With a grueling three-game road-trip in the rearview mirror, the Portland Timbers entered their final four games of the MLS regular season looking to roll up wins and momentum heading into the playoffs starting at the end of October.
On Sunday night, they got off to a sensational start.
The Timbers stomped all over a moribund Orlando City side 3-0 at Providence Park, playing with the kind of infectious confidence and attacking verve that makes this team one of the league's most dangerous.
Diego Valeri extended his record goalscoring streak to nine matches, Darren Mattocks put in the performance of his Timbers career, and Orlando had two players sent off in a game that was a rout from the first minute forward.
Judging by the table, this was always a game Portland was expected to win. Jason Kreis sent Orlando out in a 4-4-2 diamond, and spent the next forty-five minutes pacing his technical area as they were absolutely eaten alive.
With both Cyle Larin and Dom Dwyer playing up top — and Giles Barnes wandering aimlessly just underneath them — Orlando's undermanned in midfield and completely overwhelmed by the Timbers' pressure. The visitors couldn't hold the ball, and they couldn't keep up.
Mattocks was a big reason why. Caleb Porter has kept faith with Mattocks as his starting striker all the way through Fanendo Adi's absence, and on this night, with Adi's return now imminent, Mattocks rewarded the coach who has never left his corner with a howitzer of a performance.
No one has ever questioned Mattocks' raw athletic ability. The difference in this game, though, was that Mattocks knew what he wanted to do with all that athleticism — run in behind Orlando's center backs time after time after time. The result, for those center backs, was a bloodbath.
In the thirteenth minute, Mattocks went tearing into the penalty area chasing a ball from Diego Chara. Johnathan Spector scythed Mattocks down, and Baldomero Toledo — aided by video review — gave a penalty, which Valeri sent blazing into the righthand corner to give the Timbers the lead.
The other key in Portland's total dominance was the calibration of its central midfield. With David Guzman absent due to a hamstring injury, Darlington Nagbe again started next to Chara — and it was Nagbe's positioning, as a stay-at-home number six — that made the difference.
With Nagbe sitting deep, Chara was free to wreak havoc higher up the field — and wreak havoc he did. The Colombian created both of the Timbers' first half goals, and his pass to set up the latter of those tallies was worthy of Valeri himself.
In the thirtieth minute, Chara strode into midfield, looked off a central run from Mattocks, and instead sent a fabulous pass into the path of the curled run of Dairon Asprilla bombing down the right. The Colombian motored onto the ball, and sent it across for Mattocks to slide in for 2-0.
It was swashbuckling, go-for-broke soccer — an opening half hour was as good as anything we've seen from the Timbers this year.
There wasn't a single position on the field where an Orlando player was winning his matchup. Kreis changed to a 4-2-3-1 for the second half in an attempt to shore up his midfield, but it was too little and too late: one minute into the second half, Spector was sent packing for taking a chunk out of Valeri.
The rest of the evening was a Timbers shooting gallery. If not for Bendik — who, tellingly, is on his way to leading the league in saves for a second straight season — the game could have finished 6-0.
But not even Bendik could prevent Valeri from taking the Golden Boot lead just before the hour mark. It was another fabulous goal — Chara pinging the ball into Valeri, Valeri back-heeling for Blanco, Blanco touching in Mattocks, Mattocks firing off of Bendik, and Valeri cleaning up the rebound.
With the goal, the Maestro set another series of marks: he is the first player in Timbers history to score 20 times in a season, and the first midfielder in MLS history to score 20 in a season, and, thanks to the earlier penalty, the first player in MLS history to score in nine straight games.
Valeri got a thunderous MVP chant from the crowd after the second goal, and even the notoriously intense Porter couldn't resist the prevailingly happy mood. Mattocks got an ear-to-ear grin when he came off with fifteen minutes to go — and when Nagbe came off in the dying minutes, he got a full-out hug.
The boss had every reason to feel good. When he entered the league five years ago, Kreis was the one coach Porter couldn't get past. In the four years since, Porter has won MLS Cup and established himself as one of the league's most respected coaches while Kreis — who got this game completely wrong — has been fired and missed the playoffs three times.
And while Kreis was fired after New York City's expansion season, the last six months have surely been the most humiliating of his career. After starting the season with six wins in seven, Orlando has won just three of their last twenty-three.
Their frustration showed in the second half. Captain Antonio Nocerino was booked for dissent, while substitute fullback PC announced his late entrance by elbowing Chara in the throat in a free-kick wall for a straight red card.
The Timbers spent the last few minutes knocking the ball around up two men, savoring one of their best performances of the season.
For one person in particular, this was a night to remember. Five-year-old Derrick Tellez, battling cancer, started his Make-A-Wish weekend by training with the team on Friday. He ended it on Sunday by raising a log slice in front of the Timbers Army — and, at least for a moment, everything was right in Portland.