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Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers

Between Will Johnson returning to Portland and the promise of two of MLS' best teams going nose-to-nose on a triumph of a day Providence Park, it wasn't hard to surmise that Sunday afternoon's nationally televised tilt between the Timbers and Toronto FC could be a very good one.

In the end, though, it was even better than advertised.

From the get-go, Sunday's was a full-fledged occasion — dripping with sunshine and star-power and subplots. Johnson made his mark against his former club, but was outdone by a magisterial Diego Valeri before and during a show-stealing goalkeeping performance by Jake Gleeson six years in the making.

Thanks to splashes of brilliance from the latter two protagonists, and a whole lot of gumption from everyone else, the Timbers ground out a victory well worth earning. It finished 2-1, just as hot as it started — a pleasure to have played, and, more importantly, a pleasure to have won.

With Liam Ridgewell and Diego Valeri returned from injury and suspension respectively, Caleb Porter was able to field the spine of the team that won MLS Cup last December for the first time since Opening Day — and the Timbers responded with joy.

Portland's first twenty minutes against Toronto were scintillating — easily their best of the season. Most of the good work came through Valeri and Darren Mattocks, who spent the beginning of the game shaving years off the career of his former Vancouver Whitecaps teammate Steven Beitashour.

And sure enough, Valeri and Mattocks would combine for the former to tee up Fanendo Adi to give the Timbers lead in the seventeenth minute. It was a fantastic team goal — perhaps the best of the week in MLS — but it would only set the stage for the drama to come.

Just minutes later, the Timbers' momentum would be brutally disrupted by a familiar source.

Mr. Johnson was greeted warmly when he was introduced before the match, but it wouldn't be long before the midfielder's brazenly combative nature got the better of sentimentality.

So it was on a 50-50 ball in midfield that Johnson went rocketing into a prone Valeri with a two-footed, studs up tackle that left the Argentine writhing on the ground in pain. Any other referee would have shown a yellow — possibly a red — but Baldomero Toledo decided to wave to play on.

It was a turning point. Toronto, to their credit, were unfazed by Portland's house-on-fire start. Playing their eighth consecutive match on the road, TFC's composure slowly turned the game — and in the 40th minute, it was Johnson who picked up a deflected ball and buried his first MLS goal since the broken leg of 2014.

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Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers

At 1-1 going into the second half, the game would become — but for a single moment of magic — Jake Gleeson's. The backup goalkeeper, in for the injured Adam Kwarasey, came up with a series of unconscious saves. His first effort was his best: denying Drew Moor from four yards by kicking the ball onto his fingertips and pushing it onto the bar.

As the temperature continued to tick upwards, the two teams battled with increasing hostility. Sebastian Giovinco, frustrated by the acute attention of the right half of the Timbers' defense, tried to get Ridgewell sent off with a ludicrous dive off the ball.

The choppiness was mostly due to the refereeing, as Baldomero Toledo called the match with the precision of a Civil War rifle. It was classic MLS — tight, physical, poorly officiated, and hugely entertaining.

But thankfully, it was the great players who would carry the day. Valeri's entire afternoon was breathtaking, but it was his gem of a free kick that would end up winning the game in the 74th minute.

Of course, that free kick only stood up because of Gleeson. The patience the New Zealander has showed the Timbers — and visa-versa — was repaid in a single half with a series of extraordinary stops on the likes of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. Still, it all could have been for naught as TFC pressed gamely for an equalizer.

The best chance of the final stanza was the most predictable one. It fell to Johnson, who streaked free at the back post, had Giovinco put a cross on his forehead, and directed his header towards the top corner — only to see Gleeson rise up and knock it away. It was a fitting match point. Two minutes later, the game was over.

At full-time, Nat Borchers — ever the joyful competitor — raced to Gleeson and leapt into his arms. This was a legitimate win. Caleb Porter's unprompted, laudatory words about Toronto in his post-game press conference suggested that the Timbers knew very well that they'd just accomplished something more than a regular May victory.

Porter himself had a fine afternoon. Feeling the game slipping away, he pulled Mattocks for Ben Zemanski just ten minutes in the second half and watched as Zemanski's all-action performance was of huge help in what was, at least from open play, a very good defensive showing.

Ridgewell's return provided a significant lift, but Zarek Valentin's outstanding work on Giovinco was just as important. Porter singled out Borchers for praise as well, saying that the center-back played his best game of the season.

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The main takeaway here wasn't so much that the Timbers should have won, but that they won. For the first time in months, we saw Portland play it intended to play with a full compliment of talent. The result? Just as beautiful as the day.

Toronto took its shot. But the Timbers are still the team to beat.

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Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers