For the first time in the 2013 season, the Portland Timbers played a game that it was going to be near impossible to get a point in. With Real Salt Lake flying high atop MLS, and Caleb Porter's men decimated by injuries and suspension, everything went wrong at the Rio Tinto Stadium. It was a first for 2013. It felt like 2012.
It was Real Salt Lake again Friday night, a sprightly team with a magic touch that the Timbers have had rammed down their throats late in the summer. The Timbers know how Salt Lake feels right now. In May and June, Portland could do no wrong. The goals were flying in, the clean sheets were piling up, and the team was the toast of the league.
Now, things have gotten grizzly. Portland hasn't been stomped all season like they were Friday night. The Timbers were pounded, and while much of an eventual 4-2 loss was due to Baldomero A Red Card A Day Toledo and a roster that looks like swiss cheese, there were moments that make you worry.
First of all, what happened to the Timbers set piece marking? Both of the goals Salt Lake scored up a man had nothing to do with Ben Zemanski's early dismissal - both came from dead ball situations.
On RSL's third goal, scored just after the restart, Javier Morales was so alone in the six-yard box he had time to sign his name on the ball before dispatching a bicycle kick that wasn't as difficult as it looked. In the vicinity of Morales, Andrew Jean-Baptiste didn't stay with a man, while Rodney Wallace stood and watched.
No one ever picked up Morales, while on Salt Lake's capping fourth goal, the potent Alvaro Saborio just ran away from Jean-Baptiste to flick on a cultured header past Ricketts.
It seems like Portland is missing a vocal organizer at the back, or on the field at all. There was no Mikael Silvestre or Futty Danso as usual, but there was also no Jack Jewsbury or Will Johnson - no leader in the box, no cool head to make sure everyone was accounted for.
Set pieces have become the Timbers' biggest defensive weakness - they cost Portland the game against Seattle and the home game against Salt Lake. Good teams take care of the little things, like not consistently giving up goals on free kicks and corner kicks.
The Timbers didn't do that earlier in the year, and when you consider Portland has only won once in their last eight outings, you have to ask how good a team Caleb Porter has right now.
You know what else was worrying? Where was the second half fight? I get it: You're a man down on the road against the best team in the league. But Portland has lived this season off gutsy second-half performances. They've scored the most goals between minutes 45 and 60 in MLS, and they've gotten the most points from losing or drawing positions in the second half in the league.
Portland went a man down under similarly dubious circumstances in Vancouver early in the season. That day, Portland scratched out a draw with a late goal. Portland battled tooth and nail in Columbus for 85 minutes and were unlucky not to get a point just a month and a half ago. Today? Total surrender inside three minutes of the second half when Morales scored.
Portland doesn't beat teams in the first half. If they can't show up in the second, they're going to struggle to make the playoffs. There just wasn't a lot of gumption or courage from the Timbers Friday night. When Salt Lake was focused, they tore the Timbers to shreds. The first 15 minutes of the game was a demolition.
Now the Timbers won't take a lot of heat for this 4-2 loss, and that's understandable. Because Baldomero Toledo took matters into his own hands.
Live, it looked like Ben Zemanski won the ball. It was only on a replay that we saw the former Akron man lift his right boot slightly to connect with the ankle of Ned Gravaboy. And I guess that's the justification for Toledo issuing one of the softest straight red cards you can see in soccer today.
A straight red card means you did something bad. Really bad. You punched an opposing player. You head-butted or elbowed or stomped on another player. Or you came sliding in high, or with two feet. You may have come sliding in from behind, or brought down a player, denying a clear goalscoring opportunity.
A straight red card is not issued for a fair tackle in the middle of the field. A straight red is not for a moment when a player comes sliding in with one foot, from a straight-on angle. It was a foul. It was probably a yellow card. But a red, for all intents and purposes, decides the game. This game is decided because Ben Zemanski lifted his foot an inch? Sorry, that's weak.
You hear all the time from older players about how soft soccer has gotten, and this is a perfect example. Ten years ago, this is a yellow. Twenty years ago, it's just a foul. This isn't about player safety, or dangerous play, because nothing like that was at stake in a tackle like Zemanski's.
Baldomero Toldeo has sent the most players off in Major League Soccer. And he shouldn't be working in the league next year, not because of his gross overuse of hair gel, but because he's consistently failed as a referee. At this point, it's a tired cliche, but if this league is serious about becoming one of the best, referees need to be evaluated. And if there is an evaluation, Baldomero Toldeo fails.
This isn't to take anything away from Real Salt Lake, who were breathtaking at times, or Darlington Nagbe, who made it a game in the first half with a sweet goal. It was an entertaining game, one for the neutrals to enjoy.
Caleb Porter's 3-4-3 will get people talking, but he was grasping at straws. Didn't matter what the formation was, Portland wasn't winning Friday night. Thanks to Toledo, injuries, suspensions, and bad luck. This Timbers team may or may not be in a slump, but whatever is going on, it's not good.