Preamble: All seems lost for the Portland Timbers right now. I don't mean to be too negative, but in the first leg of the tie, Real Salt Lake mangled Portland. The team from Utah didn't dish out a taste of the Timbers' own medicine; mixed in a grip of habaneros, shook it up, and bashed them over the head with the bottle until it shattered. If RSL plays like it did and the Timbers play like they did again this time, there will be no hope.
I speak for nobody else when I say this, but I've spent the last couple of weeks living under the presumption that the Timbers are out already, as good as dead and buried.
That makes this leg Schrodinger's Conference Final. Maybe we'll hold our noses and pull back the coffin-lid on Jeld-Wen Field to discover that the 2013 Timbers are dead after all. Maybe RSL is just here to bait a corpse of a team.
Or maybe Portland has spent the international break licking its wounds, sharpening its claws, and slashing some airholes into the casket RSL built. Maybe things will be different at home. Maybe Caleb Porter has a plan. Maybe when the lid opens, the Timbers will come out swinging and fight their way to Kansas City, Mo., after all.
Relive my live-blog of the first leg mauling here.
Reason to believe: It's rare that a team overhauls a two-goal deficit, but it's not impossible.
Here are some favorite examples of teams clawing back from two goals down: Lionel Messi savaging an unsuspecting Milan in the Champions League earlier this year. France defender Mamadou Sakho saving every strip of bacon in the Fifth Republic against Ukraine last week. There was also one where Kansas City overhauled a two-goal deficit against San Jose, with Jack Jewsbury scoring the winning goal, back in 2004, but there's no video of that I can find.
Keys to the game for the Timbers:
Lineup questions: The Timbers' chief concern will be the fitness of playmaker Diego Valeri. If he's not fit, Kalif Alhassan will probably replace him.
RSL may completely change its lineup. It has a defensive variant of the diamond that replaces scampering playmakers Luis Gil and Sebastian Velasquez with central midfielders Yohandry Alvarez and Ned Grabavoy. Findley and Sandoval might also be replaced by Alvaro Saborio and Joao Plata up front.
Portland: Ricketts; Jewsbury, Danso, Kah, Harrington; Chara, W.Johnson; Nagbe, Valeri, Wallace; Piquionne | Bench: Kocic, Jean-Baptiste, Zizzo, Alhassan, Zemanski, Urruti, R.Johnson
Real Salt Lake: Rimando; Palmer, Schuler, Borchers, Beltran; Beckerman; Gil, Morales, Grabavoy; Findley, Sandoval | Bench: Attinella, McDonald, Mansally, Grossman, Velasquez, Plata, Garcia
The big story for the Timbers is that ex-France striker Frederic Piquionne will replace Ryan Johnson as the team's striker after a potentially vital stoppage-time goal at Salt Lake. It was only the 34-year-old's second goal of the season, which either suggests Timbers coach Caleb Porter is desperate or that he thinks Piquionne's power and touch match up better against the Salt Lake defense.
Thoughts on defeat from soccer's greatest man of letters, Eduardo Galeano: "In soccer, as in everything else, losing is not allowed."
6:01 p.m. OK, we're live and ESPN's Adrian Healey describes a hypothetical Timbers win as "a comeback for the ages," which seems like overegging the pudding. A comeback is not 100 percent unfeasible.
6:04 p.m. Timber Joey brings out the MLS Trophy with a child who I swear Adrian Healey said is named Atticus Finch.
6:05 p.m. And I know what you're thinking: No, he did not look like Gregory Peck.
1 min Portland takes the kickoff. The Result? RSL gets it into the box, but the Timbers then mount an attack that results in a deflected Diego Valeri shot.
2 min It was what you might charitably call a shot from Pa Moudou Kah, a header from a Timbers corner. But while he may have flown into the air to get his head to the ball, he didn't appear to have much control over what he did to it.
3 min Valeri produces the first genuine moment of quality in the game with a ludicrous and mostly unnecessary windmilling half-volley to clear an RSL free kick with the outside of his right boot.
5 min Donovan Ricketts appears to tip a bouncing Devon Sandoval header over the bar, but it's given as a goal-kick, so I guess the referee disagrees. But the replay shows I was right, it did touch Ricketts' fingertips.
6 min After a flurry of early Portland half- or quarter-chances, Real Salt Lake has begun to carry the ball forward. Ooh! There's ex-Timber Lovel Palmer swinging a leg into an airborne Will Johnson. It was brutal and it results in an early yellow card.
9 min Frederic Piquionne's stepover takes the French striker past Palmer, and he whips in an excellent cross, but an onrushing Valeri completely misses the ball and falls on his posterior.
10 min The ball has spent a lot of time in the air. Darlington Nagbe tries to play Valeri in, and it results in a bizarre string of aerial battles, a Will Johnson cross, and a misplaced layoff to Diego Chara. Action-packed, nearly coherent. RSL runs up one way. The Timbers rush back the other.
13 min The Timbers are looking pretty adrenalized right now. And speaking of adrenalized, Palmer throws another dangerous tackle into the mix, flying into Jack Jewsbury.
15 min Futty Danso nods in a ball headed across by Rodney Wallace, but it's ruled out because the referee decides Wallace pushed Palmer as he jumped for the ball.
16 min Portland looks good for at least a goal. There's been a lot of meaningful possession, but the final ball hasn't quite connected yet. If the TImbers can get a little bit more precision into their forays upfield, they look good for a ball. RSL has threatened a bit on the counterattack, but has yet to close down the space as efficiently as it did in the first leg.
19 min Michael Harrington's run down the left and Wallace's layoff create a chance for Will Johnson to hammer the ball within inches of the post — but just the wrong side.
21 min Piquionne falls on his back in the box, but manages to lay the ball into Valeri's path anyway. The Argentine smacks one shot, then another, into Kyle Beckerman. Still 0-0.
23 min The Timbers are doing a better job of winning the aerial balls, and that bodes well, because there are bound to be a lot in a game this fraught with a sense of the occasion. Piquionne is apparently getting ready to come off with some sort of injury, and now Rodney Wallace has gone down looking seriously injured after a clash with Tony Beltran.
25 min Maximiliano Urruti is preparing to come on for Piquionne, who looks pretty unhappy with his lot in life right now. Wallace is limping around a little gingerly, but doesn't look definitively out.
27 min Wallace is back and Robbie Findley beats a couple of Timbers defenders and tries a lob that falls a bit short of Ricketts. Now Urruti is on for Piquionne.
GOOOOOOOOOOOAAAALLL! Portland 0-1 RSL
Robbie Findley (29 min) Ricketts saves a Javier Morales shot, but the rebound falls to Findley, who ghosts in behind Kah.
31 min The Timbers have a free kick and all of a sudden, the wall explodes into conflagration. The ref blames Danso and the Timbers players glare at Ned Grabavoy. Will Johnson is still standing over the kick.
33 min And his kick, when he finally takes it, deflects over the the wall. Harrington plays it back in for Valeri, whose shot is parried to Danso, but again the Gambian defender has a goal chalked off, this time for a correct offside call.
34 min Play is speeding up. The Timbers' combinations are quick and a little frantic. When they get the ball, they line up in the penalty area, but for the most part, Salt Lake's organization is good.
37 min The Timbers work a couple of good combinations, which end with a ball into the box for Urruti, who is caught offside. Portland's soccer still looks like it's working, but it is not leading to goals.
39 min Will Johnson's free kick sails nonchalantly into Rimando's hands. Something Harrington does sends Morales to the turf. It hasn't been hugely inspiring stuff so far from either time, but Salt Lake has clearly grown in confidence. Now RSL's pressing much higher.
41 min Whatever else happens, it's a good performance from Kah, who makes Findley look pretty foolish dragging the ball past him and playing the ball forward, then slides in fearlessly to dispossess Luis Gil.
43 min By this point in the match, Salt Lake is way, way on top. The best the Timbers can muster by way of attack is a succession of free kicks and long balls. Salt Lake is charging forward, interchanging off the ball, looking clever and inventive.
45 min When a game is going as badly for a team as this one is for the Timbers, none of the breaks go your way. Case in point: Wallace is down again, and Kalif Alhassan has to replace him.
47 min Diego Chara runs onto a Rimando goal kick and hits it first time down RSL's throat. None of the four Timbers in front of him appear to have made a run and it just skids all the way to the Salt Lake keeper.
48 min Nat Borchers slides in to stop a Diego Valeri shot as the Argentine chases down Jack Jewsbury's knockdown. And that's the end of the first half. Boos cascade from the stands.
HALFTIME Thoughts. The Timbers started the half oozing purpose and playing with confidence. Perhaps Salt Lake was too organized to give them a clear sight at goal, but they looked as though they were just one final pass away from a real foothold in the tie.
Then RSL got their goal, using the same old move the Timbers couldn't handle in the first leg: a striker running into the zone of uncertainty between a fullback and a center back. Findley made it 1-0 to the visitors and it didn't take long for the confidence to drain out of Portland. If the result is going to be anything other than what it looks like it's going to be at the moment, something incredible will need to happen.
The Disallowed Goals. The second was a pretty stone-cold offside, but the call on the first one was a little questionable. Wallace pushed Palmer pretty lightly, and the Jamaican didn't look like he expected a call. A lot of things happen on the field that could technically be called fouls, but this call was a soft one.
After a halftime interview with a very unhappy Caleb Porter, the game resumes.
46 min The game will clearly be a bitty one henceforth. Ned Grabavoy attempts to whirl on the ball. Maxi Urruti comes over to try and stop him. Grabavoy falls. The referee charges over and gesticulates like a madman.
47 min Lovel Palmer takes an opportunity on a defensive throw-in. Then he takes another eternity. Then Urruti makes a strange Captain Hook gesture with his right hand.
48 min Diego Valeri hurls the ball like a javelin into Urruti, who's running at goal, and then the striker nonchalantly lays it out to Darlington Nagbe streaking up the right. It's a pretty move, but it ends with Palmer blocking a cross.
50 min The Timbers look more positive. In the first half, they would have turned a free kick won by Nagbe into a ball into the box from Will Johnson. This time around, Johnson rolls it out, and Michael Harrington, Urruti and Johnson work a combination in the box.
52 min Valeri bamboozles Kyle Beckerman with a swivel of his hips and a whiplash turn, he plays the ball forward to Nagbe and the Liberian wins a free kick off a clumsy Palmer challenge.
54 min Javier Morales plays the ball in and Donovan Ricketts collects it. Then Schuler charges into him and Ricketts jumps at him. Then Schuler knocks Pa Modou Kah down for some reason. There's a yellow card for someone, but who knows whom? Also, Valeri has blazed the ball over.
56 min Healey says the yellow cards were for Schuler and Palmer, but I think he may be getting confused because Palmer already had a yellow.
57 min A Will Johnson free kick ends with a Timber shooting the ball at his own posterior. The rebound falls to Valeri, who toe-pokes the ball hopelessly wide. A little bit later, Urruti misdirects a header from Valeri's cross.
59 min Kenny Mansally comes on for Palmer, who was pretty close to a red card. His first act is to take a throw-in that Jack Jewsbury hooks clear with his heel.
60 min It's a free kick in a very good position for Portland, and the RSL wall is not behaving, standing a good yard ahead of the magic white line drawn by the referee. Once it retreats, Johnson smacks it with the ball. There's a scramble. The ball is out.
63 min There's confidence about the Timbers, but RSL looks two organized to let anything come of it. When the men in red have the ball, they slide from one side of the field to another, curious about finding an opening, but not overwhelmingly. When they don't they stand in lock-step formation, and all of the whirring Portland triangles in the world can't find an opening.
65 min A couple of dangerous moments as RSL's players set and drill the ball like the frontline of a volleyball team across the Timbers box, but there's nothing that could be seriously construed as a shot to be had.
68 min Nagbe shows his quality again, turning and accelerating while surrounded by practically the entire RSL team, before spreading the ball out to an onrushing Johnson. The Canada midfielder's shot, though, is always curling away from the goal. Nevertheless, it's a timely reminder of Nagbe's quality.
70 min Another jinking Timber from West Africa decides to remind the supporters of his quality: Alhassan produces a series of tidy flicks to set Urruti up for a more or less fruitless cross. Now Ryan Johnson is on for Jewsbury.
72 min A moment of blood-curdling terror for the Timbers. Morales sprays the ball forward and Danso misses the interception pitifully. It looks like it's rolling out and then Findley comes out of nowhere, sprinting in on Ricketts. The Timbers keeper charges out fearlessly and clears from the corner of the area with his feet. The camera cuts to a young man in the stands, weeping in his Timbers colors.
75 min The Timbers find themselves in enough space to create a tiny European principality behind the RSL defense, and both Ryan Johnson and Alhassan get the chance to play crosses that don't even beat the first man.
76 min Who can say what formation the Timbers are playing right now? Chara is hanging on the shoulder of the last defender, Danso is wandering around the right-hand side, and Chris Schuler is loping up and down the field, eyes bulging and winking, seemingly independent of one another like a deranged hunchback's.
78 min It's another Will Johnson free kick. It's not a goal. Findley hacks it clear.
81 min Valeri flies through the air to commit an atrocity of a tackle on Grabavoy, who goes down screaming like a startled bear. Valeri is unpunished, although I've seen red cards given for that.
83 min As the ball loops over the halfway line and behind Diego Chara from an aimless RSL clearance, the Colombia midfielder hops skyward and plucks the whirling ball from midair with the laces of his right boot. It drops to his feet obediently. It was a mouthwatering piece of control, and now I need to find a napkin.
87 min Harrington takes the Timbers' first real shot in a while, cutting in onto his right as the ball drops and hitting a low half volley that isn't too close. Not to the goal and not the the deflection that might take it there.
90 min Although the Timbers are clearly eliminated, the fans are still prancing about in the stands. Nagbe dribbles 50 yards, just to do it. Just because he can, but he probably won't get to for another few months.
92 min The Timbers fans are now lighting smoke bombs in the north stand. The players in red are basically trolling, just making triangles, scooping balls over the defense to nobody. The ball ends up with Danso, who's on the edge of the RSL box for some reason, and Alhassan shanks a shot well over the bar. And there's the final whistle.