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Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers

It had to be Clint Dempsey.

Since his shock move to Seattle from Tottenham in the late summer of 2013, no single player has more fueled the great rivalry between the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders — or played better in it — than he has.

So it makes sense that when the chips were down on Sunday night, Dempsey — even at 34, coming off the bench in what might have been his final appearance as a Sounder in Portland — used the stage to turn the Timbers' world upside down.

It was his last-gasp equalizer — a 94th minute header — that rescued the unlikeliest of road points for Seattle, and, maybe more importantly, sent the Timbers' spiraling season into its darkest frame yet.

The game finished 2-2, but the truth is that it could and probably should have settled over before Dempsey ever entered the fray. The Timbers played more than fifty minutes with a man advantage, and more than forty-five with a lead.

But they couldn't hold on, and the recriminations will be fierce. This was a game that Portland had to have — and with that in mind, the start they made to it was rather lacking.

Seattle controlled the start of the game, and, after twenty-six minutes, they grabbed the first goal. An ill-judged backwards header by Asprilla sent Joevin Jones racing by Alvas Powell, and while Jake Gleeson was equal to Jones' first shot, the Trinidadian fullback swept in the rebound to give Seattle the lead.

That, finally, put the requisite charge into the Timbers. Portland worked its best chance of the game not ten minutes later when Diego Chara stood a superb cross at the back post, but Asprilla — who came flying towards it — sent his header crashing off the crossbar.

And then, in an instant, the dam broke.

Just before halftime, Asprilla got the ball on the right wing, and, from a standstill, lofted a cross in that Sounders center back Roman Torres stooped down to his stomach to clear and made an absolute mess of.

His miscued header fell to Nagbe, who, through on goal, was brought down by by Brad Evans. Ricardo Salazar whistled for a penalty, and, seconds later, sent the pensionable Evans packing. Fanendo Adi's penalty — his 50th goal for the club — leveled the score at one.

It would get better from there. In the final seconds of first half stoppage time, David Guzman sent a corner towards an unmarked Asprilla — and this time, the Colombian didn't miss it. He hit the living daylights out of his header, hit it so hard that was in the back of the net before Stefan Frei could even get his hands up.

It should have been the knockout blow. It sure felt like one. The Timbers walked off the field under the North End with the stadium shaking, up a man, up a goal, and enjoying a stirring coming-of-age performance from a player who a year ago this month they were shipping back to South America.

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Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers

Turns out, they peaked at the end of the wrong half.

The 45 remaining minutes should have been a formality, and the Timbers, buoyed by events at the end of the first half, certainly started it with purpose.

But with Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi bottled up, the third goal never quite arrived — and as the Timbers' attack was reduced to odd-man counters and aimless deep possession, the Sounders began to work themselves back into the game.

And in the end, they'd make Portland pay. Asprilla lost possession upfield, Roman Torres hit the cross of his life, Amobi Okugo stumbled, and Dempsey needed only to nod the ball in and wheel away in celebration — arms outstretched, lip upturned in that familiar snarl. It was a dagger, and he knew it.

As the final whistle blew moments later, Caleb Porter stood motionless in his technical area. He then turned, shook hands with both coaching staffs, walked into his press conference, and — as is his wont — started firing broadsides at his players.

Not a minute into his remarks, the manager had placed the blame for the draw at the feet of "a mix of complacency of a few guys, and a mix of fear of a few guys."

Your guess who he's talking about here. Was Okugo afraid? Because he got his feet caught under him at the wrong moment? After he didn't miss a header for 93 minutes?

Was Asprilla complacent because he gave the ball away on the play? The hour-and-a-half he spent running himself into the ground in the 90-plus degree heat would seemingly expose that is an absurd, gutless take.

Porter should be frustrated. I'd sure as hell be frustrated if I was out-coached on my home turf by Brian Schmetzer. But I'd try not to take it out on my role players and backups who stepped into the cauldron of this game of games and gave my team a chance to win.

The Sounders deserve credit. Previous editions of this team would have gone to pieces after the red card. But this side chased the game in the heat for nearly fifty minutes, played sound defense, hung around, and was rewarded for it.

Give Dempsey credit too. He's a great figure in this rivalry — maybe the greatest in its MLS era — and there are nine reasons and counting why. Schmetzer got the most out of his aging star by using him for just the final half hour, and he was right where Seattle needed him when it mattered most.

Make no mistake: Portland played well enough to win. Chara, who this week characterized the rivalry as "an arm wrestle that never ends," was out-of-his-mind good. Nicolas Lodiero was quiet for a reason. Nagbe changed the game when he locked in after the opening goal, and Okugo made play after play.

For the second straight home match, meanwhile, the fullback marking Asprilla didn't make it to the end of the game. On this night, Jones — a full-fledged international — didn't reach the hour mark before Schmetzer mercifully lifted him for rookie Nouhou Tolo.

But at the end of the day, the Timbers were caught just short again. Maybe they really were afraid. Or maybe they — Porter included — just aren't quite as good as they so memorably promised they might be when the season opened four months ago.

Time will tell. But it will also remember the finish of the one of the great games in the history of this rivalry — one that the Timbers, for all their hustle and good work, would just as soon forget.

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Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers