely began to get their chances. There were several good looks off corners — one courtesy of Adi's right hand — before the Timbers, thanks in large part to the phenomenally competitive Sebastian Blanco, mounted their best push for a winner in stoppage time.
In the 92nd minute, that push almost ended with a heart-stopping goal when Guzman — running onto his own deflected free-kick — unleashed a thunderbolt of a volley that smashed off the post. Full-time was whistled soon thereafter.
Martino stated unequivocally after the game that his was the better team, and he certainly had a case. With the Timbers applying zero high pressure, Atlanta knocked the ball with the kind of polish and confidence that few teams in MLS — let alone teams playing their tenth competitive game ever — can call upon.
Atlanta came into one of the toughest venues in the league and ran the show. It was an impressive display.
For the Timbers, it was, in many ways, an ugly day. Portland dearly missed Nagbe — the safest pair of feet in the business — and wound up completing a miserly 54 percent of their passes in the attacking half of the field. There were stretches when the Timbers couldn't get near the ball.
But they certainly didn't wilt. In a feisty game — one that, in the hands of a lesser referee than Irishman Alan Kelly, could have gotten out of control — that mattered.
Ridgewell, the goal aside, had a much-needed strong outing at the heart of a Timbers' defense that was far better organized than it was last weekend. Diego Chara was excellent in front of the backline, while Guzman is looking more and more like a regista every week. Blanco's spitfire performance was galvanizing.
There was plenty to like. Atlanta had the ball, but the Timbers had the chances. The days when that breakdown would have bothered Porter are long gone. Portland, despite Almiron and especially as the game wore on, was the more goal dangerous team.
It was in individual spots where the Timbers were let down. Porter appears to be at his wit's end with Asprilla, who lasted just fifteen minutes of the second half and is well on his way to squandering his second chance to stick in Portland.
Powell, meanwhile, has looked somewhat at sea all season. He hasn't approached his 2015 best since losing Nat Borchers as his eyes and ears last summer.
It goes without saying that the Timbers are in something of a funk right now. The team has now won just twice in the last two months, and has scored just five goals in its last five games after a phenomenal goalscoring March.
Any sort of panic, however, would be ill-advised. The Timbers haven't had their first-choice front four together in four straight games. Nagbe missed this one, and Diego Valeri might as well have too. The Maestro was utterly forgettable in his return from a two-week layoff.
Atlanta is for real. This is the same team that got road results at Seattle and Toronto before they were two months old. The Timbers, on the other hand, are working through the kind of jagged early-season patch that every MLS club faces. Both clubs will live to fight another day.