The Portland Timbers are rolling.
Not two months removed from a dire run in which they won won just two of thirteen games, the Timbers reached the top of the Western Conference again on Saturday night by becoming just the second team to team to beat New York City FC at Yankee Stadium in more than fifteen months.
Portland beat MLS's second-best team 1-0. Diego Valeri, in firing home the game-winning goal just before halftime, tied an MLS record with by scoring in seventh straight game. The team's defense, so often its undoing this year, got its first road shutout since April.
All of the sudden, this Timbers team — still minus key starters in the shape of Fanendo Adi and Liam Ridgewell — is putting it all together. The question with this team is no longer whether they'll make it to the playoffs. The question now is just how far they can go when they get there.
It's road wins that serve as statements of intent at this time of the year in MLS, and this is a big scalp for the Timbers. Aside from history-chasing Toronto FC, New York City has been the league's best team this year — and on Saturday, the Timbers went cross-country and knocked them out of the Supporters' Shield race.
NYCFC didn't have its best team — captain David Villa and midfield bulldogs Yangel Herrera and Alex Ring all missed out — but neither, of course, did the Timbers.
Portland started slowly — it took them until the half hour mark to register their first shot — but though they had plenty of joy in wide areas, New York City found high quality chances difficult to come by.
Then, just when the first half seemed set to pass at 0-0, Andrea Pirlo dropped deep into midfield, picked the ball up off of Frederic Brilliant, turned, was dispossessed by Darren Mattocks, and then — with Mattocks racing towards goal — stopped cold to appeal for a nonexistent foul.
It was an embarrassment. Plain and simple. Optically and athletically — and considering that Herrera and Ring are due back next week, it could be the last we see of the Italian legend before his retirement at the end of the season.
From where he stripped Pirlo, Mattocks' job was simple. He took two touches, picked out a wide-open Valeri on the penalty spot, and watched as the Maestro buried his seventeenth goal of the season to give the Timbers the lead.
It was a devastating goal for New York City to concede. Not only had it come from nothing, and not only did it arrive one minute before the end of a half that they dominated, but it also set the Timbers up to sit in after the restart, absorb pressure, and look to counter — the exact scenario that Patrick Vieira, who identified Portland in before the game as the best counter-attacking team in the league, wanted to avoid.
From the Timbers' end, the goal was very much reminiscent of the one that knotted the Sounders game two weeks ago. That tally also came at the end of the first half, was also made by Mattocks and Valeri, and also set the stage for the shutout second half that followed.
The difference was that Valeri's penalty in Seattle was to tie the game. His strike at Yankee Stadium was to give the Timbers the lead.
As it happened, New York City's best remaining chance would arrive not two minutes after the restart. Pirlo swung in a free kick that Brilliant sent flying towards the bottom left corner — only for Jeff Attinella to claw the ball back into the goalmouth, where Brilliant, from the ground, poked a followup header wide.
It was one of the hardest saves you'll ever see a goalkeeper make — even tougher than the one on Sal Zizzo that won the Red Bulls game at the end of August.
Caleb Porter is about to have another big goalkeeping decision on his hands as Jake Gleeson prepares to returns to the fold in the next week because at this point, it's going to be awfully hard to lift Attinella from the lineup. He's been nails over the last month, and the defense has excelled in front of him.
New York City continued to apply pressure, but in truth, it was their goalkeeper Sean Johnson who had to make the majority of the difficult saves as time ticked away. NYCFC played some intricate soccer around the box, but without Villa, sidelined with an adductor strain, they were profligate inside of it.
Like the Red Bulls team that the Timbers saw without Bradley Wright-Phillips, New York City was crying out for a finisher. Vieira tried all three of his young forwards on Saturday, plus star winger Jack Harrison up top in the first half, but none had the quality required.
In fact, NYC's best player in the second half was its goalkeeper. Johnson made seven big saves in total, and the ones that kept New York City within touching distance down the stretch — including two point-blank denials of Valeri — were sensational.
But it wasn't enough — not enough to overcome the mistake from Pirlo, and not enough to compensate for the Villa-less attack.
Portland's defense, it also must be said, put in a very nice shift. At the heart of that effort was Larrys Mabiala, whose arrival in July might be the single biggest cause for the team's resurgence. Making Zarek Valentin the automatic starter at right back hasn't hurt either. He was terrific again.
If the Timbers were in a losing mindset in the middle part of the season, they're locked in the opposite mindset right now — and the schedule is about to get very favorable very fast. Of the Timbers' last five games, four are against non-playoff teams.
This three-game road-trip was supposed to be the gauntlet. But so far, through trips to two of the hardest , the Timbers are sailing — and they might just sail right into November.