In the end, the Portland Timbers could suffer no more.
Bruised and battered and bloodied and bandaged, the Timbers exited the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs on Sunday night with a 2-1 loss to the Houston Dynamo at Providence Park — ending a season derailed by the injury crisis that began before the first leg of this series and continued to deepen during it.
Roy Miller tore his Achilles on the final play of practice on Friday. Darren Mattocks suffered a concussion after twelve minutes. The Timbers were crushed. They thought they might be able to use Sebastian Blanco, who last week burned a layer of skin off of his foot, for ten minutes. They ended up needing him for 50.
That's how these playoffs went. Had they stayed healthy, this very well might have been the Timbers' year again. But it wasn't to be.
What the Timbers did do — even down Diego Chara, without whom they still haven't won since July 2015 — was give this game all they had. Unlike the first leg on Monday night, Sunday night's game pulsated with sound and intensity from its first minutes as Cubo Torres and Liam Ridgewell got to know one another.
The first big chance came midway through the half when Dairon Asprilla sent a Diego Valeri corner flying towards goal, only for Houston's backup goalkeeper Joe Willis — in the lineup with Tyler Deric suspended after his midweek arrest — to make an excellent save with his left hand.
But Asprilla wouldn't be denied for long. Nullified by the great DaMarcus Beasley in the first leg, the Colombian winger attacked the second with the abandon that made him one of the true heroes of this Timbers season.
Valeri flared out to the left wing and slipped a ball down the line for Vytas, who swung a first-time cross towards the penalty spot where Beasley's replacement Dylan Remick slipped — allowing Asprilla to take the ball down and fire a screamer into the roof of the net. Willis never moved.
With that, the tie swung the Timbers way. And then, four minutes later, Remick did something he'd only done one time in the last five years: he scored a goal.
Tomas Martinez sent a Houston free kick towards the back post, Jalil Anibaba knocked it down, and it sat up perfectly for Remick to belt in. It was quite the sight: two backup fullbacks, two former Sounders, combining on one of the most stunning goals of the season.
Amobi Okugo almost scored a sensational bicycle kick on the stroke of halftime, but as the teams went into their respective tunnels at halftime, it was the Dynamo who stood to go through.
Portland needed to score again, and, after ten minutes Caleb Porter turned to Blanco — who had received a numbing injection in his right foot during the intermission.
But Blanco understandably wasn't sharp, and as the second half progressed, the Timbers' spacing in midfield began to fall apart. The game became more and more open for Houston on the counter, but their best opportunities were squandered by a woeful Torres.
It was fifteen minutes from time, just after Torres had departed, that his replacement would strike the knockout blow. Mauro Manotas picked the ball up in midfield, strode forward at half speed, and then, from twenty-five yards, whipped a shot past Jeff Attinella and into the left corner of the net.
Attinella, in his first and possibly last playoff run as a starting goalkeeper, rolled onto his back and covered his face with his hands. It was a dagger.
The rest of the game was an exercise in pain. Asprilla slammed his face into the back of Machado's head attacking a cross. Vytas crumpled to the turf and became the fifth in-game Timbers injury casualty of the series.
There would be no more big chances. After eight well-earned minutes of stoppage time, the curtain came down their season.
Full credit to Houston. As insipid as they were in the first leg a week ago, they were sharp in this one. Eric Alexander and Juan David Cabezas were immense in central midfield, and a backline missing four of its five regular starters was mostly dominant.
It's hard to overstate how good Alexander and Cabezas were. The latter player mostly nullified Valeri, while the former — a player who Porter deemed not good enough when he took over in Portland five years ago — was the most composed man on the field.
That Houston has ended up in the final four shouldn't be surprising to the Timbers. When they were still very much an unknown back in the third week of the season, the Dynamo came to Providence Park and gave the Timbers all they could handle.
It was easy to see then that Houston was going to make some noise. Wilmer Cabrera has done an outstanding job, and his team has every chance of advancing all the way to MLS Cup.
Of course, the Timbers stormed back from a 2-1 halftime deficit and scored three times in the second half to win that March game 4-2 simply because the offense — which had hung five goals on Minnesota two weeks earlier — was overwhelming.
But the team the Timbers cobbled and taped and injected together on Sunday night wasn't that team.
This was a team that needed Okugo, without a start since June, and Jack Barmby, without a start all year. It was a team that turned after thirteen minutes to a rookie in Jeremy Ebobisse, who, as Porter recognized months ago, wasn't yet ready for primetime.
Pound for pound, best eleven against best eleven, Portland was the best team in the Western Conference this year. There's no question. But they were decimated, and Houston was good enough to take its chance.
As we move further and further away from the MLS Cup triumph of 2015, I suspect we'll come to appriciate more and more how special and how rare it was.
Not only was that Timbers team wonderfully talented and gritty, but it was also wonderfully lucky. Lucky with goalposts, of course, but lucky to have the chance to compete and win when it counted with its core group. This year's team didn't get the chance to find out how far it could go.
Porter believed until the very end. The Timbers battled through adversity all year. But a team can only survive so many body blows, and on Sunday night, Portland was finally dealt more than it could handle. 2018 can't come soon enough.