Facing Real Salt Lake on Saturday night at Providence Park in a match critical to the shape of the Western Conference playoff race, the Timbers just needed a victory. Thanks to Diego Valeri, that's exactly what they got.
The Maestro's bullet of a strike just after the quarter hour mark of the first half was the only goal — the only shot that beat Salt Lake's legendary goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who, on his final visit to Portland before retirement at the end of the season, turned back the years with a vintage performance.
But Steve Clark wasn't bad in the opposite goal either, and, familiarly, in an even encounter, the Timbers had the player who could decide it on his own.
This, in many ways, was the recipe down the stretch last season: hang in games with good teams, and let an elite player, be it Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, or Diego Chara, or some combination of the three, step in and make the difference.
Salt Lake will be kicking themselves. A year after being blown out in back-to-back October showdowns with the Timbers, Freddy Juarez's team had the upper hand in possession, shots, and ultimately players, but they didn't have the quality in and around the box to make all of their industry count.
In a game generally lacking in quality in and around the box, Valeri's rocket stood out like a gem.
The action that led to the goal was terrific in itself. With Salt Lake in possession deep in their own half, Diego Chara put Kelyn Rowe under pressure as he received his pass facing his own goal, forcing him to flick a ball forward in the direction of a back-checking Damir Kreilach.
But Kreilach was beaten to the ball the much-maligned Claude Dielna — in the lineup with both Larrys Mabiala and Julio Cascante out injured — who sent it back the other way with a flying header. Three touches later, Valeri had lashed it into the left corner.
Just like that, the Timbers had the lead — something that they did not have at any point during their defeats to Atlanta and Seattle — and RSL, the team with the lowest average possession number in MLS, was forced to suspend any notion of playing in transition and instead try to carry the game.
After just more than 15 minutes, the match was set up exactly how the Timbers would have wanted it. The pressure on the attack, which seemed suffocating towards the end of the Sounders game, was off. Now it was Portland who could sit back and absorb pressure, looking for opportunities to pounce on the counter.
But instead of ratcheting up the intensity after what had been a back-and-forth start, the game settled into a rather uneasy lull.
Brian Fernandez had a decent look shortly before the half hour mark when Aaron Herrera misplayed a pass out of the back, but his shot was swallowed up by Rimando. Other than that, the remainder of the first half passed without a serious goal threat.
The Timbers' back six, which included three reserves, two at center back and Andrés Flores in central midfield, was locked in. Flores ran himself into the ground defensively, finishing with 17 defensive actions, while Jorge Moreira, who was suspended for the Seattle game, did admirable job on Jefferson Savarino.
As Salt Lake pushed players forward, the game was setup for a decisive Timbers goal in transition — and when Chara ran Rowe off the ball in midfield with 20 minutes to play, it looked like the moment had arrived.
Chara ran forward and hit Valeri, who lofted a cross towards an unmarked Fernandez on the weak side and watched as Fernandez sent a header flying towards the far corner — only for Rimando, who was off his line anticipating that Valeri would shoot, to scramble backwards and contort his body to push the ball out.
It was a thrilling piece of goalkeeping, one more to add to Rimando's robust Providence Park collection, and it set up a nervous finish for the Timbers.
Aside from a handful of passages in either half, their attack remained out of sorts. They were sloppy on the ball, and had an extremely difficult time relieving pressure in the second half. One goal was going to have to be enough.
For the longest time, it looked like it would be. But things very nearly went off the rails deep into stoppage time when substitute Renzo Zambrano fouled RSL center back Nedam Onuoha going for a loose ball on top of the box, bumped into referee Nima Saghafi protesting the decision, and was swiftly sent off.
It was a moment of immaturity from the Venezuelan, whose night was already off to a poor start when he lost out on a place in the initial lineup to Flores, and it set Salt Lake up with one final chance: a free kick, reasonably central, on the very edge of the penalty area, 97 minuets on the clock.
There were several candidates to take it, but the job eventually fell to Albert Rusnak. The Slovakian DP slashed a low shot towards the far corner, but Clark got down extremely well to save it, and Herrera skied the rebound over the bar.
Clark raised both fists and looked the sky in exultation and relief. When he took the resulting goal kick half a minute later, it was over.
The Timbers had held on. They'd crossed the finish line with the shutout intact, won just their second game of the season without Mabiala and fourth straight over RSL, hauling themselves to within three points of their opponents and third place in the West.
It was an ugly performance, but given victories for all three of Dallas, Kansas City, and San Jose earlier in the evening, a big-time result.
Yes, this team needs to get its offense right. But it's that time of the year. A month-and-a-half to go. The results are what count — and, once again, it's worth betting that the Timbers' best players will keep them in the fight.