It never felt like an MLS game. The atmosphere was great, matched by the quality of play on the field. There was attacking intent, solid refereeing, and two class franchises contesting a pendulum of a game that went back and forth, until it came to a rest in the camp of the Portland Timbers.
The final score was Portland 3, Sporting Kansas City 2 Saturday night, in a match that would have looked more at home in the Netherlands or Germany. It was a landmark evening for the Timbers. Not only did Portland win their first road game almost six months earlier in the season than they did last year, but the Timbers out-footballed one of the best teams in the league, coming from behind twice, and leaving Kansas City as the hottest team in North America.
The game was always going to have an abundance of goals. Caleb Porter’s team was ready to break free and play after two, nitty-gritty claustrophobic contests against the stifling San Jose Earthquakes, while Kansas City, sporting their biggest ever home crowd and lovely new argyle third kits, were on the verge of party mood, a state of mind that always lends itself to attacking football.
That party mood was given another shot when Chance Myers leaked free to score off Matt Besler’s long-throw just 42 seconds. It was a return to conceding the first goal, a frustrating character trait the Timbers displayed in March, but shed in April, until the final game of the month. It was also how the Timbers conceded the first and second SKC goal – off balls pumped into the box, deflections, and a failure to clear. With the kind of form Donovan Ricketts is in, Portland isn’t going to concede many goals if they can eliminate the sequences where they get out-scrapped and out-sensed in the area.
But even after Myers’ second goal, a period that was split up by some fine work by Sporting ‘keeper Jimmy Nielson, and a lovely headed goal from Ryan Johnson, the Timbers were irrepressible. Kansas City played well, but the Timbers attack was firing on all cylinders.
Diego Chara was an engine, setting the table for the Timbers front four which has appeared to gel and figure out exactly how they fit in to the puzzle just eight games into the season.
Rodney Wallace is the best example of a man who has found a place in Porter’s system. Used sparingly and inconsistently during the reigns of John Spencer and Gavin Wilkinson, Wallace had to take a pay-cut this summer as his stop-start Timbers career looked to be drawing to a close.
But Porter has given the Maryland man a new lease on life, as Wallace is being deployed as a winger. Wallace is a good contrast to Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri in the midfield three, because he is not a dribbler and doesn’t look to make the final pass. Instead, he focuses on movement and balance, which makes the team click well, in contrast, possibly to Kalif Alhasson, who would be in danger of overloading the front four with too many of the same type of player.
Finally getting an extended run in the team in a single position, Wallace is fine-tuning the two things that make him dangerous: Long-distance shooting, and well-timed runs into the box. Both of those abilities were on display as Wallace turned in his best game in a Timbers shirt.
The Timbers second goal was a masterpiece: Wallace drifted back to pick out Valeri, who tugged the right string, deliciously playing through Ryan Johnson, who squared the ball for the late-arriving Darlington Nagbe, who guided in the equalizer.
It was a high-octane first half with four goals and the game never really settled down. It was in the 57th minute that Diego Chara intercepted a pass in the midfield and slid in Wallace on a perfectly timed run. All in one motion, Wallace changed feet he was going to strike the ball with, shifting his stance and easily passing the ball into the net for a 3-2 Timbers lead.
It was an impossibly cool finish, indicative of the overall quality of play. Wallace was also huge in tracking back as the Timbers held on in a nervy last quarter of an hour, thanks in large part to Ricketts, who may very well be playing the best soccer of his career.
In total, the teams combined for 30 shots. It was a showcase of soccer and the Timbers came out on top. Confidence is contagious and it has spread like wildfire throughout the Timbers camp. Portland has come through the most difficult stretch of their schedule, with games against Houston, San Jose, San Jose again, and Kansas City, unbeaten, picking three wins, different and impressive each in their own way.
Portland’s May calendar is much more comely – only one game against a team who would make the playoffs if they started today. By the start of summer, things could be very rosy indeed in the Rose City, where a definite XI has been decided upon and the only spot of weakness appears to be the thinning depth at center-back.
Hopefully Futty’s injury isn’t serious, but his performance over the last two games suggests that Andrew Jean-Baptiste should have recovered his spot in the first team anyway.
The greatest thing about the Timbers win Saturday night was that Sporting Kansas City played well. They got beaten at their own game in their own full-house; they got beaten by three goals – just as many goals as they allowed in the first seven games of the season. This game is the clearest indication yet: Portland is really, really good. And they may just keep getting better.
Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports