The Portland Timbers found themselves in a two-goal hole at halftime for the first time this season on Wednesday, Oct. 14, at Real Salt Lake.
Despite a much-improved second half, the Timbers couldn't climb all the way back as their five-match string of wins ended with a 2-1 loss.
"We lost a very important match, even though we had a very good second half," Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said.
A win or a draw would have moved Portland alone atop MLS Western Conference, but a second-half goal from defender Bill Tuiloma wasn't enough.
The loss keeps Portland (9-5-3, 30 points) tied on points with Seattle at the top of the conference. But the idle Sounders (whose match with Colorado was postponed because of Rapids positive COVID-19 tests) have a game in hand and a significant goal-differential advantage on the Timbers.
Real Salt Lake got goals from Douglas Martinez and Damir Kreilach to improve to 5-7-6 for 21 points. RSL halted a three-game losing run and sits in ninth place in the West.
Whether it was the altitude at Rio Tinto Stadium at Sandy, Utah, or playing for the second time in four days, the Timbers' touches and reactions seemed slightly off for much of the first half. Savarese described his team as hesitant.
"It becomes a mental battle," Savarese said about the influence of fatigue. "The first half we just looked tired, we just had that in mind that we couldn't go. In the second half we lost a little bit of fear and then were able to do much better."
Portland gained a foothold in the match midway through the second half and got a goal back in the 77th minute when defender Tuiloma scored with a header off a well-delivered Diego Valeri free kick. Moments later, the Timbers nearly tied it, but on a pinball situation from a corner kick, the ball just eluded the outstretched leg of Yimmi Chara.
The Timbers paid for disjointed play in the first half. Valeri said maybe fatigue factored into the first-half struggled but that, ultimately, the first half was about "how we lost the duals, lost our readings of the actions in every ball and obviously we were late in the pressure, allowing them to puts some crosses and long balls in behind. So, it was more about that. I don't think it was about the altitude and fatigue, (but) it could be, maybe."
The insertion of Yimmi Chara at halftime helped turned the tide after Real Salt Lake exploited Portland's left side in the first half. The younger Chara provided more tempo to Portland's play on the ball and added defensive support when needed on the flank.
Tomas Conechy got a rare start on the left side of midfield but struggled to impact the match going forward and often was disconnected from left back Marco Farfan.
With Conechny making only his third start of the season and only his seventh in three seasons with the Timbers, RSL put Portland under pressure by isolating Farfan. The home side also created trouble by floating balls in behind the Timbers' defensive line.
"The balls in behind were giving us problems for a few reasons. First, it was because we were a little bit deeper and we didn't step to be able to pressure the ball a little bit earlier. So we invited that ball."
Savarese said his defensive line didn't drop quickly enough on RSL's first goal.
Portland also missed midfielder Eryk Williamson during the first half, when his ability to dribble out of pressure could have helped the Timbers. Williamson — who might have been given the night off, anyway — was suspended for yellow-card accumulation.
Cristhian Paredes played alongside Diego Chara in midfield and grew into the game along with his teammates in the second half. He forced RSL goalkeeper Andrew Putna to make one of his three saves on a 30-yard swerving shot midway through the second half.
After attempting only one shot in the first half, Portland took nine in the second half and put four on target. All seven of the Timbers' corner kicks came after halftime.
The Timbers trailed by two goals at halftime for the first time this season
Eleven minutes in, Martinez was gifted his first MLS goal. A ball over the top led to miscommunication between goalkeeper Aljaz Ivacic and centerbacks Tuiloma and Larrys Mabiala. The goalkeeper came for the ball a half-second late and instead of grabbing it tried to punch it away. But the ball fell to the RSL forward for an easy opener.
Tuiloma took responsibility for the mishap, saying he was slow to communicate on the play.
The second goal came on a clean volley from Damir Kreilach from a Pablo Ruiz corner kick. Kreilach, who missed a few decent looks on the night, worked himself into space as Mabiala got caught up in a wall of bodies.
Savarese questioned why a foul wasn't whistled against RSL for setting a screen and obstructing Mabiala's ability to stay with Kreilach.
Ivacic, in just his second MLS start, made several good saves in the first half, including a free kick from Kreilach that Ivacic pushed away with a strong left hand.
Portland deserved an early penalty kick call but didn't get the call from referee Robert Sibiga when Jeremy Ebobisse was brought down in the box.
Next for Portland is a 7 p.m. Sunday match without fans at Providence Park against Los Angeles FC, the first of six remaining games scheduled over 21 days. LAFC (7-7-3, 24 points sits fourth in a crowded Western Conference field. The Oct. 18 match will feature the two highest-scoring teams in MLS. LAFC has scored 39 and Portland has scored 37, though the Los Angeles club has been scored against 33 times (fourth most in MLS).
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