The final push of the regular season started with a thud at Providence Park on Saturday night for the Portland Timbers, held to a hardscrabble, acrimonious 0-0 draw by FC Dallas of little help with playoff positioning or in combating the notion that the Timbers are destined to be a quick out come the postseason.
It wasn't pretty. Though it began with yet another formation change and ended with a controversial straight red card, this was by no means an especially enthralling affair.
The Timbers defended as well as they have in weeks. But their attacked generated precious few opportunities, and was in the final telling kept off of the scoreboard at home for just the third time all season.
With just three games remaining in October, it's clear that the Timbers aren't where the need to be — and not at all clear whether they have the capacity this year to get there.
This game against conference-leading Dallas was always going to serve as a litmus test, and, after seeing his 4-3-2-1 Christmas Tree torn to shreds by Minnesota last weekend, Giovani Savarese opted to deploy his team for it in a 4-4-2 diamond with both Samuel Armenteros and Jeremy Ebobisse starting up top.
It was a proactive move, if offset somewhat by the decision to use Lawrence Olum in the base of midfield. But in the end, its affect would be minimal. Neither the Timbers nor Dallas have been especially good with or interested in using the ball this year, and so, predictably, the game turned physical and choppy from outset.
There wasn't a serious chance for either team until the very end of the first half, when a Timbers chance went begging as Andy Polo and Olum crashed into each other before Carlos Gruezo struck a long shot for the visitors that deflected off of Larrys Mabiala and caromed onto Jeff Attinella's left post.
Things picked up right where they left off after the second half restart, with the Timbers struggling with their spacing in the middle of the field and Dallas content to sit deep, turn the ball over, and pick isolated moments to counter.
Alvas Powell had to be removed with an injury after just more than an hour after crashing into Matt Hedges on a trademark tear into the penalty area, while Diego Valeri failed to convent a pair of a half chances.
Then, with roughly 20 minutes to play, the opening arrived: Mabiala, retreating to handle a ball played into the right channel, slipped a back pass straight into the path of Dallas' oft-suffering DP forward Cristian Colman — only to be granted a reprieve when Colman sent his shot into Attinella's chest and Santiago Mosquera hit the rebound wide.
Just less than ten minutes later, the Timbers would get their best chance. Lucas Melano, making his first appearance in almost a month, found Zarek Valentin in transition and raced into the box where he connected on the volley with Valentin's cross only to see fly directly into the arms of Dallas' goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez.
Though Dallas improved offensively after Roland Lamah's introduction, there would be no goals. The only lasting fireworks would come in stoppage time when Liam Ridgewell, going up for a header, stuck out the bottom of his left cleat and kicked Lamah in the back of the leg.
It was a cynical, ugly play from the veteran, even if it wasn't ultimately all that dangerous, and referee Allen Chapman reached straight for his back pocket. Savarese and the crowd around him exploded in disbelief, but they hadn't seen the violent conduct. Chapman's decision was borderline, but defensible.
Ridgewell, surely in his final weeks as a Timber, is now suspended for next weekend's game at Real Salt Lake. For a team that is 0-6-1 in Julio Cascante's last seven starts, that isn't a great turn of events.
But coming off of an altogether dreadful 0-0, the loss of Ridgewell is hardly the Timbers' biggest problem. What we saw in this game was a team trying to grind out result absent any sort of attacking rhythm or systematic understanding. It's what we've been seeing for much of the last several months.
Going into the final stage of the season, that's a massive red flag. Savarese still, after all this time, has not settled on a primary formation. He's still running out Lawrence Olum as his team's midfield stopper, and still shuffling attackers like they're pieces on a checkerboard.
The churn appears to be taking its toll. The Timbers were both out-possessed and outshot in this game by a Dallas team that was more than comfortable to steal away with a scoreless draw, and there never came a point when it felt like a Portland goal was inevitable.
Sebastian Blanco's absence through suspension hurt on this night, and it certainly warrants mentioning that each of the four players across Dallas' backline was tremendous.
But also it seems fair to say that, in the process of trying to evolve from the low-block, counter-attacking style that brought them their 15-game unbeaten run into something more progressive, the Timbers lost their way.
Now, they're running out of time to find it again. As great as Diego Chara is — and he was, again, the Timbers' best player — he can't win games by himself. Neither can Blanco nor Valeri. They need help, and, right now, they're not getting it.
The Timbers, remember, have beaten exactly zero full-strength playoff teams since the beginning of July. Dallas hardly needed to break a sweat to walk away with a point on Saturday night. Three games away from the postseason, that's not at all a good sign.
If the Timbers don't improve drastically, their stay is going to be all too brief.