As the clock stroked 90 minutes Saturday night in Seattle, and Andrew John-Baptiste hooked a 20-yard ball into the area towards substitute Rodney Wallace, the Timbers had already come a long way. The last time Portland visited Seattle, the Timbers melted in front of a crowd of over 66,000, playing with such ineptitude on such a massive stage as to make the game the final straw for many of last year's Timbers.
Only four starters from that 3-0 shellacking just six Timbers MLS games ago, Donovan Ricketts, Darlington Nagbe, Jack Jewsbury and Diego Chara started Caleb Porter's first Cascadia Derby. And it was a true derby - battled for in every sense, two even teams going back and forth in a chippy encounter. The Timbers were coming up short, but they were leaps and bounds and more leaps ahead of the 2012 team. If only they could have had some vindication, a great moment, a goal to ensure the performance and the improvement got the point it deserved. A goal that could shore up the obviousness that the Portland Timbers were rapidly getting better, a goal that silence those signing Sounders faithful. Then, Wallace headed in Jean-Baptiste's cross.
Seattle goalkeeper Michael Gusprning was quick to point out after the game how much better the Timbers had gotten. In the first two games of the season, it's been easy to see from the Timbers silky attacking combinations and sizzling, threatening runs that this team is an offensive threat. Against Seattle, the Timbers showed the kind of steel on the road that we haven't seen in the side's MLS history.
The Futty Danso own-goal opened the floodgates for Seattle last year in this fixture, this year, after going down early, Portland dug in. For the third game in a row, the Timbers outshot, out-passed, out-possessed, and out-crossed their opponent. But against the Sounders, the Timbers took over the game in a different style. It wasn't scintillating, and it wasn’t gorgeous; instead, the Timbers methodically took control, gradually playing Seattle into the defensive, keeping possession, not allowing chances on the other end of the field. By the time Wallace scored the Timbers' second consecutive goal against the Sounders, no one could have argued a draw wasn't the fair result.
It was also nice to see a Timbers team getting a result while not playing their best. Portland weren't quite themselves against the Sounders, hampered by more defensive tactics, a change in formation, a road environment, and a Seattle team that was playing energized and effective soccer. Diego Valeri, for instance, was bottled up by Osvaldo Alonso, but he still almost turned the game in fleeting moments, a free-kick, for instance, that hit the bar. Will Johnson couldn't organize and run the midfield he had against New York and Montreal, but he provided a crunching backbone for the Timbers, physically spreading the message that the Timbers weren't going to be pushed around.
No one in red and white played their best game, but no one shut off either; no one played a bad game, and the longer the Timbers hung in against Seattle. It was a defender to defender connection that provided the goal, and that was indicative of how the Timbers never gave up. Lack of talent didn't kill Timbers 1.0 - John Spencer's teams were often killer in big games, and reeled off home winning streaks that were some of the best in the league. No, the old Timbers squads got hurt by a lack of steel, a lack of stick-to-it-ness. Donovan Ricketts got stomped in the thigh; he kept a clean sheet the rest of the game. Jean Baptiste got caught out of position on Eddie Johnson's goal; he provided the game-tying assist. This Timbers team doesn't have a swagger yet, after two draws and a loss to begin the year. But this is a team that could develop a good deal of swagger if they start picking up wins this year.
One man with a certain aura of swagger is manager Caleb Porter. The Seattle game wasn't Porter's finest hour - he had to sacrifice style for substance with his team selection. Jack Jewsbury, unfortunately not wearing the armband even though he started the match, was added as a third central midfielder, at the expense of Kalif Alhasson, a winger, and a man who was always unlikely to start after being substituted in the team's last two games. Ben Zemanski played well as an outside back, better than Roy Miller, and the former Akron player may be able to keep his place in the team. Porter started the game playing not to lose, but by the end of the game, when he threw on Fredrique Piquionne for his debut in place of midfielder Jewsbury, he was playing to win.
Porter may not have nailed his initial formation - Jewsbury was ineffective, though he did clog up the midfield - but he did get his substitutions right, and throwing on Wallace in place of Nagbe was a risky move and one that paid off. At CenturyLink Field, where there were 26,000 less Sounders fans, though no less Timbers fans, than the last time the teams met, in a season where Seattle has seen average attendance drop 4,000 fans, the Timbers were just as good, if not better than the Sounders. That's amazing, considering the 3-0 sloshing of 2012.
Yes, Portland does need to get a win, and no, if you don't watch the games, this season doesn't look so impressive. The Timbers are one of only five teams left in MLS without a victory. Portland has the next two weeks off, as MLS finally lines up their calendar with the FIFA international break, and then the Timbers are in Colorado, where overmatched teams have been eaten alive 3-1 and 3-0. Both games in Colorado were the start of something, the first was the Timbers first ever game in MLS, the second was the game that spelled the beginning of the end for Spencer in Portland. These Timbers, unlike the last two teams, are better are better than the Rapids, and, like it was with Seattle, the Timbers should finally be the better team, and get a win on March 30th.
Portland Timbers FC is superior to Seattle Sounders FC. The Timbers have a richer tradition, better fans, a louder stadium - a real soccer stadium, at that - more swagger, more pride, and more history. The only place Portland doesn't beat Seattle is on the field. That is changing. While Sounders fans grow restless after their fast start in MLS, the Timbers are finally making their move. The team is rising with grit, poise, and skill - they already have the Cascadia Cup, and are a good bet to win it again. The game mirrored this line of thinking - Seattle jumped out to an early lead, Portland chipped away, battled back, and in the end, got their reward.
Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports