For a half hour at the start of their Wednesday night clash with the Colorado Rapids at Providence Park, the Portland Timbers had every ounce of the swagger that saw them make such a scintillating start to this MLS season in March — and though their performance on this night fizzled, the points it earned won't.
The fast start was enough for the Timbers to see off the Rapids 2-1 — enough to complete a much-needed six-point homestand, and enough to launch the team into the season's stretch run playing its best soccer in months.
Portland got big moments from its big players — including a goal from Darlington Nagbe that we'll be watching for many seasons to come — and, concern for Dairon Asprilla's health notwithstanding, had a mostly comfortable evening.
They didn't stay in top gear for long. But winning is all that matters at this point in the season, and over the last six days, the Timbers seem to have rediscovered their winning touch.
Colorado, long out of the playoff race and newly manager-less after firing Pablo Mastroeni last week, was an easy mark — and the Timbers jumped all over them from the game's first minute. It was only a matter of time before Portland went in front, and, in the 21st minute, the icebreaker came from a most familiar source.
Darren Mattocks worked the ball out wide to Vytas, who looked up, took a touch, and hit the late-arriving run of who other than Diego Valeri, whose free header to the bottom right corner beat Tim Howard to give the Timbers their inevitable lead.
But that goal — Valeri's 52nd, breaking Fanendo Adi's all-time club record — was no more than an appetizer for what was about to come.
Two minutes later, Portland came flowing up the lefthand side again. Vytas took the ball on the wing from Sebastian Blanco, and this time tucked a little inside pass to Nagbe — who received the ball on the side of the box, turned, and then, without so much as an upwards glance, sent a little chip floating goalward.
Howard took one step to his right, and turned just in time to watch the ball flutter into the side netting.
Nagbe barely reacted. He knew he'd scored the second the ball left his foot. The U.S. international has authored plenty of phenomenal goals during his time with the Timbers, but this strike — an instinctive, no-look sand wedge of a shot to freeze a living legend in goal — takes a backseat to no other.
Nagbe will never score fifteen goals a season. He's not going to carry you week in and week out. At this point in his career, that much is clear. But damn if we ever see another player in Portland so stupefyingly gifted. Darlington Nagbe is a soccer savant — and this was a masterpiece.
It was also a second assist for Vytas, who, freed from the weight of his defensive responsibilities, was having a belter. The Lithuanian has had an up-and-down season, but in this game, especially in its first half, he was in his element — camped out in the attacking half, combining at will with Nagbe, and helping to steer the offense.
From there, all the Timbers had to do was not make any calamitous errors and ride off into the sunset. But five minutes later, the Portland defense — often good for a calamitous error or two — was up to its old tricks.
Under zero pressure, Timbers center back Lawrence Olum — making, incredibly, his career-high 23rd start of the season — passed the ball straight to Colorado's Mohamed Saeid. The Rapids midfielder ran towards goal, found an opening for a shot, and beat Jeff Attinella to make it 2-1.
It was a gift. The good news? Colorado was moved to return the favor.
One minute after Saeid's goal, Mike da Fonte — a 26-year-old rookie fullback not fit to shine Valeri's shoes — pulled the Maestro down in the box he broke towards a Zarek Valentin cross. Referee Dave Gantar initially waved play on, but he needed just one look at the replay to point to change his mind and point to the spot.
Then, a twist: Instead of Valeri, David Guzman stepped up to take the penalty. It was a strange moment. Caleb Porter guessed after the game that Valeri had let Guzman take charge because the Costa Rican's parents were in town, which, knowing Valeri, makes all the sense in the world.
But unlike last season, when Valeri gave a penalty against Vancouver to a badly struggling Asprilla and watched the Colombian smash it into the corner, the sentimentality didn't pay. Guzman, perhaps seeing Howard guess the right way, dragged his penalty well wide of the left post. The Rapids were still alive.
From there, the game fell into a rather disjointed state. The Timbers continued to push forward and hold the ball at will, but they had little luck in breaking down the Rapids' packed-in defense. Blanco had a glorious late chance when he sat Kortne Ford down in the box, but he fired over.
In the end, and though they continued to be suspect defensively, the two goals would be enough. Despite several dangerous Colorado set-piece opportunities and Alan Gordon's ominous presence, the Timbers crossed the finish line without significant alarm.
Porter said that his team showed maturity in holding onto its lead, but the truth is that Rapids were utterly hopeless going forward — bereft of attacking ideas, talent, and everything in between. The club's next coach is going to have almighty job on his hands in trying to drag the Rapids out of the dark ages by next spring.
At 2-1, this wasn't ultimately the most convincing Portland performance — the great 2015 Timbers, the measuring stick, flattened a similarly destitute Rapids team 4-1 on the final day of that year's regular season — but it was enough.
The Timbers will be a playoff team for the third time in the last five years. San Jose's face-plant has seen to that. But with Dallas winless in five, the the prospect of a fourth place or better finish in the Western Conference — and a home Wild Card game — is very much in play.
Beating the Rapids was the easy part. Over the next four weeks, with trips to Seattle, New York City, and Salt Lake on the docket, we'll have a chance to see just how much progress this Timbers team has made — and, most importantly, whether they've become legitimate championship contenders again.