The Portland Timbers were reeling. If you were to look only at the 2011 Timbers' spring and fall results, you would think the expansion team made the playoffs with ease. But that first MLS summer was brutal in Portland, and smack in the middle of it, the LA Galaxy came to town riding a massive 14-game unbeaten streak.
LA would go on to win their first MLS Cup in the Beckham Era that November. But on August 3, that star-studded squad at the center of the MLS world swaggered into outpost Portland, thinking they would easily dispatch a reeling and deflated Timbers side.
Portland's July had not gone well. Back-to-back home defeats for the first time in Jeld-Wen Field history washed much of the Timbers' home's mystique away. In fact, Portland hadn't won at home since May, and had maddeningly tossed away leads in three of their previous four ties at Jeld-Wen.
Most enraging of all was a two-goal second-half lead that was blown against ever-lowly Toronto FC just four days prior. Plus, as a team that had lost four of their last five road games, the Timbers were in terrible shape.
Under John Spencer, when things were going well, they went very well. When things were going poorly, Spencer had no answers besides constantly changing lineups and piling pressure on his beleaguered team, which, of course, was no help when trying to defend a late lead.
But every once in a while, Spencer's boys would ram their heads through a seemingly shut door for their boss, and when that happened, it was a beautiful sight to behold.
Portland was without all-star skipper Jack Jewsbury, who was ruled out in the morning with an injury. Eddie Johnson, a little-used striker was set to start. The inclusion of Johnson against Toronto was just Spencer throwing an egg at the wall and hoping it didn't break.
All was going well for Johnson, who scored against Toronto, but he sustained a concussion that would eventually end his career in the pre-game warmup.
That meant that Kenny Cooper, who Spencer was on the outs with since the penalty debacle against DC United earlier that year, was forced into the battered team. ESPN were in Portland, and so was MLS' flagship team, but it promised to be an entirely forgettable day for the Timbers.
Not so fast. From the opening whistle, Portland took it to the visitors. The Timbers played like a team fed up with the doubts and the questions, fed up with people saying they couldn't compete with the mighty Galaxy. The crowd was behind their team too, surging for every 50-50 ball, leaping for every header.
It was a gargantuan effort. LA wasn't ready for it.
Portland took the lead in the 26th minute through a well-worked goal for Mike Chabala, making his home debut, and the home team never looked back.
Jorge Perlaza took an entry pass at the top of the box, and showing command and strength that he never had before or since, spun his defender and swung Portland 2-0 before halftime.
A towering header from Eric Brunner in the second half made the final score 3-0. Portland didn't just beat LA. They blew them out.
After the game, Mike Chabala, reveling in a sensational home environment, karate chopped his log in half in front of the Timbers Army. From that point on, the Timbers righted their ship and had a strong finish to the season.
Still, the Galaxy game was by far the team's best effort in 2011. It was one of the biggest upsets of the season, and there was no doubt about who the winner was going to be in a matter of minutes. It showed just how powerful Jeld-Wen could be. The place regained its mojo. It hasn't gone, and isn't going anywhere.
August 3, 2011. Portland 3, LA 0. The Timbers were giant killers.
The Portland Timbers had lost their innocence. Portland's 2011 maiden MLS campaign was a fairytale in many respects, as a club awash in ground-breaking support and spirit made memories, mistakes too, but had a mostly charming year.
2012 was not so charming. Expectations were ratcheted up by Merritt Paulson, and the Timbers shedding of the expansion tag meant that no excuses were afforded by anyone around the team. Yes, Portland wasn't an expansion team in 2012. But they didn't learn enough about failure in 2011 to operate any other way.
John Spencer, Gavin Wilkinson and Paulson, a trident of egos and clashing ideas made for a miserable atmosphere around the Timbers. Spencer had no respect for his supriors, Wilkinson and Paulson were fed up with the aloofness and disrespect coming from a coach whose bullying tactics was amounting to a horrible year.
Paulson sacked Spencer on June 9th. The manager was told of the decision the night before, and the Timbers made the unavoidable choice to move on. It was a necessary choice, but the Timbers should have known things would get worse before they got better.
Gavin Wilkinson stepped to the plate. Wilkinson does his job as GM well enough. He's big on analytics and scouting. Generally, he's hit and miss. He does have Paulson's ear though, and he is as engrained in the Portland Timbers setup as anyone.
As a coach, however? As interim boss for the rest of the 2012 season, Wilkinson had no new ideas. He had no grasp of how to best deploy the team he put together, or how to motivate that team whatsoever.
It was a cauldron of turmoil in Portland. And who else came in, for Wilkinson's first match at the helm, than the Los Angeles Galaxy.
LA, at this point, is the defending champions of Major League Soccer, but they'd started the 2012 season poorly. The Galaxy was bouncing back, though, and they were playing an unpredictable Portland team at a good time.
Kris Boyd was a good friend of John Spencer's. In fact, Boyd signed with Portland because of a close relationship with Spencer's brother-in-law, Billy Davies. Davies, now the manager of Nottingham Forest, turned Boyd towards Spencer's Timbers.
Spencer hailed the signing of Boyd as the equivalent of Rangers signing Lionel Messi, but while the hype was high, Boyd's quality was not.
Although he scored enough goals – barely – Boyd's demonstrative, bitter attitude matched that of his coach and friend's in the pair's final two months in Portland.
Nevertheless, Boyd started for Wilkinson. And two minutes into the game, he scored. It was an absolute dream start.
The Timbers Army was in disbelief. The feeling was a sort of happy confusion – perhaps the sacking of Spencer and another home slaying of LA was going to be the start of the Timbers' revival?
It was fool’s gold. Because after that goal, Portland was offensively bad. They wouldn't close down players in the midfield. They lost 50-50 balls, and sank to the depths of their play. It was barren, empty soccer. David Beckham had acres of space to blast a shot from 25 yards in the 19th minute. It was in from the moment it left his foot.
Then Beckham, four minutes later, lashed in a free-kick. No doubt on that one either. It was as inevitable as the foul that set it up. Kosuke Kimura gave away an astonishingly dumb penalty just two minutes later. Landon Donovan put it away.
LA was enjoying their football. They were racing down the field, scoring for fun. They were playing cocky, creative stuff, and Portland didn't have the energy to stop them. Two minutes later, Donovan destroyed the left side of the Timbers defense, and his cross to Keane made it four.
The boos started. It was dreadful from Portland. As Keane flew into his trademark celebration, it seemed like LA could score 20.
Then just five minutes later, Kris Boyd blasted an uncatchable free-kick that was parried into the path of Kimura, who tapped it into the net to make it 4-2.
Keane scored 15 minutes after the restart. It was more playground defending. Boyd scored a late free-kick to make the final 5-3. It was Boyd's best game for Portland, and it's telling that it came in the days after he quit on Portland as Spencer was removed.
The final score was flattering for Portland. It was never close. It was a class operation in LA against a broken operation for Portland. LA won another MLS Cup. The Timbers staggered to the 2012 finish line in the same toxic atmosphere which engulfed the entire year.
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 wrest 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, and Bruce Arena’s typically whiny reaction to losing, which culminated in an extremely heated post-game hand-shake with Caleb Porter, a handshake that 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 has 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.