Columbus Crew SC had a chance to translate the advantage of a raucous homefield Saturday night into a decisive result to become the second MLS team to clinch a spot in the 2015 playoffs.
But by the time the lights had gone down at MAPFRE Stadium, its tenant club had squandered that chance.
The Portland Timbers took the field with more to lose than its Ohio hosts and, quite frankly, they played like it.
Portland came into Saturday's contest clinging to a three-point lead over the Houston Dynamo in the Western Conference for the sixth and final playoff spot. By contrast, the Black & Gold had an opportunity to overtake the top of the East with a win.
But the Timbers, rather than wilting in a hostile environment, held serve to retain their place above the playoff cutoff line with a 2-1 victory to keep Houston — also winners over Colorado — at bay for now.
Coach Gregg Berhalter spoke highly of both Portland's strategic approach and Fanendo Adi, the Nigerian striker who scored both Timbers goals.
"Essentially their plan was to counterattack. When they weren't counterattacking, they were playing long balls in to Adi who would hold it up and get runners off of him," Berhalter said in a postgame press conference. "He's a handful. He's an aggressive player and very good in the air and he caused some problems, no question."
Problems for Crew SC weren't limited to Adi's contributions. The home team enjoyed a drastic possession advantage, owning the ball for nearly 60 percent of the match. They completed more passes and at a higher accuracy percentage than the visitors. But those statistics don't mean as much if goals don't result. The Timbers were unafraid to streak down the field when they possessed, wasting neither time nor motion in finding ways to take accurate shots.
Catching the backline of Waylon Francis, Tyson Wahl, Michael Parkhurst and Harrison Afful off guard was essential to their victory.
Francis and Afful, being outside backs who aggressively roam endline to endline under Berhalter's leadership, typically make most teams prioritize the shoring up of their own defense. They perform double duty: as cross specialists (Afful) and precise touchline handlers along the flank (Francis), but also as chase-down defenders in transition. It's fun to watch but is especially dangerous against a direct team like Portland.
The Timbers would open the scoring in the 28th minute and it would be a turnover by Francis later that proved costly. With the ball coughed and the defense scrambling to regain its shape, Darlington Nagbe was then able to navigate into a pocket of space and slice a pass across the box for Adi to finish easily.
With Portland content to defend, 15 minutes later, the equalizer seemed to come out of nowhere. A seemingly innocuous corner would lead to Kei Kamara's 22nd goal. Portland had racked up eight corners in the first half while Columbus made the most of their three.
Federico Higuain launched a bending driven ball and Kamara sprung into action. It was an impossible angle. Kamara needed to thread the needle and he did with superb body control and acrobatically snapped the header goalward.
The improbable shot made the capacity crowd at MAPFRE Stadium erupt.
Getting a goal before halftime is something many coaches want, and Gregg Berhalter reinforced that after the match.
"To tie it up by halftime, I thought we had momentum. I thought we came out [for] the second half—the first five minutes, really aggressive," Berhalter added "We looked lively."
That energy didn't carry over as Adi would draw blood once more just five minutes in to the second half, and Crew SC was trailing all over again.
Michael Parkhurst emphasized the impact of Adi's second goal on the team's attitude.
"it's difficult when you go down a goal, especially at home. It's difficult," Parkhurst said.
"Teams drop back and stay compact and play on the counterattack and make it difficult for us," Parkhurst added. "So, you know, it stings to give up that second goal, it's a long way uphill from there."
The coach expected that stout Timbers defense to get even more tight and looked to his bench to provide a spark. He lifted Tony Tchani and Ethan Finlay for Mohammed Saied and Cedrick Mabwati.
Berhalter remarked postgame that the 65th minute substitutions were tactical and due to injury. Tchani was dealing with "some groin pain." Mabwati had the speed and attacking mindset to put Portland on their heels.
Portland did stay compact and defended in hopes of stealing all three points while the Saied and Mabwati subs didn't provide the needed spark. As the second half waned, physical play become visibly apparent as a sign of frustration from a Crew SC team that had the tools to draw or win Saturday but wasn't able to execute as well as Portland.
"Our expectations are to win this game. And it's disappointing, in front of a fantastic crowd, you know, a record number crowd, it's disappointing not to give the fans a win. The heads were hanging low in there," Berhalter said of the locker room.
"It was a good opportunity, especially given the results around the league," Parkhurst said, leaving no doubt as to the team's cognizance of their standing and the opportunity that was missed in defeat. "We've got a big one on Saturday so we'll bounce back."
It is a big one: Crew SC have a crucial road matchup with Eastern Conference-leading New York Red Bulls. With only three games left in the regular season, Columbus can't afford to struggle down the stretch and slide down the standings. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m. on October 3rd.