On Wednesday night at Providence Park, the Portland Timbers' season — teetering on the brink of collapse for several months now — turned bizarro.
The Timbers, the only team in MLS who could return from a two week summer break more depleted than they entered it, dressed only sixteen players. One of those players who be stretchered off injured. Two would be shown red cards. The team that made its way around the barren stadium at full-time looked skeletal.
All the carnage resulted in the Timbers' worst home loss in twelve years — a 4-1 defeat to Real Salt Lake that was so thoroughly dismal it felt almost apocalyptic.
The signs were sure there. The game started against the backdrop of a dumpster fire two blocks from the stadium. It ended with the Timbers Army breaking out Tetris — its victory song — with Portland 4-0 down against a team that, two games ago, was on pace to finish with the worst goal differential in MLS history.
And then, to cap it all off, Jack Barmby got the Timbers on the scoreboard in stoppage time with just about the dumbest goal in team history. Even Caleb Porter, whose spitfire postgame press conferences have punctuated most of the Timbers' significant setbacks this year, appeared appreciably chastened.
This was one for the memory books: a don't-know-whether-to-laugh-or-cry meltdown of epic proportions. The Timbers' season will continue on Sunday in Vancouver — even if they have to start Timber Joey at striker — but even though it's only July, it feels like this 2017 season is coming to a head.
And this, believe it or not, was supposed to be a fresh start. Portland had the benefit of two weeks off to recharge and prepare for this game. But they were under pressure from the opening whistle, and after ten minutes, they'd be playing from behind.
That was when, after a tight bit of interplay down RSL's right flank, Kyle Beckerman received the ball in midfield. Beckerman's first instinct was to cross — but with only 5'2 Joao Plata in the vicinity of the back post, the RSL captain instead went for goal and beat Jake Gleeson with a fabulous, sweeping right-to-left strike to give his team the lead.
What followed was, for the Timbers, all kinds of ugly. RSL dominated the rest of the half, with Gleeson and Fanendo Adi, of all people, coming up with the interventions necessary to keep Portland in the game.
RSL was legit, and that shouldn't have come as any sort of a surprise. Salt Lake came into Wednesday having blown up LA 6-2 in its last MLS game, and drawn the praise of Jose Mourinho for going toe to toe with Manchester United for a half hour in a friendly on Monday night.
The Timbers, meanwhile, were terrible. Long before the red cards and the dystopia of the final half hour, this was a team in the process of getting soundly beaten. The central midfield of Ben Zemanski and Lawrence Olum was painful. The defense, featuring two debutants and a right footed player at left back, was a mess.
Often times, between those two units, the Timbers had six players going in six different directions. Olum was a passenger. Zarek Valentin struggled out of position. And it was just sad to watch Chance Myers, who waited 21 games to appear for the club and lasted just 43 minutes before collapsing to the turf with what might be a broken ankle.
Salt Lake, despite their record, had the better players in this game. They were more organized. They had a deserved 2-0 lead when the Timbers went down to ten men, and there's zero reason to believe that they wouldn't have seen the game out even the final forty minutes had been played at even strength.
The second of those two goals came when Dairon Asprilla clumsily stood on young RSL DP Jefferson Savarino's foot in the area and gave away a penalty, which Plata converted with ease. Shortly thereafter, the Timbers began to melt down.
First to go was Victor Arboleda, the rookie winger who had replaced Myers, for an elbow to the face of Plata. Next was Adi, who, frustrated and provoked by a shove to the chest after releasing a pass, charged the incorrigibly nasty Beckerman in the center of the field.
Beckerman had little argument when he was sent packing by referee Baldomero Toledo as well — and just like that, the match had turned into a ten-against-nine laugher. The Timbers held their own for a time, but the space Salt Lake was afforded both around and behind Portland's backline proved insurmountable.
Goal number three came via a lucky series of deflections for Albert Rusnak; number four arrived when Plata finally converted one of his team's many breakaways. Barmby pulled a goal back late with the aid of an uncharacteristic Nick Rimando mistake to make the final tally 4-1.
Porter could do little but shake his head. He was missing his top two central midfielders, his top two left backs, his top center back, his starting right back, his left winger, and his backup striker. His starting striker, Adi, picked this of all nights to be sent off for the first time in his 97-game MLS career.
Beckerman — voted by his peers the league's dirtiest player at the start of the season — got in the Nigerian's head. Arboleda's red was the stranger one, and if Plata wasn't the shortest player in league history, it might not have been a red at all.
But the Timbers were cooked before the disciplinary fireworks ever began. That the team's woes became Shakespearean in proportion served only to change the mood, perhaps fortunately, from anger to farce.
Is this a different game if Porter has more players healthy and available? Of course. No question. But Toronto FC, down Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Justin Morrow, and, after a first half injury, Giovinco, got a point Wednesday night at New York City. Good teams don't fold when they're missing key pieces.
The Timbers simply aren't a very good team right now. The facts have, unfortunately, become quite stark on that point. The Timbers have MLS's third-worst defense. They've lost more games than they've won. They're currently on a stretch in which they've won just twice in their last thirteen matches.
The Timbers have been disappointing — severely so — since March. On Wednesday night, they became a joke.