They gave it a good college try, but on criminally short rest, playing without Diego Valeri, Diego Chara, and any real wingers, a 1-1 draw with the Montreal Impact was just about all the Portland Timbers could manage on Wednesday night at Providence Park.
They started brightly enough, as Jack McInerney headed in a Jack Jewsbury corner to give the Timbers an early lead, but a series of fortuitous breaks for Ignacio Piatti allowed the Impact to level the game and knock the wind out of Portland's sails just before halftime.
The Timbers haven't scored a single goal from open play in the three games they've played in July without Valeri, and they never truly threatened to grab all three points in a second half that failed to spark. Portland was exhausted by minute sixty, and Montreal was happy enough to return home with a share of the spoils.
For the Timbers, who are, twenty games into their 2016 season, still below the red line, it's Sunday's derby against Seattle that is the real prize. Wednesday night was just a warmup — and it was, as warmups often are, perfectly forgettable.
The task facing the Timbers against the Impact wasn't insignificant. Montreal had an extra days rest and less travel after playing Real Salt Lake to a 1-1 draw in Sandy on Saturday, while the Timbers — who flew cross-country on Sunday night — entered the match with their roster at its most depleted level yet this year.
Forced to be creative, Caleb Porter decided to employ a sort of hybrid 4-4-2, with McInerney sitting as a withdrawn striker off of Fanendo Adi.
McInerney, who scored eleven times for the Impact between 2014 and 2015, struggled to find his feet in the unfamiliar role — to the point that by the time Jewsbury lined up a fourteenth minute corner, he'd hardly had a touch of the ball.
But McInerney is a goalscorer's goalscorer — he's already found the net more times this year than Maxi Urruti did all of last regular season — and when the Impact's ill-tempered goalkeeper Evan Bush spectacularly failed to get to the cross, the young striker rose well to make it 1-0.
The Timbers were industrious in the first half, and especially good in midfield through the trio of Jewsbury, Zemanski, and Nagbe, but rarely opened the Impact up. Adi had the ball in the net just past the half hour mark, but the goal was ruled out for a push. It was, more than anything, a makeup call.
Refereeing — Allen Chapman, the center official who failed to send of Nigel De Jong for his death tackle Nagbe in LA earlier the season, was in charge — would continue to play a central part in proceedings.
Chapman would admit after the game that Piatti, the closest thing to Valeri that the league has to offer, should have been sent off for a terrible two-footed challenge on Alvas Powell earlier in the game. But he was only given a yellow at the time, and, as it turned out, his luck would continue.
The Impact's first promising break of the half came just before interval, with Piatti racing at Nat Borchers. Borchers made a terrific tackle, only for the ball to fall to Piatti, who held off Alvas Powell, got another lovely bounce as Borchers got a foot in, and finished past Jake Gleeson to tie the game.
It was a dogged play, but a hugely fortunate one — which may even have involved a hand ball — and it came at the perfect time for Montreal. The Timbers, who'd been good throughout the first half, would never recover in full.
With both Lucas Melano and Nagbe drifting inside, the Timbers lost their shape and grip on the game as the second half wore on. Zemanski, who, as always, covered a ton of ground, was exhausted. His teammates weren't much better off.
But Porter didn't go to his bench until very late. Jack Barmby got just ten minutes, and Ned Grabavoy only saw the field in stoppage time. It was a tough spot for the manager, who was damned if he changed things and damned if he didn't. There were no good options in reserve, though Dairon Asprilla certainly would have come in handy.
As it turned out, two goals and a victory was a bridge too far for a team that hadn't scored at all in either of its last two outings. Still, this was a decent enough result — especially considering that it came against an Eastern Conference team and didn't cost the Timbers much.
And the attention of the Timbers Army had turned to Sunday before the team even exited the field, with chants of "Beat Seattle" ringing around the North End as the players walked off.
The Sounders, meanwhile, had themselves a bit of a night. They did smash Dallas 5-0 at CenturyLink Field, a cathartic rout after months of attacking frustration, but lost Clint Dempsey to an idiotic red card in the process.
Dempsey, stripped of the national team captaincy last year, is set to miss to the game against the Timbers. Seattle will appeal his suspension — and make no mistake, Juan Estaban Ortiz's flop would have made Pepe proud — but red card decisions for hands-to-the-face are almost never overturned.
On Sunday, with the Diegos back in the fold, the Timbers should go for broke. There are still question marks with this team — Zarek Valentin looks incredibly uncomfortable at left back, for one — but, now unbeaten in eight, it feels like Portland could be ready for a breakout performance.
Through four-and-a-half months, it's hard to say what this Timbers team is or where it's going. Wednesday night was just another chapter in a long campaign. Sunday, however, could provide plenty of answers. It can't come soon enough.