Too many times this year, both at home and on the road, the Portland Timbers have played well and found ways not to win. Despite all their quality, when faced with formidable opposition, they'd repeatedly been caught short: not enough defense, not enough composure, and not enough grit.
On Friday night, facing the New York Red Bulls at Providence Park, the Timbers had a chance to right that wrong.
It was a game they needed to win. At home, with the Red Bulls playing a second-string side featuring three debutants, coming off of a drubbing in Toronto last weekend, it was a game they needed to win badly.
And maybe for the first time all year, that need showed. Red Bulls boss Jesse Marsch left pleased as punch with his team's effort. But between six defenders, one outstanding backup goalkeeper, and two outstanding Diegos, the Timbers broke through in the kind of knock-down-drag-out game they'd coughed up all year.
Like most great soccer games, this one started slowly and then began to boil — building and building until it reached a crescendo, both in the stands and on the field, that would have been fit for November.
First, though, it started slowly. Save for several superb dribbling moves from the irrepressible Sebastian Blanco and a dipping shot off the crossbar from Darlington Nagbe, the Timbers' first half was mostly colored by frustration. The Red Bulls, though clearly lacking punch in the final third, were holding their own.
It was a sight to see. Marsch is one of the country's most premier coaches — and much to his credit, his team, however weakened, still carried the sheen of a side that entered play on Friday night having won eight of nine and just qualified for the U.S. Open Cup final.
Not only did the Red Bulls high press effectively and cover every blade of grass defensively, but they also believed that they could hold the ball and play with the Timbers — and as the game progressed at 0-0, that belief only grew. As the second half progressed, the visitors began to take charge.
Then, Marsch made a curious change. When the notorious Aurelian Colin was forced off injured midway through the first half, Marsch — not wanting center back Aaron Long to log a full 60 minutes — brought on central midfielder Sean Davis and moved his team from its starting 5-3-2 formation into a 4-5-1.
It was a good move. The score was still 0-0, and the Red Bulls seemed in the ascendency. But on the hour mark, perhaps overly and uncharacteristically swayed by caution, Marsch decided to revert back to the 5-3-2 and bring on Long.
This was significant not just because it changed New York's system, but also because it robbed Marsch —down to one substitution — of the opportunity to call on both Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan at the end of the game.
It was a dour, unambitious move, and, almost immediately, it backfired. Five minutes later, Kamar Lawrence got caught on the right wing and gave the ball away to a hard-charging Chara — who took a touch, looked up, picked out the run of Diego Valeri, and put a laser beam of a cross on his right foot.
From there, for Valeri, it was as simple as cashing a check. The Timbers led 1-0 — but the drama was just beginning.
The moment Valeri's strike hit the back of the net, Kljestan started taking off his warmups and making his way to the fourth official — and with their chief creator on the field, the Red Bulls' attack gained an edge that it had been missing through the first hour.
Slowly but surely, New York started opening up the Portland defense — focusing much of its attacking play on the Timbers' lefthand channel, where makeshift fullback Roy Miller was struggling to hang on.
Kljestan would see an opportunity when a shot from the top of the box took a double deflection off of Larrys Mabiala and David Guzman and fell into his path, but his attempt on goal was swallowed up by an onrushing Jeff Attinella.
Then — in a flash — the Red Bulls broke through. Kljestan received the ball in midfield, strode forward, and found Felipe — whose first-time scoop sent Gonzalo Veron racing through on goal. Mabiala brought him down, and Allan Chapman sent him off and the Timbers down to ten men.
Crucially, though, Mabiala committed the foul just outside of the penalty area. So while the red card was a harsh conclusion to the Frenchman's evening — one of the best we've seen from a Timbers center back this year — it was also likely a game-saving intervention. It wouldn't be the last.
The next ten minutes were bedlam. Porter threw on Vytas and Alvas Powell — the two players made to pay for the second half collapse in Toronto — as the Red Bulls poured forward in search of an equalizer. With one minute to go, they should have had it.
As Kamar Lawrence swung in a deep cross, Sal Zizzo streaked in between Miller and Vytas and sent his header flying towards the left corner — only for Attinella, who had taken a step towards the incoming cross, to stop in his tracks, stick out his left arm, and make a jaw-dropping reflex save.
That was the Red Bulls' moment. They'd played the Timbers to their breaking point, and they'd gotten the chance their performance deserved. But Attinella's miraculous save erased it — and, minutes later, the Timbers would seal the deal.
With Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles standing on the halfway line, Powell cleared a cross into the path of Chara — whose scoop pass sent Valeri racing towards an empty net. Chara and Darren Mattocks went racing with him, and Valeri, after drawing the defense to him, set the table for Mattocks to slam in the game-clinching goal.
It was pandemonium. Mattocks chafed, still upset with what had been for him — to that point — a rather abominable appearance, but Chara's smile said it all. Not a minute later, Chapman blew the final whistle. The Timbers were there.
Coming as it did a week after Porter questioned his players' heart, this was the win of their season. A game of inches — where Mabiala's foul is committed, the substitution that prevented Wright-Phillips' entrance, the Attinella save — that took every last ounce of focus and desire, necessary traits for great teams, to clinch.
It wasn't a pretty contest on Friday night. But the Timbers winning it was the most beautiful thing we've seen them do all year.