In a match-up featuring the best attack in Major League Soccer and the best defense, it was Sporting Kansas City's back line that stood up to serve notice that this is a year to take SKC seriously as a title contender.
Peter Vermes' squad went into Portland and became the first team to hold the high-flying Timbers without a goal, while Dom Dwyer's own finish provided the difference in a thoroughly impressive 1-0 victory on Saturday night.
The Timbers had their chances, to be sure, but goalkeeper Tim Melia and his defense met the challenge every time, especially during a two-minute stretch when Portland came close to scoring on three occasions only to be denied each time. First, it was Melia making a save on a Darren Mattocks chance, then Roger Espinoza cleared an Alvas Powell header off the line a minute later. Melia then made the play of the night when he came up with a full-stretch tip save to deny a long-range blast by Darlington Nagbe that was destined to fly in under the crossbar if the goalkeeper hadn't pulled off the best save in the league this week.
The Timbers piled on the pressure in the final 20 minutes, but Sporting KC stood firm and avoided breakdowns, with Matt Besler making several key defensive interventions down the stretch.
It took several outstanding individual performances to earn Sporting its first win in Portland since a regular-season victory there toward the end of the 2015 season. From Melia, who posted his fourth shutout of the season, to the trio of Roger Espinoza, Ilie Sanchez and Benny Feilhaber, who were key in helping neutralize the ever-dangerous Diego Valeri. Then you had Dwyer, who scored in his second straight match, while also pestering the Timbers defense every chance he had. Jimmy Medranda was also excellent, delivering the assist on Dwyer's goal while also turning in a tireless shift full of defensive work on the left flank.
It was the kind of victory that signals Kansas City's intent to return to the league's elite this year after a few seasons of results below the team's normal standard. Interestingly enough, it was at Providence Park where Sporting KC saw its playoff dreams dashed in 2015 in dramatic fashion via penalty shootout. The Timbers went on to win an MLS Cup while Sporting went into the next year looking like a team on the decline. A first-round playoff loss to eventual champion Seattle ended the club's 2016, and the 2013 MLS Cup champions entered 2017 almost seen as an afterthought.
Saturday's win in Portland definitely changes that, and adds legitimacy to what was already an impressive start to the season. The SKC defense had already begun to turn heads, but being able to shut down the dynamic duo of Valeri and Adi, and all the other weapons in Caleb Porter's arsenal, was KC's most impressive feat this year. With the shutout, Sporting KC has allowed just two goals in six matches, and both goals allowed came in stoppage time of matches the club was winning by multiple goals.
For Portland, Saturday's loss will have to leave Porter a little concerned about the fact they have dropped points at home for two straight matches. Last week's win in Philadelphia was a good confidence booster for a team that struggled mightily on the road in 2016, but another disappointing showing at Providence Park might start to rekindle memories of 2015, when the Timbers had the worst home record of any team that made the playoffs.
Of course, Portland wound up winning the MLS Cup title that year, so it isn't as if Saturday's loss will have Porter panicking, but the Timbers must regret giving Sporting KC a confidence boost in the series, which the Timbers swept a year ago. The Timbers are still one of the best teams in MLS, but Saturday's loss should send them a clear message that Sporting KC will be a problem every time they meet.
Kansas City won't have much time to bask in the glow of Saturday's victory. Not with a trip to Texas to take on FC Dallas looming next week. The teams already met earlier this season, but FC Dallas deployed a reserve-laded team ahead of a CONCACAF Champions League semifinal against Pachuca and still managed to earn a draw at Children's Mercy Park. Sporting KC left the field that night feeling like two points got away. Next Saturday, the side will have a chance not only to exact some revenge for that disappointment, but also an opportunity to remain as the league's lone unbeaten team with a win against Oscar Pareja's side.
That won't be easy in Frisco, Texas, where FC Dallas has lost just once since the start of the 2016 season. After ending Portland's own eight-match home unbeaten streak, and being the first team this year to shut out the Timbers, Sporting KC should be feeling like there isn't an opponent that can't be beaten, or a road venue that can't be conquered.