Until Wednesday night, Kalif Alhassan had only scored one MLS goal, and it was an accident. It was opening day in 2012 against Philadelphia, and Alhassan capped a delightful performance by chipping a cross to the back-post that instead nestled into the side-netting.
Until Wednesday night, Cole Grossman had only scored one MLS goal as well. His was for the Columbus Crew in that 2012 season, a first-half drive from the top right corner of the box in Houston to tie the Crew - Dynamo game 1-1.
Wednesday night, Kalif Alhassan lashed in a famous game-winner, with the help of a tumbling Rodney Wallace taking out an RSL defender, leaving the enigmatic winger an open lane to the back of the net which was taken with an authority uncommon for a sputtering kid coming off the bench.
It was an absolutely brilliant moment. Simply thrilling. The Timbers Army swayed the stadium, the city, the league with an out-of-body delirium - and then it was gone.
It was that organic human theater that is so wonderfully and frustratingly compelling striking again. It was the pendulum of emotion swinging back and forth and ending on a low-note. Because Cole Grossman, a little-used, little-known midfielder took a poor clearance from the shaky Pa Moudu Kah with huge composure, beating Donovan Ricketts deep into stoppage time, and rescuing 10-man Real Salt Lake.
The game finished 3-3, and after a game that enthralling, from the first whistle to the last whistle, you just have to throw your hands up and say, what a beautiful game.
Amazingly enough, Real Salt Lake was as depleted as they have been all season. Their long-time captain and midfield enforcer Kyle Beckerman was suspended, while their sublime goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who knocked Portland out of the US Open Cup almost by himself, was also missing. That's not to mention leading striker Alvaro Saborio, who has torched the league in the 2010's.
RSL's three most recognizable faces were missing in action, and that helped Portland, but the Timbers certainly helped themselves too.
Portland made a blistering start, and Diego Valeri's perfect free-kick, headed in by Rodney Wallace gave the Timbers a deserved lead.
When the Timbers played Salt Lake in Sandy in the USOC, Caleb Porter wistfully and wishfully talked about playing an open, free-flowing attacking game against Jason Kreis' side. Instead, the Timbers struggled against a combative RSL side, and that sank Portland into a hole that they didn't really climb out of until Saturday against Dallas.
In this game, we had an out-and-out thriller. This looked like the two best teams in the Western Conference, and Real Salt Lake's solid response to going behind showed a moxie that only the best teams in MLS have.
Once Salt Lake got the equalizer, they didn't take their foot off the pedal like Portland did after Wallace's goal, and they won a penalty just before the clock struck half-time.
While Ricardo Salazar's penalty decision was riddled with question marks, Andrew Jean-Baptiste made a rookie mistake in draping his arm over the back of Javier Morales. RSL's stand-in skipper classily converted the penalty, sending Salt Lake into the break with a 2-1 lead.
But there were always going to be more goals. Wallace was back to his pre-Costa Rica self, which added dynamism to the Timbers central attack, led by the irrepressible Valeri and workaholic Chara. Portland leveled the match with Valeri's penalty, and got a huge break when Yordany Alvarez went flying in on Chara, managing to once again get himself an early dismissal.
You could feel a great moment coming. It was Alhassan's moment. 3-2 up with just minutes to go, a steep, steep, questionably steep order of stoppage time gave the visitors heart, and Grossman's goal finished off an impressive Salt Lake performance under difficult circumstances.
In any 3-3 game, questions have to be asked of the defense. While it was fun to watch Alvas Powell grow in confidence and stature, bombing down the field on one coast-to-coast run, and Michael Harrington put in a solid shift, Kah and Jean-Baptiste were poor.
Kah’s marking is atrocious, and Jean-Baptiste, obviously frustrated post-game, has to play a smarter game. The absence of Mikael Silvestre is being felt immensely, and Futty’s return can’t come soon enough as well.
Portland isn’t making a deep playoff run unless the defending improves, or Donovan Ricketts’ turns into Superman again, a mode in the goalkeeper that has been shut off for the time being. Ricketts has been beaten up recently, and it seems that he’s retreated into his own head, something that has gotten him into trouble at times in his career.
Sometimes, however, you can’t over-analyze. This was a great game between two great teams. Portland went toe-to-toe with the league leaders. Goals, penalties, a red card, this game had it all.
Portland can’t dwell. It’s amazing how back-loaded the Timbers’ schedule is. There are 10 games left, five at home, five on the road. Seven are against Western Conference contenders. There are going to be more days like Wednesday night.
Will Johnson, get well soon, because Diego DoEverything Chara is out for Seattle, Clint Dempsey’s home bow in front of 67,000 at CenturyLink Field. Ben Zemanski and Jack Jewsbury in the middle for that one? No thanks. At this point, Portland is shooting for a top three finish in the West. That would mean avoiding playing a Wild Card game in the playoffs. I think this team is on their way.
In turns it was frustrating, exhilarating, grueling and stunning. Portland played young and talented, while Real Salt Lake played experienced and talented. It shook out 3-3 in a skilled game between the two best teams to watch in MLS. Cole Grossman’s 93rd minute goal was a sucker-punch that makes this game feel like a loss for Portland. Still – Kalif, Kalif, give us a wave.