When Real Salt Lake midfielder Luke Mulholland checked his shoulders towards the near post in the 23rd minute and knuckled a half-volley into the left corner for a 1-0 lead, Real Salt Lake fans thought they were in for a special night at Rio Tinto Stadium. Too bad the rest of the game didn’t go like the first 23 minutes. At the end of 90 minutes and a whopping six minutes of stoppage time, RSL lost for the first time in 12 tries to Portland, 3-1.
Saturday, June 7 felt more like Friday the 13th for an RSL side missing three key players to World Cup 2014 duty, another to a DUI arrest and several others to injuries. The only other thing that didn’t happen on Saturday was that Jason (not Kreis) wasn’t waiting in the parking lot wearing a hockey mask and carrying a blunt object to injure the one good leg this team was hobbling on.
No, RSL left that to a hungry Portland Timbers bunch that has under-performed for most of the season and didn‘t care if RSL played three games in eight days. Strutting out a 4-2-3-1 formation--the en vogue system of play these days--the visiting Timbers played more like Real Madrid did in the Champions League Final, popping one-touch passes around the park and through RSL as the home team did something it’s rarely done at Rio Tinto, and that’s chase the game.
The lead RSL had didn’t hold up for long, either. The counterattacks that have killed RSL’s momentum again came back to haunt the claret and cobalt Saturday when they gave up a corner kick in the 36th minute-- backpedaling to prevent something worse from happening.
Defending set pieces have been another issue for RSL this year and Portland capitalized on poor man-marking. Forward Fanendo Adi, on loan from Champions League side FC Copenhagen, found himself all alone in front of goal so he nodded the ball into the net to tie the game at 1-1.
Lest you think RSL was done poorly defending counterattacks, Portland got another one in the 45th minute off an RSL corner kick. The Timbers defended the corner well, slamming a long diagonal ball into space in the middle third onto which midfielder Darlington Nagbe sprinted.
Soon Nagbe had three teammates alongside him, making off-ball runs on just two RSL defenders. Nagbe left loose a rocket on goal which RSL goalkeeper Jeff Attinella leapt to parry, leaving the ball and goal open for Adi for an easy tap-in and a 2-1 lead going into halftime.
You don’t want to just rest, sit back and say ‘1-0 is enough,’ because it hasn’t been enough for us. We want to be aggressive, especially at home. Those two goals should not happen,” Cassar said at his post-game press conference. “They should not happen. We probably could’ve made a foul that the referee would’ve not called. We need to make better choices.”
Real Salt Lake played desperate coming out of the halftime break, and the outmanned home side showed its mounting frustration when RSL defender Tony Beltran received his second yellow card of the game--and second yellow of the still-young second half--which resulted in a red card.
Reduced to 10 men in the 54th minute, RSL still went at Portland as the diamond midfield minus Kyle Beckerman tried to do what it could to get back in the match. Ned Grabavoy replaced Beckerman as the team’s holding midfielder--much different from his usual left midfield position--but Grabavoy got into the attack, controlling a Portland attempt to clear the ball out of danger as RSL closed in on an equalizer.
His volley in the 57th forced Portland keeper Donovan Ricketts into a difficult save--but it was one that Ricketts bobbled and caught. Portland put the game out of reach in the 73rd minute when a backpedaling RSL defense again was forced to improvise. RSL defender Chris Schuler had to make a slide tackle to prevent the Timbers from scoring on a breakaway--but the referee ruled that the Timbers shot hit Schuler’s arm, resulting in a penalty kick.
Portland midfielder Will Johnson stepped up to the spot and launched the ball into side netting for a 3-1 Portland lead. RSL would get just one other clear-cut opportunity on the night in stoppage time, but an improvised free kick opportunity from 25 yards ended badly as defender Abdoulie Mansally took Javier Morales square pass and blasted the ball into the stands instead of at the goal.
Real Salt Lake will now go on a league-mandated World Cup 2014 break for three weeks--but an important US Open Cup game remains later this week in Atlanta.