Heading into the weekend, the Houston Dynamo were undefeated at home throughout the 2017 MLS season — and while the Portland Timbers didn't change that on Saturday night, they came pretty damn close.
On a sultry, sweaty midsummer evening at BBVA Compass Stadium, the Timbers led for 62 minutes, had a third goal controversially ruled out, and only let two points slip on a late set piece goal from Houston midfielder Juan David Cabezas — a man who entered the game without a goal in his MLS career.
Indeed, when the final whistle sounded, the Dynamo — despite failing to win for just the third time at home this season — looked plenty relieved. They had been put through an intense interrogation.
Houston is accustomed to walking over teams at home this season. But on a suffocating night — even for Texas — Portland didn't wilt. They played the better soccer, scored the better goals, and continued to push up the field long after the point by which most teams visiting the Dynamo stop moving in any direction.
Dating back to the Chicago game at the beginning of the month, this draw marks three strong performances out of four for a Timbers outfit that still has more horses than any team this side of Chicago.
It feels like the Timbers have weathered what, by the loss to Real Salt Lake eleven days ago at Providence Park, had built into an almighty storm. Caleb Porter's team will now enter August and the business end of the season just five points off of the conference lead, and, despite all the frustration, very much in the hunt.
Darlington Nagbe — just three days removed from starting in the Gold Cup final for the U.S. — got the ball wide to Zarek Valentin, who, as he has done so often this season, measured a perfect pass for Valeri streaking into the box.
Valeri bounded onto the ball, and smashed it in off of the underside of the crossbar to give Portland the lead. It was Valentin's third assist of the year to Valeri, who, with eleven games to go in the season, is just three goals off of his career high.
It was a deserved lead for the Timbers, but it wouldn't hold up — ten minutes before halftime, the Dynamo would draw level. Andrew Wenger looped a cross towards the back post, Jake Gleeson rather flapped at it, and Mauro Manotas slapped it in as it fell to the ground.
But, just as they did in Vancouver last weekend, the Timbers picked themselves right back up. First, they'd retake the lead with a fabulous goal — Sebastian Blanco powering a through pass to Valeri who turned it back to the trailing Blanco to slot past Tyler Deric and make it 2-1.
Then, Gleeson redeemed himself with a truly stupefying save. Cabezas hit low hard cross which Manotas, from six yards out, smashed towards goal — only for Gleeson to throw out his left hand parry it onto the underside of the crossbar.
At that point, Houston manager Wilmer Cabrera had seen about enough. He used all three of his substitutions in quick succession to begin the second half, throwing on both Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto — the young Honduran wingers who torched the Timbers at Providence Park in March.
But though Elis was bright, and Roy Miller decidedly not at his ill-fitting left back spot, the Timbers were mostly unfazed by the Dynamo changes. In fact, it was Portland who had the ball in the net just after the hour mark, when Chara charged onto a misplay by Deric and fed Adi to walk the ball into the net.
It was only after referee Jose Carlos Rivero met at some length with his assistant referee on the righthand side that Adi, at that point offside, was adjudged to have become active in the play just prior to Chara nipping in past Deric.
The call took the goal off the board, and left the Timbers to try to fend of the free-scoring Dynamo for the final half hour with a slim margin for error.
They wouldn't make it. With ten minutes to go, Memo Rodriguez swung in a free kick that Cabezas — driving past Zarek Valentin on the back post — drove into the grass and up past Gleeson to make it 2-2.
It was an unfortunate way to concede, especially because set pieces are again becoming a pronounced issue. But, when the game ended with the Timbers still very much aggressing, it didn't negate what was a very satisfying performance.
Several player stood out. Valeri, for one, was again the Timbers' kingmaker. The Maestro is having a year as good as any in his long career, and this game was another masterpiece: a fabulous goal, a fabulous assist, only two missed passes against 45 completed, and 90 influential minutes in the heat.
Valeri is off now to the MLS All-Star game at Soldier Field, where he'll have a chance to test his stuff against Real Madrid. If he's as good there as he was against Bayern in Portland three years ago, the European Champions could be in for an interesting night.
The other Timber who was essential to his team's effort on this night was Diego Chara. The Colombian, perfectly unmoved by the conditions, was everywhere.
But as Valeri and Chara are known, adored quantities, the most exciting development from a Portland perspective from this trip might well have been another rock solid outing from center back Larrys Mabiala — who, four games into his Timbers career, looks like a keeper.
That's a huge piece of the puzzle. In the exact same position last year — in need of a center back to shore up a woeful defense — the Timbers gambled on Steven Taylor and, not unsurprisingly, paid dearly.
Taylor was abysmal, for instance, in the Timbers' late season trip to Houston — a game that the Dynamo, then placed last in the Western Conference, won in a rout. This was a different story. Portland was strong defensively, and Mabiala, whose mobility and size is a blend the Timbers have rarely ever had, was at the heart of the effort.
You can see the reasons for optimism mounting. The Timbers had their first choice front six back together on Saturday night, and all that front six has ever needed to win games was passable defense. That's what they're getting right now.
This was a strong performance. No team in the league has played that well in Houston this year.
When the Timbers lost 4-1 to Real Salt Lake at home eleven days ago, they were either going to begin to climb back up the table or kiss their season goodbye. Well, since that result, in 180 minutes on the road against playoff teams, Portland hasn't trailed — and there's plenty of soccer to be played yet.