They flew high, for so long, it felt like they would never come back to Earth.
And sure enough, the Portland Timbers didn’t come back to Earth Sunday night in Sandy, Utah, they fell through a trap door.
To put it simply, the Timbers got pummeled. They got smashed. Save for two moments of brilliance that bookended a royal shellacking from Real, Portland’s heart no longer beats.
It happens so quickly in football, the long journeys – be it in a World Cup, or a European Championships, or the final day of a league season – end so abruptly. There’s no seven game series, there’s no three or four hour games.
Sunday night, there were just 90 minutes and the Timbers being beat into a pulp.
As slow and listless as Portland was, Real Salt Lake played a fantastic game. They were tremendous in all facets of play. Their midfield passed around Portland, and their frontline ran through the Timbers.
The whole thing was so foreign: The comically short turnaround from Thursday night’s victory over Seattle, the fact that RSL was playing their first Sunday home game ever in another horrific MLS scheduling blunder, and the lack of build-up or anticipation in the lead-up to the game – and this after weeks and weeks of hugely billed fixtures.
The most foreign thing of all? The Timbers getting beaten so thoroughly and so completely under Caleb Porter with their entire team fit and their best eleven on the field.
In all honesty, this game came way, way too soon for the Timbers. They needed a few more days to refocus after beating the Sounders. They needed a few more days to rest and they needed a few more days to game-plan for Jason Kreis’ team.
It was a masterpiece from RSL, their best game of the season. But it started out with an extension of the Seattle nirvana for the Timbers.
Just 14 minutes into the game, Will Johnson struck a thunderbolt of a free-kick from 25 yards to give the Timbers the lead.
You can blame Nick Rimando’s positioning, but it was a super take from the skipper, who has played out of his mind this year.
And yet the higher they are, the harder they fall. It started slipping away from Portland the moment that shot hit the back of the net.
Real started dominating. The Timbers dropped off, and then for a period, completely out of the game. The hosts isolated and neutralized Johnson and Chara with a triumvirate of midfield strength headed by the incomparable Kyle Beckerman. They jittered around Portland’s backline with ease. And they were aided by the visitors’ horrifying set-piece defending.
What happened just minutes later, though, was infinitely more embarrassing and heart breaking for the Gambian. After tracking a long ball from Beckerman with Robbie Findley on his heals, Danso failed to do anything with the ball and had it nipped away from him. Findley then coolly slotted the ball past Ricketts.
Poor Futty. The Timbers’ longest-tenured player enjoyed the pinnacle of his career just 72 hours earlier, and experienced the low-point tonight. Blaming the cerebral defender is not the answer. Not in a year when the Timbers went undefeated in the 17 games he started before tonight. He just lost his cool at the worst possible time.
Halftime couldn't come soon enough. The floodgates were open and had a welcome sign plastered to them. The Timbers were all over the place. Surely Caleb Porter would fix things during the intermission.
You often hear that football cliché, "a tale of two halves" - but the other side of that saying is the bemused and disgruntled, "why did we think halftime would do us any good?"
The Timbers had much bigger problems than RSL's momentum. They were getting blitzed, and had no answer. The defense was poor. The energy was poorer. It was just the opposite of what we expect and what we love from Portland. They made mental mistakes. They made physical blunders. There was no composure, no leadership. Forget what Seattle said, this was a nightmare game.
Sound familiar? It's how Seattle looked on Thursday. In that game, Portland had the ball in the net just minutes after the restart. Salt Lake did the same Saturday night, carving open Portland’s defense as Devon Sandoval slotted home from close-range.
And I'm sorry to say, MLS's incomprehensibly dumb playoff schedule played a part.
Not just the two days of rest, which was a problem both teams had to contend with. It was the fact that the higher seed, Portland, had to travel on one of those two days, and play an away game in the first leg. Real Salt Lake drew energy from playing at home, and while they could rest and relax after their win over LA; the Timbers faced a team ensconced in the comforts of home.
Sometimes you feel MLS isn’t worthy of franchises like Portland.
Real scored its fourth through a slightly deflected header from star-man Javier Morales. Ricketts’ potential tie-saving stop moments before was rendered meaningless. It was a gut-punch, as painful as it was inevitable.
You cannot come back from a three-goal deficit in a second leg. It’s just too much. Two goals, and it’s possible.
That’s why I just wonder if years and years from now we’ll be looking at Jack Jewsbury send one of his picturesque crosses into the box and Freddy Piquionne slam in a header from 15 yards out and say, that was the moment it all started. It was a beautiful goal. The Timbers grabbed the defibrillator and ran.
Piquionne’s mighty header was the last touch of the game. It came from nothing. Considering how the Timbers played, this is a great result.
Going back to Portland down only two goals, these Timbers think they can win. They’re not panicking. There will no drastic lineup changes, if there are any lineup changes at all. They won’t change the formation, or the mentality.
It won’t be easy to turn around the tie. After all, Portland’s last loss was before tonight was to Real Salt Lake, and by the same score-line, 4-2. The odds are against the Timbers. But thanks to that late goal, there’s hope.
And where there’s hope, there’s glory.