The Western Conference has, in recent years, been the stronger of MLS' two conferences. The prevailing wisdom about winning the Supporters' Shield or getting good playoff seeding was that you had to take all the points you could off the East, because they were easier to come by and the West was tough enough that points off Eastern conference teams were seen as "gimme" points in a lot of cases.
That's changed this year - the balance of power in MLS has definitely shifted eastward. Toronto is on a mission to avenge their loss to the Sounders in last year's MLS Cup final, NYCFC is humming on all cylinders right now, the Chicago Fire are the dictionary definition of resurgent, and right behind those three, there are the Red Bulls. all four of those teams currently have more points than anyone in the West; playing the East is no longer a walkover.
The Timbers, then, were in for a test on a gorgeous Friday night when the Red Bulls came to town. They were fresh off a 120 minute game against FC Cincinnati on Tuesday and a cross country flight the next day, so they rested several starters, but this is still a dangerous team and the Timbers are still the Timbers, lately just as likely to trip over their own feet as run in a straight line.
This game, it had to be said, was not a great advertisement for MLS. It was disjointed, clumsy, and awkward, but the Timbers' defenders, for once, didn't make a lot of mistakes, and the attack did just enough for a 2-0 win, the second goal of which coming at the death when NYRB committed their goalkeeper in attack so they could have a two man advantage after Larrys Mabiala was sent off. The kick was missed, and the Timbers got the ball upfield fast enough to dump in an empty net goal, so the scoreline was slightly flattering, but still, three points are three points.
Resilience. After the embarrassment of last weekend in Toronto, the Timbers needed a response, particularly at home. And they gave one. As mentioned, the game was kind of a mess, from a Timber perspective; the Red Bulls' reserves came to disrupt, not attack, and that's exactly what they did. They did not allow the Timbers any time or space on the ball, so for most of the game the Timbers basically took the passing lanes they were given, which were generally ineffective - they had trouble stringing two passes together most of the night. But they did enough to win, and that's all that matters.
Points. The West may not be as good as in prior years, but it's every bit as tight. Seven points separate first place in the West from not being in the playoffs, and if the Timbers want to keep up with the big boys, they have to grind out results on nights like this. It's encouraging that they did, but this is the beginning, not the end. There are three teams knotted at 37 points right now, behind Sporting Kansas City's division-leading 40, and the Timbers have played at least one more game than everyone currently above the red line. There's very little margin for error in Portland, and getting all three points against one of the best teams in the East was a vital result.
Messiness. As mentioned, the Red Bulls did a great job of harrying the Timbers on Friday. With several starters on the bench, their job was clear; shut down the most potent Timbers and hope to create something on the break. Fortunately, while the Red Bulls did the former quite well, the Timber defenders actually showed up for work Friday night, so they were able to deal with the Red Bulls with fairly little difficulty.
Shorthandedness. Larrys Mabiala had a really good game, but he did a really bad thing. With 10 minutes to go and the game seemingly fairly well in hand, he pulled down Gonzalo Veron just outside the penalty area, and Allen Chapman showed no hesitation in pulling out a red card, as he should have. VAR confirmed that the foul was outside the area, but Mabiala definitely fouled Veron; the Red Bulls missed the free kick, but Mabiala now misses Wednesday night's visit by Colorado, just when it seemed the Timbers would find some defensive stability.
It was a gorgeous, warm evening in Portland. It was just a shame the soccer didn't live up to the setting. The less we all remember about this game, the better.