For a May game in Major League Soccer, this was about as good as it gets.
For 90-plus minutes on Saturday afternoon at Providence Park, the Portland Timbers and Los Angeles FC went toe-to-toe — combining for 31 shots, six yellow cards, three lead changes, and two world class goals. It was physical, it was intense, and, for the home team, it resulted in stake-in-the-ground statement victory.
Portland won the game 2-1. Samuel Armenteros had the last laugh, charging into the Timbers Army after his frozen rope of shot decided the game with ten minutes to play, and though LAFC gave it plenty, the right team emerged on top.
The Timbers are for real. They weren't for real to start the year, they weren't for real when they debuted at home a month ago, but they are very much for real right now. With five straight wins, and games against two of the Western Conference's worst teams upcoming, Portland might be on a season-defining run.
And while the Timbers have put in plenty of good performances of late, this was a cut above them all. It wasn't beating Minnesota, or an out-of-sorts New York City, or the hamstrung Seattle Sounders. It was taking down a team that, rested and relatively healthy, as it was here, is one of the league's best.
LA arrived in Portland unbeaten in six games, second place in the Western Conference, having already won in Seattle and Vancouver and looking for a Cascadia sweep in their expansion season.
Bob Bradley set them up in a 5-2-3, similar to what Seattle frustrated the Timbers with last weekend, looking to lock down the center of the field and create overloads in wide areas. It set up well for LA, not least because of the Timbers' difficulty in breaking it down against the Sounders.
But it was a different story weekend. From the opening whistle, the Timbers attacked with purpose and verve. Fanendo Adi locked in against Walker Zimmerman and Laurent Ciman, and Portland's midfield worked off of and around him to pin the visitors deep.
Adi himself had the best chance of the opening period when an onrushing Andy Polo got Zimmerman to commit to him and played the striker in behind, but his shot from the left side of the box rang off the crossbar and Alvas Powell mishit the rebound.
On the half hour mark, Vela played a ball in behind for Latif Blessing — who latched onto it and rounded Jeff Attinella, but got only the side-netting with his shot. LAFC came close again in first half stoppage time, with Julio Cascante, a sixth minute substitute after Liam Ridgewell pulled up lame, blocking Dejan Jakovic's shot.
By this point, the game was hot: Giovani Savarese, Bradley and their coaching staffs were in turns irate with the officiating, with the likes of Benny Feilhaber, Diego Chara, and Carlos Vela were all involved disciplinarily. It was 0-0 at the break, but there was little doubt that goals were coming after the restart.
Sure enough, four minutes after the game resumed, Adi found himself through on goal again after bringing down an arrow of a long ball from Valeri a step ahead of Zimmerman, but his shot was straight at Miller who made the save.
But while Adi couldn't finish either of his big chances, he was integral in setting up Portland's opener just minutes later — combining expertly with Valeri on the break before Valeri was fouled. LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller spilled the resulting free kick, and Paredes slammed it in to break the ice.
From there, the question became how long Bradley — with attacking options on the bench — would stick with five defenders. He let them go for ten more minutes before making two changes, then a third, switching to a 4-3-3, and, shortly thereafter, getting a moment of absolute magic from Vela.
With 15 minutes to go, the Mexican forward played a pass from out wide, drifted into the seam between Zarek Valentin and Polo, received an entry feed from Eduardo Atuesta, took a touch, and dropped curler over a scrambling Attinella's shoulder and in to tie the game.
It was a sublime goal — the third of its kind he's scored this season, and more than worthy of ending the Timbers' more than 400-minute shoutout streak.
At that point, the game hung firmly in the balance. The Timbers had a corner cleared off the line by Jordan Harvey minutes later, while LA's best chance, set up by Feilhaber for Diego Rossi, was beaten away by Attinella.
That save, as it happened, would set up the game-winner. The rebound came bounding out to Paredes, who hit Armenteros — on in relief of Adi — at the bottom of the midfield circle. The Swede took off from there, running at Zimmerman with three for company, before finally cutting inside, and blasting his shot past Miller.
The response inside Providence Park, as when Sebastian Blanco vanquished the Sounders last weekend, was rapturous. Arementeros sprinted up the steps of the capo stand and went into the crowd to celebrate, while Diego Valeri stood with his hands on his head in wonder. From the length of the run to the power of the finish, it was an sensational solo goal.
LAFC pressed for the equalizer, but to no avail. Blessing's pace continued to menace, but Portland's defense was compact and sharp, as it was all game long, and just seconds after Andre Flores snaked the last shot of the game wide on a lung-busting counter-attacking run, it was over.
It was, it must be said again, fabulous show. LAFC's legion of traveling supporters got the best out of the Timbers Army, even so early in the day, and the game buzzed from start to finish with equal parts quality and enmity. For MLS, for soccer on the West Coast, it was a banner day. They'll be many more.
For the Timbers, of course, it was more than a good show. It felt like the culmination — or a culmination, more likely — of the work that they've done to right the nightmarish start to the year and mold themselves into a true contender.
This was a huge test, for both teams, and losing it didn't sit well with Bradley — who started his postgame activities by jawing at Savarese, and ended them by grumbling about the Providence Park turf in his press conference.
Savarese himself was in a different frame of mind. So flexible tactically, to his credit, he has, to his credit, been unremitting in his insistence on his players' energy and commitment to the cause. This performance, then, was a joy to behold. The Timbers ran themselves into the ground, and were rewarded for it.
"It's difficult to express by words the feeling of the coaching staff with the effort that you guys put [in] today," he told his team immediately following the game. "That was fantastic."
Truly, it's hard to dole out enough praise to enough Timbers who earned it on Saturday afternoon. Valentin was superb on his flank, using his intelligence and grit to laregly quiet Vela. Cascante entered and didn't miss a beat, while Larrys Mabiala — who himself endured a terrible start to the year — looks back to his best.
The midfield, led by the indomitable Chara with Paredes not far behind, was a buzzsaw, and though they didn't get on the scoresheet, Valeri and Adi played their best games of the season. LAFC might have had the majority of possession, but the Timbers outshot them by more than two-to-one. It was their game.
As it was last year when the Timbers won it in the regular season, the West is wide open. LAFC has been its class so far, along with Sporting Kansas City, but it's beginning to look more and more like Portland is in their league.
They've got a formula, and they're bought in to it. Savarese has done himself a whale of a job — and he and his team are just getting started.