In a game that had it all — and turned on a dime from pedestrian to unhinged — there was just one constant.
The Portland Timbers were good. Damn good. And after more than 100 minutes of soccer on Saturday night at Providence Park, they'd deservedly clinched their first victory since Opening Day with a 3-1 triumph over the San Jose Earthquakes.
After being stepped on for the better part of a month, the Timbers stepped up. It was an effort led by the championship-winning stalwarts of 2015, and garrisoned by a bevy of a new acquisitions finding out for the first time what it's like to wear the crest and hear the Timbers Army roar.
Losing streaks don't die without a fight. But as the Timbers started defending well, and then started getting bounces, and then started getting goals, confidence started flowing back into the veins of players who are all far better than they'd recently showed. If Saturday night was a gut-check, as Caleb Porter put it, Portland passed with flying colors.
This result was not, however, a forgone conclusion. Dominic Kinnear's Earthquakes are a playoff team, and they were on the front foot early on as the Timbers struggled all over the field with unfamiliarity and nerves. Quincy Amerikwa sent a chip off the crossbar, but unlike in previous games, Portland didn't crumble. Instead, they grew into the game.
Nat Borchers led the charge. The hero of 2015 has had a rough ride this season, but he was back to his best against the 'Quakes — clearly relishing the battle against Amerikwa and Chris Wondolowski, and coming up with a series of huge interventions to keep San Jose at bay.
Borchers' worst moment — a dangerous giveaway in midfield — was followed by his best moment, when his standup tackle on Amerikwa on top of the box started the sequence that led to the Timbers' second goal.
That tackle was representative of the night as a whole. By conceding the first goal in their last five games, the Timbers hadn't been giving themselves a chance. On this night, it was the defense that sprung the offense.
Filling in for the injured Alvas Powell, Zarek Valentin hardly put a foot wrong all night. But considering the surrounding circumstances, Chris Klute's performance was especially impressive.
Klute had to cope through sixty minutes with almost no help, as Darron Mattocks struggled defensively on the wing — and, somehow, his best soccer came at the end of his third match in seven days in his first week back from injury this season.
This team dug in. It was an exhausted Lucas Melano, who'd hardly moved in stoppage time, tearing up the San Jose defense to feed Fanendo Adi and kill the game off. Speaking of defense springing offense, it was Jack McInerney slide-tackling Andres Imperiale in the Earthquakes' box and gutting home the all-important first goal.
It was Jermaine Taylor stepping up, and it was Ned Grabavoy simplifying his game and finding his feet in Portland. It was Jake Gleeson filling in adeptly in goal after Adam Kwarasey went down at the beginning of the second half, and it was certainly McInerney, whose performance — even aside from his deliciously industrious opener — was a revelation.
In soccer, it takes eleven. Or fourteen. This was the all-hands-on-deck performance we've been waiting to see from the Timbers for weeks.
Of course, some players were particularly good.
McInerney was involved in all three of Portland's goals, and his play on the wing after Fanendo Adi came on smacked of a surprisingly skillful and surprisingly intelligent soccer player. Just seven games into the season, McInerney is a single goal shy of matching Maxi Urruti's 2015 scoring mark.
Diego Valeri had moments of jaw-dropping brilliance. When he's on like he was on Saturday, he's one of the five best players in MLS.
The coach also deserves his share of credit. From starting Valentin over Taylor Peay, to his deployment of Adi, to his move back to the 4-3-3, Porter pushed all the right buttons.
He had less luck with the referee. Porter and Chris Penso have history — the latter accusing the former of "one of the worst refereeing performances I've ever seen in the game" after Penso sent off Diego Chara in the Timbers' contentious 2014 US Open Cup loss to the Seattle Sounders — and this match didn't go much better.
Penso called an extremely loose match — which made for an open first half — and he wouldn't adjust well as the game became more intense. The first sign of trouble was Penso's mishandling of an unfortunate situation midway through the second half, when Mattocks was cold-cocked by San Jose's Victor Bernandez.
But the game seemed set to proceed quietly to its conclusion, when Penso whistled for a penalty in the 90th minute after a play that left Borchers — not Chris Wondolowski — on the ground as the pair tangled in the box. The call drew the ire of Valeri, who was captaining the team, and Penso gave him a yellow card for dissent.
Borchers told reporters after the match that Wondolowski complained just moments before to Penso about the physicality of center-back's defending. The ploy worked, and the San Jose captain — efficient in the box unless playing against Belgium — stuck the penalty to set up a contemptuous finish.
The real flashpoint came 95th minutes, when Valeri kicked the ball away after the whistle and accidentally hit Anibal Goody in the face. 'Quakes goalkeeper David Bingham sprinted 20 yards to square up to Valeri, and the two teams were off to the races. Penso, no great fan of Valeri's, sent the irate Argentine off.
But the Timbers weren't to be denied. The break led by Melano gave Adi his preordained brace, sent Merritt Paulson into convulsive celebrations behind the North End net, and ended the game.
It was a bonding moment for a relatively new team. Porter noted after the match that only five starters against San Jose were around for the Cup final last year. The 2016 Timbers need to make their own way. On Saturday night, they finally warmed to the task.