The Portland Timbers entered Sunday's brunch-time clash with the once-vaunted LA Galaxy without a home win in 56 days, below the Western Conference red line for the first time all season.
For the Timbers, this was a must-win — and with their first-choice starting lineup as intact as it has been all season, they delivered the goods.
The Timbers got contributions from sources expected — Diego Valeri — and sources decidedly unexpected, like the embattled Alvas Powell and the just-returned Liam Ridgewell. It was by no means a perfect performance, but it was entirely satisfying one: an important, stylish victory.
Those who filled Providence Park for the heat-induced early start got their money's worth. It was one of those days at the old stadium — sun beaming, goals flying in, sunflowers flowing out.
The excitement started early. In the fifth minute, David Guzman swung a corner towards the near post that flew over Roy Miller and presented itself as a free header for Ridgewell, who — marking the occasion of his first start in two months — gave the Timbers the lead.
It was an auspicious start. Ridgewell has endured a rather tortured season, and it was his injury in early June that greased the wheels for the Timbers' early summer slide and the dismissal of trainer Nik Wald. On this morning, though, he was right where his team needed him — wearing the armband, leading from the front.
The goal should have been the start of a rout. The Timbers were clearly the superior team. They'd spent the first five minutes jumping all over the Galaxy. But, having taken the lead, Portland characteristically slipped — and less than a minute after play resumed, LA drew level.
A sequence that started with Joao Pedro winning a tackle off of Guzman in midfield ended with Emanuel Boateng racing in behind of Miller and slotting the ball past Jake Gleeson to knot the score at one — and the Galaxy weren't done there.
Five minutes later, Giovani dos Santos hung a free kick up on the back post, and saw it worked back across goal where Gyasi Zardes — without a goal all season — knocked it down and bundled it into the net to. LA had the lead. But only momentarily.
Timbers owner Merritt Paulson has been an outspoken proponent of video review, and — twelve minutes into its Providence Park debut — the medium came up aces for Portland. Upon further review, it was determined that Zardes had initially won the ball, somewhat bizarrely and completely unnecessarily, with his hands.
The goal was disallowed, play continued with the score level, and after a shocking miss from a familiar face in Jack McInerney, LA's opening in the game was gone — and Valeri was taking his rightful place at the head of the Providence Park table.
Just over ten minutes before halftime, Miller scooped a pass towards where the Maestro had drifted out into the lefthand channel. Jermaine Jones flew at the ball, missed it, and set Valeri up to turn towards the middle, take a touch to set himself, and send a thirty yard screamer past Brian Rowe to give the Timbers the lead.
It was a fabulous goal — another in the catalogue of fabulous Valeri goals — and it turned the game. The next twenty minutes, on either side of halftime, was all Portland. Darlington Nagbe was magnificent, but with Jelle Van Damme back in LA serving a suspension, Fanendo Adi was running the show.
The big man was winning everything in sight, and he should have had a penalty just before halftime when he was brought down in the box by the hapless Daniel Steres but for referee Drew Fischer, who had a predictably laughable outing. When the Timbers' third goal did come, though, on the other side of halftime, it was no surprise that Adi was integral to it.
The surprise, decidedly, was the goalscorer ultimately would be. Sebastian Blanco played Adi through, Adi dragged Steres wide, and sent a backheel into the path of Powell — who, charging in towards goal, ripped his shot past Rowe into the far side netting for his first goal in three seasons.
That was that. When Alvas Powell starts scoring golazos, the game is over.
The Timbers were decidedly less dominant once Adi, hobbled, was withdrawn for Darren Mattocks, and their defense — starting with Miller at his historically troublesome position of left back — was suspect. But the Galaxy never mounted a charge, and several smart saves from Gleeson saw the game out.
LA came into this game having drawn or won four straight in Portland dating back to 2014. But this wasn't those Galaxy teams. The side that showed up on Sunday was, for the most part, a shell of its former self — an unmotivated, disorganized paper tiger. Sigi Schmid has a massive job ahead of him.
The Galaxy, winless in seven long games, are now nine points off of San Jose and the Western Conference red line. The Timbers, meanwhile, are in the thick of the Western Conference race — just two points clear of the red line, just three points off of second place.
It's familiar ground. As long as Caleb Porter has been prowling the Timbers' technical area, as he very much was on Sunday morning, his team has been in contention. They have always, at this point in the year, had everything to play for.
The depravity of the Galaxy's effort this season, despite still boasting the kind of talent that made them the better team through thirty minutes on Sunday, draws that achievement of Porter's — in and of itself — into fine definition.
And so this season, saved from freefall, sits in a holding pattern. With ten games to go, the Timbers are in the mix, talented but flawed. This win, on an unexpectedly lovely day, was a fun one. But the season will be made or broken from here on in.