It was supposed to be one of the biggest days in the history of the Colorado Rapids. Somewhat surreally sitting in first place in the Western Conference, the Rapids had a July 4th sellout crowd and a date with the defending champions set up to welcome new goalkeeper and US legend Tim Howard to Commerce City.
This was about Colorado. Sans their captain Liam Ridgewell and best player in Diego Valeri, Portland — entering the match with just four points from eight road games this year — wasn't exactly battling the weight of expectation.
And yet, even though Howard turned in a sterling performance in his first MLS game since 2003, it was the Timbers who walked away from Dick's Sporting Goods Park on Monday night as the more satisfied team — taking with them a hard-fought point that easily could have turned into three.
In many ways, these shorthanded Timbers turned in a 2015-esque performance. They were sound defensively, threatening on the break, and up for the battle from minute one to minute 90. It was as encouraging a display as we've seen this summer.
Nat Borchers, who, at 35 years of age, was playing his third game in seven days, celebrated with a series of fist-pumps at the final whistle. For Portland's defense, so often a team of black sheep this year, Monday was a big night.
Not least because the unit had to absorb so much pressure. Colorado had 63% of possession, but wasn't allowed a single clean look at Jake Gleeson's goal. It was a proactive performance. The Timbers didn't allow themselves to get pinned into their box, and instead made the game difficult for the Rapids midfield. It paid off.
The fact that Marco Pappa, who only played for twenty-five minutes, led the team in key passes speaks volumes about the job the Timbers did defensively in their final third.
Borchers was excellent, Alvas Powell played his best game of the season, Zarek Valentin looked comfortable at left-back, and Jermaine Taylor — despite a number of head-scratching moments — made his fair share of big plays.
That the team's best defensive performance of 2016 came without Ridgewell makes you wonder. The skipper hasn't been at his best so far this season, struggling consistently with injury and uneven play.
Ridgewell is just 31, but he hasn't had an extended break from the game since the summer of 2013. Perhaps the wear and tear from the move to MLS and then the offseason loans to Wigan and Brighton is beginning to show.
Ridgewell is out of contract at the end of the season, and while the Timbers might very well want him back, they won't be willing to pay him DP money again. He's already raised MLS Cup, and with his family back in England and his desire to finish his career at home well documented, this could be the affable center-back's last ride in America.
If Ridgewell does want to stay — and he is still one of the best league's best defenders when healthy — he needs a series of good performances to finish the year. Same goes for Borchers. Indeed, part of what made the clean-sheet against the Rapids so impressive was that it was put together by a number of players whose immediate futures aren't entirely clear.
Both Taylor and Valentin figure to be backups by this time next week. In goal, Gleeson has a moment of reckoning coming with Adam Kwarasey due back from injury — possibly in time for next Sunday's game in Harrison against the New York Red Bulls.
Playing in Colorado, at altitude, takes a considerable amount of mental strength. The Timbers brought it.
And they easily could have won the game. Fanendo Adi raced clear and rattled his shot off the crossbar at the end of the first half. Howard then earned his keep in the second half with big stops on Lucas Melano and Darren Mattocks.
Even late — where the Rapids have made their living this year — the best chance fell to Portland as substitute Ned Grabavoy rifled an Adi chest-down onto the outside of the left post.
Without the services of Valeri, who might be the MVP of the league through the first half, the output from Portland's offense was impressive. Melano was a threat from start to finish, building on his display against Houston last weekend, while Adi was a menace. His commitment doesn't show any signs of waining.
The Timbers are now unbeaten in six — though they still haven't won consecutive games this season — and they're entering a hugely important stretch: The opening of the summer transfer window accompanied by six consecutive games against teams that made the playoffs last season.
Perhaps this team is getting ready to make its move. Defense, as we well know, will make or break a season — and the Timbers are finally starting to look like the capable defensive outfit we know they can be.
The quality of the team's new left-back will be hugely important, as will the health of Ridgewell, Borchers, and Powell. But in any case, it's hard not to feel confident with where Portland is at. Caleb Porter's record in the fall is unimpeachable. For three years in a row, his teams have played their best soccer from September on.
Colorado will be disappointed. With a number of casual fans in the house to welcome Howard, a 0-0 draw is a nightmarish result. The Rapids are now out of first place in the West, overtaken by FC Dallas team that thrashed Orlando 4-0 as Colorado was failing to break the Timbers down.
So by the time Portland plays a home-and-home against the Rapids in October, you'd bet on the roles being reversed — the Timbers in the ascendancy, and Colorado looking for a piece of the limelight.