At the beginning, it looked for all the world like it was going to be a straightforward evening.
Facing a weakened and starkly unimpressive Chicago side, the Timbers began the first half with energy and purpose. They took the lead after 11 minutes, doubled it ten minutes after that, and then went a man up on the half hour mark when Aleksandar Katai was dismissed for the Fire.
In fact, it was very likely too straightforward. With a two goal advantage against a team that had yet to muster a shot on target and was now facing the prospect of playing an hour at a numerical disadvantage, the Timbers rather abruptly and obviously eased their collective foot off the gas.
The result, in classic MLS fashion, was that things went rather awry. Even if it ended happily enough, it's a game that the Timbers will be eager to move past quickly.
First, the good: for 20-odd minutes, Portland was excellent. The Fire couldn't string passes together out of defense, couldn't hold the ball going forward, and weren't anywhere near organized enough defensively to hold off the onslaught coming their way.
The opening goal arrived when Sebastian Blanco blasted a long ball in behind Chicago's defense for Marvin Loría to run onto, which he did, only to be cleaned out by an onrushing David Ousted. The ball fell into the path of Jorge Moreira, who sized it up, and then, easy as you like, chipped it into an empty net.
Not many fullbacks in MLS would have been high enough up the field to be involved in that play, nor possessed the combination of poise and confidence required to attempt the running chip, but Moreira, as we've come to learn, is not a typical MLS fullback.
The goal was his second of the year and his first at Providence Park, and there was no sense from anyone that it would be the last of the scoring.
Ten minutes later, it was 2-0. Off of a recycled corner, Moreira played a lovely little inside pass for Cristhian Paredes, who fired a cross that hit an unmarked Brian Fernandez and dribbled into the far corner of Ousted's net.
The goal was very nicely constructed by the Timbers, but the fact that Fernandez, one of the league's most prolific strikers, had been left all alone in the middle of the six-yard box pretty well captured the state of the Fire's challenge.
That Fernandez completely miscued the finish — the ball hit his plant leg and deflected off of his shooting leg before trickling in — mattered not. He's in that kind of form.
Katai, for one, was not impressed. Shortly after the second goal, with the Timbers breaking forward out of a defensive position, he cynically cut down Julio Cascante off the ball. Referee Silviu Petrescu missed the infraction, but when Katai came after Cascante again several minutes later, he'd pay the full price.
Again, it was an off the ball incident — Cascante going down in a heap after a coming together with the Serbian near midfield — and again Petrescu missed it.
The video assistant referee, however, told Petrescu to take another look. What he saw replayed for him was unmistakable: Katai, with Cascante marking him, playing a pass, taking two strides forward, raring back, and elbowing the central defender in the face.
It was an easy decision. Katai was sent off for violent conduct, put out of his misery, if you will, and play resumed with the Timbers seemingly well positioned to make it a rout.
Bill Tuiloma relieved the Frenchman, and the Timbers fell back, failing to threaten again before the halftime whistle.
It is very possible that both sides would have been pleased enough not to return for the second half at all. The Fire were looked more than ready to cut their losses and head home, while the Timbers had already done enough to win and already lost a key player to a ill-timed injury.
But the second half rolled around anyway, as it always does, and what unfolded was not a pretty sight. The Timbers dominated possession and attacked in waves, but struggled with their spacing and were sloppy with the ball in the final third, failing to press their advantage.
Chicago, meanwhile, trailing by two goals, wouldn't get near the Timbers' goal for nearly 30 minutes. Their manager Veljko Paunović's only move at halftime was to yank his veteran left back Jonathan Bornstein; it'd take until the hour mark for him to bring on an attacker in CJ Sapong.
Sapong, as it turned out, was the one Fire player who looked truly ready to play. He entered the match with a measure of intensity that by this point almost no one else on the field was operating with, and as the Timbers' continued to bear forward fruitlessly, the Fire suddenly pulled themselves back into the game.
With just more than 15 minutes to go, Przemyslaw Frankowski swung a deep free kick into the box, and all hell broke loose. Steve Clark punched it into the air, Nemanja Nikolic headed it back in the direction of the goal, Paredes and Sapong went up to challenge for it, it hit Paredes, and bounced in.
It was a goal out of nothing, via a series of collisions, but it was a goal nonetheless — and though the Fire's attack remained anemic, the Timbers were now found themselves one bad moment away from the single most embarrassing result of their season.
But having let their intensity slip in the first half, they found it difficult to recover it in the second. Tomás Conechny replaced Blanco and labored and Jeremy Ebobisse replaced Loría and did the same, before, finally, the Fire had to commit players forward and left themselves exposed in transition.
With two minutes left in normal time, as Conechny led a four against three break, the Fire overloaded defensively on right side — and Fernandez was again left by himself to receive a pass on the left side of the box, pick his head up, pick his spot, and make it 3-1.
The Argentine's reaction to his second goal of the night was more relief than joy, and, even then, the game wasn't over: in stoppage time, Sapong, still battling, beat Cascante to a Frankowski cross and flicked a header off of the far post and in to make the final margin one.
Giovani Savarese was far from impressed with how his side closed out what should have been a walkover, and, given the experience and competitiveness of his top players, he won't be alone.
There is no question that the Timbers played down to their competition after the red card, and no question that they still haven't quite figured out how to break teams down through long, sustained spells of possession.
If the Timbers were ever going to let their guard down, though, this was the night to do it. There will be no margin for error on Sunday against Atlanta or the following Friday against Seattle, and there's no reason to believe that they won't respond accordingly.
Sometimes, over the course of a long season, you don't need your best. You just need enough — and enough was exactly what the Timbers delivered.