Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers
If the Portland Timbers' triumph in Seattle two weeks ago was the height of playoff insanity, the first leg of the Western Conference Championship against Sporting Kansas City on Sunday night was pretty close to the height of traditional playoff intensity: crackling atmosphere, grueling pace and physicality, and margins so fine that every movement felt like a crescendo.

It was so tight that, for the longest time, neither manager dared to make a change. Excluding the injury that brought Bill Tuiloma on in the first half, Giovani Savarese gave just nine minutes to a substitute, Peter Vermes just one.

Both teams got tremendous defensive performances and plays, both found success with tactical wrinkles, both had their chances to win the final game played at Providence Park in 2018, and neither, ultimately, could come up with a decisive punch.

It was very much par for the course with these two great clubs — and it sets up what could very well be an unforgettable second leg on Thursday night.

Thing is, early, it looked like the Timbers might just play Sporting off the field. Savarese knew that his team was expected to sit back and play to counter, and he felt that he'd have the advantage if he instead directed the Timbers to press higher up the field.

He was right. The opening 45 minutes didn't yield a goal, but they were as one-sided as any period the Timbers have played since the postseason began. Sporting wasn't ready to play nearly as quickly as the Timbers were making them, and they weren't ready to have to break pressure sans easy possession.

The first big chance came after just more than five minutes: a cutback at the byline from Zarek Valentin deflected off of Besler and then Jermey Ebobisse and bounded into the path of Villafaña, who, with his weak foot, lashed a first-time volley that skipped twice off of the turf and hit the post.

Despite plenty of final third traffic, the next best chance Portland would get came on the end of a fabulous counter-attacking move — one that was bested only by an even better piece of defending.

The play started with David Guzman finding his way out of pressure deep in the Timbers' end with a backheel for Valentin, who uncorked a pass into midfield where a checking Ebobisse flicked it to Valeri, whose touch sent Dairon Asprilla racing away down the righthand side.

Asprilla waited as Valeri continued his run and beat the backtracking Ilie into the box and slipped a cross into his path, only for Graham Zusi, a converted winger, to come from across Valeri's body and slide tackle the ball away.

Both Liam Ridgewell and Asprilla got their heads to set pieces at the very end of the half, but couldn't generate the power or precision to truly trouble Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia. The intermission arrived with the score tied, the second half promising to pick up right where the first half left off.

Instead it was Sporting — buoyed by several slight adjustments — who might have taken the lead just two minutes after the restart, when Johnny Russell had a glorious look off of a Daniel Salloi dummy but blasted his shot over the bar.

Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers
But those adjustments, which included contesting the game with much more purpose in the middle of the field, had a significant impact. After generating just one shot in the first half, Sporting had eight in the second half to the Portland's seven and four inside of the penalty area to the Portland's three.

Where the Timbers continued to menace was on set pieces. With 20 minutes to play, they had the ball in the net — Ridgewell at the back post heading a Valeri free kick off the post and seeing it nodded in by Guzman — only for a late offside flag to prematurely halt their Timbers' celebrations.

The score remained 0-0. Tuiloma, who entered the fray in relief badly injured Larrys Mabiala, forced an acrobatic save from Melia off of a corner ten minutes later, but it was Sporting, and the familiarly dangerous Russell, who was threatened most down the stretch.

In the end, though, there was no separating the two teams. It was a fair fight and a good one, and it produced an all-too-familiar result.

Sporting has now shut the Timbers out in five of the last seven games, regular season and postseason, that the clubs have played at Providence Park. They've only lost once in the building since 2012. Considering how good Portland has been in those intervening years, that's insanity.

How have they done it? How did they do it again on Sunday night? A little bit of luck — Villafaña's volley catching the post, the marginal offside call against Ridgewell — and a lot of excellent, dogged, composed defending.

Matt Besler, for one, was sensational, turning in the kind of spotless, ultra-aware defensive performance that we became so accustomed to seeing from Nat Borchers during the Timbers' 2015 title run. Besler's longtime teammate Zusi, besides that first half tackle, all but shut down Sebastian Blanco on his right flank.

Can Kansas City keep the Timbers off the scoreboard for 180 straight minutes? If they can, they'll be more than deserving of their trip to MLS Cup. If they can't, their failure to get an away goal on Sunday might very well haunt them. Playing for a scoring draw suits Portland, especially on the road.

The other piece of good news is that none of the trio of key Timbers starters carrying yellow cards were booked on Sunday night, thanks in large part to the judicious refereeing performance of Robert Sibiga, who was praised by both managers postgame.

That means that Diego Chara just played 300 straight yellow card-free minutes, all while refusing to compromise by one fraction his influence. On a night when none of the Timbers' front four were at their sharpest, he was his team's best player by some distance.

But with all of that said, it's Sporting who will head home with plenty of momentum. Their failure to score had plenty do with the inefficacy in front of goal of forward Khiry Shelton — and on Thursday night, Diego Rubio, who had a brace against the Timbers in August, will be back from suspension and likely in his place in the starting lineup.

Who has the edge? Sporting, perhaps, but very, very narrowly. Considering the history between these two teams — considering the playoff history — you wouldn't have it any other way.

Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers