The Portland Timbers ran into the Alvaro Saborio show Saturday night at Rio Tinto stadium in Utah, the Costa Rican notching the first hat trick against the Rose City club in its MLS history, leading Real Salt Lake to a 3-nil victory over the visitors.
Prophetic words issued prior to the match by Designated Player Kris Boyd perhaps served as an omen for Portland supporters, the Scottish star’s remarks about the team’s road form telling before a ball was even kicked: “so we’re going to have to change something. And I think going into tomorrow we may mix it up, and hopefully we can get a successful result out of that and it’s a better outcome.’
The Irvine, Scotland born striker likely didn’t expect to find himself with a seat on the bench, but his teammates did as he predicted, ‘sitting in and trying frustrate the opposition for long periods’. Well, for sixty minutes, at least. The hour mark is where the proverbial wheels fell off, Saborio notching the first goal of his treble as he rose above Mamadou ‘Futty’ Danso to nod home off the post past a hapless Troy Perkins.
The goal caught a til then resilient Portland off guard, the traveling team looking the more likely team to score to that point, if only before the break. Half chances were the hallmark in the first period, RSL’s Will Johnson having a go from outside 30 yards with twenty minutes gone, but Perkins tipped over to keep the sides level in the early stages.
Recently returned from suspension Diego Chara was released into space by Eric Alexander not long after, the Colombian recognizing his angle was too acute, opting for a centering pass instead. Danny Mwanga, whose timing was so alert in his debut goal Tuesday night, was instead caught ballwatching as Chara’s pass went begging with the lone forward failing to get on the end of it.
Alexander offered the next best chance as he strutted into space in the face of a sagging Real defense retreating at his advance, the midfielder’s strike just before the half hour deflecting off a defender as netminder Nick Rimando sighed in relief to see the ball nick just wide of the far post.
The interval approached and the hosts appeared stymied, manager John Spencer’s unorthodox lineup seemingly set up to neutralize the pass heavy style of Salt Lake City club, and signs were promising for Portland. For all RSL’s possession, the scores were level at nil-nil at intermission, and the Timbers were so far safe at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains.
Newly signed Kosuke Kimura offered pace at right back, but his natural qualities were perhaps undermined as Spencer’s starters included Lovel Palmer and captain Jack Jewsbury alongside Chara in the center of the park, Darlington Nagbe opposite Alexander in a crowded midfield.
While the congestion flustered Real in the first 45 minutes, manager Jason Kreis remained patient, despite his hand being forced with an early substitution when Ned Grababoy left with an injury, former Timber Luis Gil replacing him in the 24th minute.
Kreis’s patience didn’t last much longer for Paolo Jr, in for suspended Argentine Fabian Espindola, the Brazilian swapped for another Argentinian in Emiliano Bonfigli with less than an hour passed.
The effect of the changes didn’t take long to take effect, less than six minutes later the home side opening the scoring as Gil found captain Kyle Beckerman, who picked out Saborio in the middle of Portland’s eighteen yard box, the striker elevating above Danso to expertly head off the post to score in the 60th minute.
Saborio, who’d scored a brilliant goal against Portland in last year’s regular season finale, was disappointed in that match when Danso equalized in the dying moments, but the Gambian would have no such joy in this contest.
For those viewing at home, a sense of deja vu was developing, and that feeling becoming tantamount less than two minutes later as the Tico headed home his second, sneaking in behind a sleeping David Horst and Steven Smith to put home Chris Wingert’s perfectly placed cross in the 62nd minute.
Saborio was frantically waving his arms in the buildup, somehow drifting back from an offside position unnoticed as the loping gait of Smith offered the opportunity to double their advantage and undo all of the Timbers good work.
The passage of play pivoted all the momentum in Real’s favor, and Portland began to unhinge as a physical challenge from Chara on Javier Morales earned a yellow card and the ire of both teams as handbags were exchanged at midfield. Horst and RSL’s Johnson were cited with yellows of their own for their involvement in the fracas, then Beckerman and Palmer were booked as the aftermath continued.
While Portland came into the match with a plan, the reaction to the opening goal was evidence that no plan B existed. How Spencer failed to consider the scenario where his squad trailed on the road is perplexing, the manager much more familiar with his side trailing than leading on their travels.
In 25 attempts on the road under Spencer’s tenure, his charges have only scored first on four occasions, a less than impressive 14 points earned with 75 total on offer to date. For all his faith in the gaffer, even owner Merritt Paulson must admit that the results are a poor return on investment.
The Scot, whose preordained mission was to steal points late, made changes too little too late as he brought on countryman Boyd for Mwanga in the 68th minute, followed immediately by Mike Fucito for Palmer. It took mere seconds before Smith brought the book out again from the official, the substitutions barely on the field as another yellow was issued to the club’s newest Highlander.
While the offensive additions were adjusting to the pace of the game, Saborio completed his destruction of the defense as he beat his marker for a third time, this time Jewsbury victimized, only for Chara’s arm to deny a direct path to goal. Even the most ardent member of the Timbers Army would agree with the referee on the handball infraction, Chara a touch unlucky with the ball deflecting off his thigh just as his forearm blocked it from crossing the line.
While Chara left the field for the red card offense, Saborio calmly stepped up to claim his hat trick as his penalty easily beat Perkins, who dove the opposite direction in the 73rd minute. Kalif Alhassan was preparing to come on, but instead Hanyer Mosquera replaced Alexander as the Timbers were forced to provide some cover to prevent further bleeding.
As time wore down, Danso picked up a yellow, then Kreis used his final sub to relieve the recovering Jamison Olave with Kwame Watson-Siriboe. Although RSL tried to cut the Timbers deeper, the wound was eventually staunched, the damage already done as Portland were left to rue yet another incomplete performance away from the Fortress of Thorns.
The anticipated feel good quotes emanated from the Portland locker room postgame, hopes of doing better next time and redeeming the setback with a home win next weekend, but the message was hollow when compared to the prematch predictions. The conservative start was brighter than the disastrous one at Colorado, but in the end yielded the same result with another morale sapping defeat.
Perhaps if Portland needs a premonition, Boyd would do better to be more specific about what exactly a ‘better’ outcome should be. The Los Angeles Galaxy are next to visit Portland, and Spencer and company will need to read the signs with more accuracy or risk getting caught stargazing yet again.