Despite all the injuries — both physical and mental — suffered in the last week, when the Portland Timbers retook the field on Saturday night in Kansas City, they looked like their best selves.
Playing in a venue where the home team hadn't lost in more than a year, the Timbers were in control. Their attacking play was sharp. Their midfield was strong, and their makeshift back six was rarely made uncomfortable.
It was, for the first time in a long time, a positive, balanced 90 minutes. But on a night when they took the lead, when a win would have carried an especially long way, the Timbers couldn't quite finish the job.
Instead, they dropped two more points from a winning position and — stop me if you've heard this before — failed to win a game that shouldn't have been all that close. The Timbers stopped the bleeding on Saturday. But they could have done plenty more.
While Portland entered this game hobbled, three of Kansas City's best players were suiting up for another team. Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, and Dom Dwyer were all in the U.S.'s lineup in Hartford against Ghana, and the effect of their absences was apparent from the get-go.
Peter Vermes called his team's start "sluggish," and that was a conservative descriptor. Sporting's first half pace was mind-bendingly slow. The home team — perhaps affected by its midweek excursion in the U.S. Open Cup in Houston — managed just two shots and lost Gerso, one of its few game-changers, to injury.
Portland, meanwhile — having cleared its schedule of any Cup committments in unflinching fashion several weeks ago — quickly established the kind rhythm on both sides of the ball that Sporting so impressively denied them when the two teams met at Providence Park back in April.
And while that rhythm was nice, it took a moment of genius from who else but Diego Valeri to unlock the league's premier defense.
Midway through the first half, Valeri picked up a slipped pass from his compatriot Sebastian Blanco and came flowing forward with teammates in support. But with Kevin Ellis retreating, Valeri decided to wind up, and, from twenty-five yards, belt a shot that flew past Tim Melia and cracked in off the underside of the crossbar.
It was, even by the Maestro's lofty standards, an awfully sweet strike. The ball absolutely exploded off of his right foot and traveled at an inch-perfect height. You can't hit them that well even in FIFA.
For a player who has mostly toiled since his return from injury in mid-May, it was a resounding strike — and it gave a team that has mostly toiled since mid-May an excellent opportunity. Taking the lead against Sporting is half the battle. It's not a team particularly well suited to play from from behind.
An hour of solid soccer against a team rolling with Latif Blessing, Soony Saad, and Daniel Salloi on its front line — a combined two goals this year — and the Timbers would have their biggest win of the season.
Sporting dug in to the extent that they could in the second half, and almost had an early equalizer when Ike Opara had a free run onto a Benny Feilhaber free kick.
But Opara pushed his header wide, and Kansas City would go the rest of the game without creating a clear-cut chance — bar one moment, on the hour mark, when Roger Espinosa lofted a pass towards Salloi, who was streaking past Alvas Powell and into the Timbers' penalty area.
Powell was caught unaware, and Salloi took his chance with a remarkable measure of composure — bringing the ball down, and lifting it over Jake Gleeson to bring Sporting level.
It was a good finish by the kid, but also the latest in a catalogue of bad moments this season from Powell. Porter was extremely generous in gifting the Jamaican his starting spot back before the Seattle game last weekend, but it's neither a spot he's earned over Zarek Valentin nor a spot he should have.
Still, even with Sporting newly invigorated, the Timbers had the chances to win.
The first came when Adi, played through by Valeri, went flying under an imaginary Melia challenge and won a penalty. But justice was done moments later, when Valeri — who'd never had a spotkick saved in a regular season game — saw his conversion attempt parried away by the Kansas City 'keeper.
And there was no karmic excuse a minute later, when Lawrence Olum airmailed a chance to beat his former team after Ben Zemanski's cross found him all alone five yards from Melia's goal.
At the end of the day, whether the Adi penalty gets whistled or not, the Timbers let Kansas City off the hook. They got the performances they needed to win. Darlington Nagbe's shift in central midfield was a primary example.
When Nagbe was deployed in central midfield two weeks ago in Colorado, he was — to put it lightly — a defensive liability. Not so this week. Nagbe stepped up with a Chara-esque eight defensive recoveries, won several tackles, several fouls, completed all 53 of his passes, and barely broke a sweat in the process.
It was a big-time performance — the kind of performance the Timbers knew they had to have to compete in this game — and they still couldn't manage to turn it into three points.
The good news is that this year's Western Conference will forgive dropped points in July and then some. Porter — so seething last week — appeared heartened by his team's effort. He called it "something we can build on."
Considering that the Timbers were winning a road game very similar to this one on the second weekend of the season in Los Angeles, there is scant joy to be found in that mild praise.
The process of building this team back up from the position it found itself in last Monday morning is promising to be a considerable one — and while there's time to see that process through, it's not exactly how anyone who watched the start of the season unfold figured they'd be spending their summer.