Facing huge adversity in their playoff opener on Monday night in Houston, the Portland Timbers stood tall and saw out a result to be proud of: a 0-0 draw that gives the Timbers an excellent chance of advancing when the series returns to the Rose City on Sunday night.
But the draw came with a mighty price. Diego Chara, the Timbers' midfield heartbeat, was stretchered off the field at the end of the first half with a broken bone in his foot. His season is likely over.
And while Chara's injury is both most serious and most significant, he's far from the only hobbled Portland player. David Guzman and Sebastian Blanco didn't even make it to the starting gate, and before even an hour had been played, Larrys Mabiala and Darlington Nagbe were forced off hurt as well.
It was a borderline surreal evening. The field in Houston, torn into a kind of grass-mâché, was likely the worst Portland has even played an MLS game on.
In the end, though, a spirited defensive performance, and an unusually insipid Houston attack got the Timbers the kind of road draw that wins playoff series. Though they certainly suffered a body blow or two, Portland's title challenge is still on the rails.
It started inauspiciously enough, with the scarcely believable news that Blanco had burned a layer of skin off his foot and wasn't available. That, in conjunction with Guzman's knee sprain-induced absence, meant the Timbers had two subs — Dairon Asprilla and Lawrence Olum — on the field to start.
The best chance of the game fell to Nagbe early on, but, after slipped in by Valeri, he miscued his shot wide. The other two points of contention in the first half were penalty claims.
Houston actually had one whistled for them when Mabiala cleaned out Romell Quioto with a last-ditch challenge after he was played in by Mauro Manotas, but referee Robert Sibiga correctly overturned the call with the benefit of video review.
Portland had the second shout when Darren Mattocks — who didn't make anyone forget about Fanendo Adi on this night — went down under the challenge of Dynamo goalkeeper Tyler Deric. No foul was called, and there would be no review.
Shortly after that, Chara went down in obvious, gut-wrenching pain. It's a massive loss. The last time the Timbers won without him in the lineup was July 5, 2015. Jack Jewsbury scored the winner to beat San Jose 1-0 in stoppage time.
Before long, Mabiala and Nagbe were gone too. But everyone who came into the game for Portland was sharp. Not great, but sharp. All the minutes that fell to the depth players in those miserable late spring and early summer months probably just paid off in one of the biggest spots of the season.
Amobi Okugo was a prime example. Okugo hadn't appeared in a game since June, when he sprained his MCL on Clint Dempsey's game-tying stoppage time goal for the Sounders. But he stepped in for 45 minutes in a playoff game, rotated well defensively, was clean on the ball, and got the job done.
In fact, the only attacking player of note in the entire game was Valeri — who, even on a relatively quiet night, was marvelous. The standout performers for both teams were the defenders.
For Portland, Alvas Powell was absolutely excellent. Though he had his handful of misadventures going forward, Powell played as big a defensive game as we've seen from him since the championship run two years ago. Liam Ridgewell was similarly big, and Vytas wasn't bad either.
The play of the fullbacks was crucial. The Dynamo wanted to play in transition down the wings, and when they couldn't, they had very few ideas through the middle of the field. Old man Vicente Sanchez was their best hope to change that down the stretch, but he wasn't at his game-changing bench.
Houston, for their part, defended rather well too. Philippe Senderos, who barely played this year, continued his standout form in central defense. DaMarcus Beasley locked down his right wing. Former Seattle Sounders washout Jalil Anibaba held his own on the left.
That said, it's hard to feel like the Dynamo didn't let their chance to steal this series slip away from them. They had the Timbers down to the end of their bench, with a front six unable to hold the ball, and they never mounted a serious charge.
All together, there was a strange lack of urgency from the Dynamo — a team that only lost once at home all season, but only won once on the road.
Perhaps it was the toll of the 120-minute battle with Sporting Kansas City in the Wild Card game on Thursday night showing, but the Dynamo — so often electrifying going forward this season — were lackluster in the attacking half from minute one to minute ninety. They hardly carved out a single chance.
The field might have had a hand in that as well. Porter called it "the worst I've seen in five years in this league." Passing the ball cleanly was nearly impossible.
Whatever happened to Houston, what it means for the Timbers is simple. All they have to do next weekend in front of what is going to be an almighty crowd at Providence Park is win. That's it. All they have to do is beat a team that has taken just one point out of Portland in the last six years.
Blanco and Guzman should be back. The early word on Nagbe is good as well, and the possibility of an Adi sighting continues to loom in the background.
None of that is to bury the lede: Losing Chara is a hammerblow. It likely means the Timbers lose their status as the Western Conference favorite. But thanks to their focus and their commitment and their defending on Monday night, this series, all that matters right now, is sitting there for the taking.
The season, for now, remains very much alive.