The streak is dead, and in bitter fashion.
One game away from setting the all-time franchise record for most consecutive games unbeaten, the Portland Timbers were upended 2-1 by their Cascadian rival the Vancouver Whitecaps on a tumultuous, drama-filled Saturday night at Providence Park.
How'd it happen? The Timbers again conceded a bad early goal, just as they did in matches on this long homestand against Montreal and Houston, but this time, they never quite managed to claw their way back.
The game was ultimately decided in a three minute stretch at the end of the first half, when Diego Valeri dragged a penalty wide of the left post and was punished for it when the smallest player in MLS, 5'2 Christian Techera, buried a header on the other end of the field to extend Vancouver's lead to two.
Despite a redemptive penalty conversion for Valeri in the second half, part of a Timbers onslaught that yielded an extraordinary 26 shots, the Whitecaps hung on for one of the biggest wins of their season — and celebrated in front of their supporters tucked high in the southwest corner of the stadium like they knew it.
For the Timbers, this defeat is a tough pill to swallow. Vancouver, below the playoff red line for much of the season, was without six starters including Bayern Munich-bound 17-year-old Alphonso Davies ahead of their midweek Canadian Championship final second leg in Toronto. This wasn't supposed to be their night.
But between Jeff Attinella's first egregious error of what has been a terrific season, and Valeri's first miss from the spot in three seasons, it was.
This is the kind of setback that happens in a long season, and it makes the streak that preceded it — 15 games without a loss! — that much more impressive. The Timbers weren't at all bad in this game, in fact, between the 26 shots and nearly 70 percent possession they had, they almost certainly should have won it.
But, starting with that Attinella error, they gave themselves too big a hill climb.
After 13 minutes, the Timbers gave away a foul just beyond the midfield stripe, and it should have been harmless. The Whitecaps only had one player forward, their striker Kei Kamara, but as Kendall Waston floated the ball towards him on the top of the box, disaster struck.
Attinella made a move towards the cross, perhaps swayed by its rather languid flight, hesitated, and was caught in no man's land as Kamara zeroed in on the ball and rose above Larrys Mabiala to head it into an empty net from nearly 20 yards away.
It was a horrible lapse in judgement — the kind that lost Jake Gleeson the goalkeeping job at the beginning of the year — and it didn't help that Mabiala and Alvas Powell were late in coordinating who was marking the Kamara, the result being that Mabiala never got himself in the right position to challenge the header.
The Timbers, then, needed to pick themselves up, and, almost immediately, they began to pile pressure on in and around the Whitecaps' penalty area. But with Vancouver defending their area staunchly and dominating in the air, it wasn't until five minutes before halftime that Portland would break through.
The telling play started when Dairon Asprilla picked up the ball wide, moved inside on the veteran Sean Franklin, and set Valeri up with a square pass just inside the box, and culminated when, after the Maestro released the ball wide for Diego Chara, he was decked by a sliding Waston.
Referee Jair Marrufo pointed to the spot, and the big center back, having given away his share of penalties through the years, didn't protest with so much as a word.
What happened next, though, was the rarest of sights: Valeri stepped up, Stefan Marinovic went diving the wrong way, and the penalty flashed wide left.
A couple plays later, it was 2-0. Kamara and Brek Shea combined to win a punt from Marinovic on the lefthand side and send Shea racing towards goal, while, in the middle of the field, the diminutive Techera sped past Julio Cascante and found himself in the perfect spot to nod the Texan's cross past Attinella.
It was a great counterattacking goal, made by a couple of players in Kamara and Shea who both had standout evenings, and it put the Timbers in a very difficult spot. The Whitecaps wanted nothing more than to come in, sit 11 players deep, and cut out crosses. In the second half, they'd have the chance to do just that.
To make matters worse for Portland, Samuel Armenteros — who'd had a fairly quiet evening — had to make way during the break with a recurrence of the back injury that held him out two weeks ago.
Andy Polo replaced him, giving the Timbers another wide threat, and while he, Alvas Powell, and Sebastian Blanco all had moments of joy out wide in the first period of the second half, the Timbers still couldn't find the half yard they needed in Vancouver's penalty area to put away one of their mounting pile of half chances.
Finally, just before the 70th minute, Chara stepped up — taking the ball off of a center back, striding into midfield, cutting around Kamara, and then cutting three Whitecaps out with a delicious seeing-eye pass to Blanco, who'd run right up the gut and was through before he went down to the award of another penalty.
This one Vancouver did protest, vociferously, but it didn't matter — and no amount of gamesmanship from Kamara was going to stop Valeri from powering it in.
But though the 'Caps then wavered, they didn't fall apart. Instead, they turned the final 20 minutes and change into a time-wasting exhibition, with players falling down left, right, and center, trainers piling into the field at every other stoppage, and the clock bleeding away.
When the final whistle blew, after more than seven minutes of stoppage time, Chara — having just had a strong penalty claim ignored — smashed the ball into the Timbers' bench area in frustration. The Whitecaps, nearly all of their traveling party, lingered on the field in jubilation.
The result produced a classic postgame performance from Vancouver boss Carl Robinson, who was able to perform his “One thing you can’t do with the boys in there is question their hearts," and "I keep getting told that it’s all about possession..." routine with gusto.
Robinson is a severely limited coach, but he had every reason to be pleased with his team's effort — however unsavory it got towards the end. This looked like one of his best 'Caps teams: dangerous on the counter, yes, but absolutely committed defensively. This year, that's very rarely been the case.
The Whitecaps ended up with a whopping 57 clearances. Waston alone had 11, all while completing just four passes in more than 100 minutes of play. They cut out 42 crosses, and won 60 duels. It was a serious rearguard action.
For the Timbers, the events and their meaning were slightly more complicated to digest. Giovani Savarese, digesting his first home defeat with the club, said correctly that his team "left everything on the field in the second half." They very much did. But their defensive carelessness finally burned them.
So we're left with feels like a bookend game. The unbeaten run over, attention now turns to the business end of the season. Savarese is still tinkering with formations — Saturday night's shifted from a 4-4-2 diamond to a 4-2-3-1 — and he'll soon have to integrate new personnel.
But if he handles that work as well as he's handled everything else over the last five months, the Timbers will be just fine. They'll get another crack at the Whitecaps on the campaign's final day, and, chances are, they'll be more than ready to make the most of it.