Let's not forget that July games at Jeld-Wen Field between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Portland Timbers are always unforgettable. Saturday night, we were expecting something great, something definite, something resounding, or maybe a combination of all those things. What we got was a on a whole different level: We got a folklore game.
For some reason, Major League Soccer likes scheduling LA's trip to Portland in the heat of the July. It's a sort of showcase game for the league. The league's glitziest, most glamorous team, trying to conquer the underdog team with the inspirational, ear-drum beating support. On the field, LA is the league's golden goose. Off the field, along with Seattle, Portland is at the top.
In all three years Portland has been in Major League Soccer, the Timbers – Galaxy July game has been on national television, and each game has had its own unique story.
In 2011, LA was rickrolling the league on their way to the MLS Cup, riding one of the longest unbeaten streaks in MLS history. Portland, on the other hand, was tossing away leads like they were candy wrappers, suffering a summer swoon and getting beaten up by the press. LA came in complacent. Portland smashed them. The final was 3-0. The Timbers had enough of being told they could never beat the Galaxy, and it was the best game of the 2011 season (one of the only games where John Spencer's spitfire personality was perfect).
One year later, for the 2012 edition, Spencer was gone. LA was the first game of the Gavin Wilkinson era, and the Timbers were in shambles. Meanwhile, LA was rounding into form on their way to another title. The Galaxy were on a different galaxy. David Beckham sparkled with two brilliant goals and LA won 5-3.
The 2013 edition blew the last two games out of sight and mind after five minutes with a few AK47s. The intensity and atmosphere at Jeld-Wen Field was off the charts. Everything about the game said this is big-time. We had the two-time defending champions coached by the most successful American manager ever, Bruce Arena, trying to hang onto supremacy against the upstart, hotshot Timbers, coached by the hottest young American manager since Arena burst onto the scene in Caleb Porter. But most of all, this was a potential changing of the guard game. Would the old power hang on, or would they be knocked out by the new power?
In the aftermath of the result, people have compared this game to a boxing match, but to me it looked more like a tennis match. LA came out with nous and know-how and as the game wore on, the visitors wore in.
When the Galaxy took the lead through a header from midfielder Michael Sarvas, they pressed on, attacking and controlling the game, except for a single moment in the 27th minute.
That moment was a quick free kick from Diego Valeri, which Darlington Nagbe turned across for Ryan Johnson to prod home. It was a drive-by. LA was asleep and it let Portland survive the first half.
The other key ingredient in Portland surviving a first half in which they were the second best team on the field was the big man, Donovan Ricketts.
A ridiculous save on a Beckham-like Juninho free-kick set the stage for a gargantuan running slide-tackle on an LA breakaway. He's been the man this season.
What we forget because of the Timbers success with final scorelines is that they are even much better with second half scorelines. Portland is undoubtedly a second-half team.
It showed Saturday. Portland grew into the game and took the front-foot in the second half, while the stakes and saga of the game grew. It grew much too large for referee Baldomero Toledo, who was refereeing a Baldomero Tornado. Toledo couldn't handle the magnitude of the game, and it quickly spilled out of control. There were individual confrontations all over the field – and later on the sideline – that kept an incredibly loud Jeld-Wen crowd lathered up all night.
Despite the Timbers improved play after the interval – and Porter's men did grow into the game – Donovan Ricketts had to come up big multiple times late to set the stage for Andrew Jean-Baptiste’s heroics.
As the game ticked into the 94th minute, the Timbers won a corner on a hustle play from Frederic Piquoinne, back early from national team duty. The corner was swung in by Valeri, and Jean-Baptiste rose to meet the ball, directing the biggest header in Portland Timbers history into the back of the net, sending Jeld-Wen into euphoric bedlam.
It was arguably the Timbers most meaningful victory ever. Both LA and the Timbers came out firing and stayed firing, realizing the symbolic and mental magnitude of the game as well as its impact on the Western Conference standings. Los Angeles, back-to-back MLS champions, desperately wanted this game. I hadn't seen Arena that animated since Italy-USA in the 2006 World Cup. Portland won dramatically and thrillingly. They beat LA. It might as well have been a playoff game.
Was this a changing of the guard? We'll find out for sure in October. But I think it was.