The Portland Timbers are flying. They expelled the toxic energy and the disarray in a single offseason. Caleb Porter had his team playing like a well-oiled juggernaut, and the attributes used to describe the 2013 Timbers - professional, likable, gutty, explosive - would have been antonyms to describe the team in 2012.
The Timbers had just had a team-record 15 game unbeaten streak snapped, and they hadn’t conceded a goal at home in league play for three and a half months.
You could feel Portland surging to the top of MLS, trying to rest away the mantle from LA, who were weakened ever-so-slightly, but clinging to their title as the league's premier team.
No longer was Portland - LA a game between the glitz, glam and success of the Galaxy and the cute, irrelevant Timbers, a speculate only for their support, not their play. This was a game that carried the unwritten rule of sports that everyone can feel when something more than three points are at stake. It was a game where power could be passed, or power could be kept.
It was a playoff game. In stakes, caliber, intensity, it was the playoffs in July. It was beyond an MLS game. Two competitive coaches with style and a certain distaste for each other - the wunderkind Porter and the grizzled vet Arena - set out two teams that played with kind of panache, drive and control you rarely see in MLS.
The game was played under control at one million miles per hour, the teams going back and forth, trading goals, momentum, and that mantle in front of a defining Jeld-Wen Field effort.
LA, sans Donovan, who was with the US, took the lead through a Marcelo Sarvas goal, but Portland pegged back on a supremely alert quick free-kick that Ryan Johnson turned in from a Nagbe center as the Galaxy defense napped.
All senses were on overdrive. Just one moment was always going to swing the game. Donovan Ricketts was a beast against his former team, the most dominant player on the field. He made big saves as LA’s high-powered attack breached the Timbers defense on numerous occasions.
But for all of the Galaxy’s nous and know-how, they didn’t have the energy or the youth of the starlet Timbers. As the game grew, so did Portland, and as the stakes grew, so did Portland. The refereeing was shambolic, as usual, and the game went on and on, both teams pressing for a winner, both teams unwilling to settle for shared spoils. The game had grown too big for a draw.
So it made since that with 94 minutes on the clock, the last tick of midnight for a sensational game, Andrew Jean-Baptiste headed Diego Valeri’s corner into the back of the net in front of the Timbers Army. It was the latest normal time goal in club history, and it was possibly the most important. Needless to say, it was unrestrained bedlam at Jeld-Wen Field.
The Timbers had arrived.
They went toe to toe with the champion, and won – and not because LA wasn’t fully prepared, or couldn’t be bothered like in 2011. The Galaxy wanted this game. Bruce Arena’s typically whiny reaction to losing culminated in an extremely heated post-game hand-shake with Caleb Porter, which ended with the two bosses screaming at each other.
The Guardian, possibly the most esteemed English newspaper, described it this way:
"In many ways, the match embodied how far Major League Soccer has come. Portland, who along with Seattle have the fervent fan bases MLS hopes to cultivate in the wake of their Cascadia expansion, produced what was likely the loudest moment of the season, a reaction captured by the type of committed national television outlet (NBC Sports) that hasn't always been a league partner. Though Bruce Arena is known as the type of pragmatist that's historically defined the league's heterogeneous tactics, he let his team go toe-to-toe with Caleb Porter's ambitious possession-driven scheme, producing a style and quality of game that the league would like to see more of. Combine the Galaxy's stature and the teams' place in the standings (Portland now second in the west; LA fourth), Saturday may have been one of the best shows in Major League Soccer history."
It certainly provided the Timbers’ best moment, best game, and best win in club history. It was a game that defined the boundaries of counterpart games. Portland 2, LA 1.
LA comes to Portland again on Saturday. Playoff positioning is at stake, with Portland and LA sitting in the murky region that is third to fifth place in the Western Conference. Both teams want to avoid the Wild-Card Game. Only one will. The game will be broadcast from 12:30 at Jeld-Wen Field on network NBC, a huge step for MLS, and these two deserving clubs.
Whatever happens Saturday, you can bet it will be memorable. When LA comes to Portland, it always is.