No team in MLS plays the Portland Timbers tougher at Providence Park than does Sporting Kansas City, and on Saturday night, we got another good look at why.
Once again, Peter Vermes' team walked into one of the league's best atmospheres, knocked the ball around, controlled the tempo, and defended superbly. In the end, their familiar stout, composed effort was enough for a 0-0 draw — their seventh positive result in their last nine games in Portland.
The Timbers had a couple of great looks — including one from Fanendo Adi that was halfway into the net before Tim Melia clawed it back out — but, sans the suspended Diego Chara and three other starters, couldn't break through.
It's the first time that Portland has been held scoreless at home since Kansas City's last visit almost 14 months ago, and frustrated though they were by the end of the evening, the Timbers couldn't have many regrets. They'd competed hard, and, despite that, run into a familiar wall.
That said, though the Timbers couldn't land a punch against them on Saturday night, they were by no means outclassed by the Western Conference's best team.
The first half was characteristically tight. Sporting directed their attack right, where danger man Johnny Russell was matched up against Marco Farfan, but Farfan, making his first start since March, largely held his own.
Sporting's best opportunity of the half did come down that side late on, when a deflected Russell cutback popped high into the air and came down to Daniel Salloi on the corner of the six yard box, but Salloi's shot hit the crossbar and bounced harmlessly away.
Portland's attack, on the other hand, flowed through Fanendo Adi. Recalled after starting the last two games on the bench, the big man was dialed in. Graham Zusi called his holdup play "fantastic", and the Timbers' best passages of play emanated from his work, though their final product was lacking.
Quality chances, then, were few and far in between. Neither team would commit itself fully going forward, with Sporting leery of the Timbers' counterattacking weapons and the Timbers not eager to let their fullbacks get isolated against Sporting's wide players.
But the equation changed in the second half, when, to their credit, the Timbers kicked it up a gear — pressing higher, and, for the first and only time all night, pinning Kansas City in defensively.
The pressure should have resulted in a goal. Ten minutes after the restart, a deep cross from Sebastian Blanco found Adi drifting off of the back shoulder of Sporting's substitute center back Emiliano Amor — but Melia, the reigning Goalkeeper of the Year, somehow scratched his downward header wide.
A dipping shot from Cristhian Paredes troubled Melia several minutes later, but the Timbers' charge was over. Sporting regained its balance, and spent the next 25 minutes firmly in control.
Jeff Attinella made a couple of very decent saves during this stretch, one on Roger Espinoza and another on Graham Zusi, while Russell sent a dangerous free kick just inches wide of left post. Portland was hanging on defensively, but doing nothing more.
In truth, Adi's departure with fifteen minutes to go was the end of the Timbers as an attacking force. Armenteros couldn't replicate the Nigerian's critical holdup play, and neither could Dairon Asprilla when he entered later on as a target winger of sorts.
The Timbers also, more and more as the evening progressed, badly missed Chara. For all that Lawrence Olum did well in place — and he played a rock solid game, on both sides of the ball — he wasn't able to drive the team forward like Chara does.
And so a final Timbers flurry never quite developed. Blanco went closest when he cut Espinoza inside and bent a shot just over from the top left corner of the box, and debutant substitute Mo Jadama got his head to a 90th minute corner, but there would be no sustained forward momentum or moment of magic.
That was in large part due to the fact that neither Blanco nor Diego Valeri ever truly settled into the match. Both were erratic early, and, as the game progressed goalless and possession became scare, began to press.
Valeri was lifted for Asprilla with the Timbers' final substitution, while his compatriot, never happy to go quietly, made his final contribution a two-beats-late sliding tackle on Zusi in stoppage time that earned him a booking as he leaned down to yell in Zusi's face.
But when the final whistle blew, neither side could complain. 0-0 was the right result. The chances, the play — it was all quite even.
Vermes was pleased, and Portland could take positives away as well. A backline that had never played together kept a clean sheet against a team averaging two goals per game, with Julio Cascante continuing to impress at center back and Attinella, Larrys Mabiala, and Zarek Valentin all typically stalwart.
That Portland could contest this game evenly without Chara at all is a victory of sorts. Portland's winless streak without the Colombian is now stands at a head-spinning 18 games, but their current unbeaten run is, in all competitions, also intact at nine.
Sporting has it own unbeaten streak, seven games now in all competitions, and, incredibly, its fourth shutout in its last five regular season games at Providence Park. The real fireworks between these two great clubs will have to wait for the rematch in Kansas in August — or, perhaps, a playoff encore in the fall.