After another calamitous defensive bluster from the Portland Timbers that gave the New York Red Bulls a 3-1 lead over the direful Portland Timbers after just 28 minutes at Jeld-Wen Field Sunday, the home team came back with a possessed verve not seen in this franchise's MLS history. In the second half, Portland came and came and came, stampeding New York to an inch of death in a 3-3 draw that had it all in the team’s 2013 opener. It was an exhilarating, harrowing, awesome advert for soccer, and we could be in for quite a ride in Portland this season if the remaining 33 games are even half as fun.
Portland Timbers games against the New York Red Bulls are always incredible affairs, but the seesaw roller-coaster qualities of this game constructed another gigantic chapter in the team’s short MLS history. Portland started the game in sixes and sevens defensively as the supposed rock of the back-line, suave Frenchman Mikael Silvestre, conspired with various other characters to give away two ghastly goals to Fabian Espindola – the first a horrifically bungled back-pass to Donovan Ricketts, the second a swing and a miss at a clearance letting Red Bulls debutant Espindola in on goal.
Those two goals were split up, however, by a marvelous goal by Diego Valeri, who clinically and classily sliced through the Red Bulls box after a series of neat Timbers passing to tie the game at one. Valeri's strike was one of the best goals in Timbers history. But the mood inside a buoyant Jeld-Wen was dampened with Espindola's second, and crushed with the Red Bulls' third. On that goal, it was Silvestre's center-back partner Andrew John-Baptiste who was most at fault, as Portland failed to clear a corner, and Jamison Olave was left to slide in on the doorstep, unmarked after John-Baptiste stepped away from his man.
Portland wasn't bad in the first half; in fact, there was an argument to be made that the Timbers were the better team, destructed by three bad defensive errors. Silvestre looked out of sorts, although in his defense, Ricketts was as much as fault on the first goal as he was. Still, Silvestre was bad, and the argument that he'd only had one training session with his teammates didn't hold much ground, considering he had two weeks and a whole preseason tournament to play with the back-line while he was on trial with Portland.
In the second half, Portland blew the game out of the park. The Timbers played the kind of scintillating attacking football that Caleb Porter's teams are renowned for. As Portland's control of the game grew, so did their confidence, and with it, their courage. Portland started pressing higher and higher up the pitch, creating chance after chance as the Red Bulls were reduced to hanging on for their lives.
Darlington Nagbe scored in the 56th, a tap-in on a rebound after a stinging shot from Valeri was knocked down. Then, the Timbers got their equalizer on an own-goal from first-half hero Olave in the 83rd minute. A stinger from Nagbe forced an acrobatic save from Red Bulls 'keeper Robles, and substitute Jose Valencia's cross was inadvertently directed in by the unaware New York defender. The wonderfully entertaining game finished 3-3, although with the way the contest had gone, no one would have been surprised had a cross from center-back Silvestre eventually resulted in a game-winning bicycle-kick goal for Ryan Johnson, whose attempt flew just wide.
The Timbers' 35th consecutive sell-out crowd was in a permanent state of delirium in the second half, as the Timbers found themselves unlucky not to win a game they had once been down 3-1 in. The soccer was so good down the stretch due to a twinkling Valeri, a marauding Nagbe, an effervescent Ryan Johnson, a workaholic Will Johnson, and a cohesive attack that had 64% off the ball and fired off 21 shots to New York's ten; it was evident just how bad the most of the Timbers' play had been in the club's first two seasons.
In that sense, the real star of the night was Caleb Porter. The level of play was so much higher than it was when the Timbers last took the field in a competitive match last October – it was astounding. The Timbers completed 229 more passes than the Red Bulls, and New York's lead was never safe – even in the first half when the Timbers were clearly not at their best. If Porter's team can play as attractively as they did in the second half, then the coach will be given time and a wide berth by fans to work out his team's defensive wrinkles, regardless of results.
We knew coming into the season that there would be goals in Timbers matches, and the six goals in this game were the most in any MLS game on the league's opening weekend. Still, the Timbers skill on the ball and resulting possession took pressure off the defense in the second half, and left the beleaguered unit with little to do but attack in the second half.
Valeri was sterling, pulling the strings in stark contrast to the Timbers five other attackers, who were direct and packing action in their 2013 debut. It was a fun game to watch – it had neutrals gushing on social media – but the match was made by Portland, whose skill shone threw the Red Bulls in the second half. The Timbers mistakes are easily correctable – if there is any player who will surely up their performance, it's Silvestre, a veteran who was adapting on the fly to Portland's turf and MLS. It's possible that Porter - aggressive in his substitutions and tactics – made his only mistake in starting Silvestre over Dylan Tucker-Gagnas.
Timbers 2.0 felt remarkably familiar in the first-half, with head-in-hands defensive blunders and sloppy play. But the new era really did kick off in the second half, and with new uniforms and players, the future is brighter than ever in Portland. The Timbers will clean up the defensive mistakes in training this week, and if Portland can play with the skill and drive they did against the big-name Red Bulls, this season will end in the playoffs. It was a great night to be a Timber – and it promises even greater nights to come.
Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports