As far as Chivas USA has progressed in its first season under Robin Fraser, and as impressive as the Goats often have been -- especially when they get their possession game going -- Wednesday's loss exposed an ugly truth.
After 26 games, Chivas sits behind the Portland Timbers, whose first season in Major League Soccer has perhaps too often been characterized as farce.
The Timbers (9-12-5, 32 points) looked very serious in completing a home sweep of the L.A. clubs, using Eric Brunner's header from a corner kick at the end of the first half to pull out a 1-0 triumph, their third successive home victory, before the usual crazies at sold-out Jeld-Wen Field.
Portland vaulted past Chivas (7-9-10, 31 points) into sixth place in the Western Conference and into 11th in the overall standings, just outside the playoff zone, with eight games to go. There's a battle among eight clubs, all within five points, for sixth through 13th places.
Chivas started slowly again, as in Seattle and Colorado, with Portland having all of the ball most of the first half. If not for goalkeeper Dan Kennedy's usual heroics, the Goats would have been behind early and out of the game by halftime.
Instead, they nearly made it to halftime even -- until Brunner deposited Mike Chabala's cross inside the far post from a 44th-minute corner kick.
By then, Fraser had already burned two of his three substitutions -- Michael Lahoud and Paulo Nagamura had to leave with injuries -- and he used his last one to bring on Justin Braun in the 60th minute. His energy sparked Chivas' attack, and the Goats dictated play most of the rest of the way, nearly pulling even on three occasions:
Marcos Mondaini tracked a long, looping ball from Heath Pearce into Portland's box in the 73rd minute, volleying it just wide of the left post
Braun's header from Simon Elliott's chip needed only a back-post run in the 85th
Laurent Courtois nearly buried an equalizer three minutes into stoppage, racing into the middle to left-foot Braun's header from Pearce's cross past the right post -- had he side-footed the ball with his right foot, it probably have hit the net.
A quick look at Chivas' defeat:
BEST PLAYER: There's growing recognition Kennedy as one of MLS's best goalkeepers, a true contender for the league's netminder award. More evidence was gathered in Portland.
Kennedy was again outstanding, making a half-dozen saves, two of them -- a reaction stop on David Horst's header in the 32nd minute and sprawling slap-away on Kalif Alhassan's 30-yard blast in the 62nd -- rather spectacular.
Diego Chara was at the crux of Portland's attack all night, and twin towers Horst and Brunner were outstanding in central defense and pushing forward on set pieces.
BEST GOAL: Brunner's, the 10th goal Portland has scored from a set piece this season, was a real beaut, as nice as a header from a corner kick can be. Chivas' complaint on the goal has more to do with what preceded it: a free kick awarded when Mariano Trujillo needlessly took down Sal Zizzo just outside the Chivas box.
That free kick led to the corner kick, and Brunner, who stands 6 feet 4, easily lost Pearce, just 5-10, on this run to the front of the six-yard box. Chabala's delivery was perfect, and Brunner's flashing header into the far-post side netting was sharp and precise.
BIGGEST STRUGGLE: The Goats had to make two changes because of injury before halftime, leaving Fraser few options for tactical moves as the game reached its critical minutes. He could have used some.
Right back Lahoud exited first, gone in the 11th minute after injuring his left ankle in a third-minute collision with Kenny Cooper. Central midfielder Nagamura departed in the 38th because of a foot injury suffered four minutes earlier.
Lahoud had come on in the 16th minute Saturday at Colorado after Zarek Valentin suffered a quad strain, and Braun had to step on when Mondaini sustained an eye injury at Seattle the previous week.
“That's three games in a row we've had to make a change in the first half,” Fraser said. “Two early subs definitely limited what we can do.”
Fraser's attempt to rotate his lineup in the middle of a three-games-in-eight-days stretch was thwarted somewhat. Giving 37-year-old midfielder Elliott the night off was central, but the New Zealand national-teamer got the call in place of Nagamura, who has battled various injury since preseason and was making just his sixth league start.
WORTH NOTING: Juan Pablo Angel was left home as the Goats are “trying to manage him the remainder of the season,” Fraser said. It was also an opportunity to keep him off Portland's artificial turf. ... Courtois received his first start as Fraser changed his midfield entirely, moving Nick La Brocca back into the middle, inserting Nagamura for Elliott (for a while, at least) and giving Ben Zemanski his first start since July 16. ... Eric Alexander, just acquired from FC Dallas, made his debut for Portland, coming on in the second half.
FINAL JUDGMENT: “We didn't play well enough in the first half,” Fraser said. “We played the game they wanted us to play, not connecting passes [and] playing long balls into two 6-foot-4 central defenders.”
NEXT: Saturday vs. Real Salt Lake at Home Depot Center, 7:30 p.m. (Fox Soccer Channel)
Jen-Weld Field (Portland, Ore.)
Portland Timbers 1, Chivas USA 0
P -- Eric Brunner (Mike Chabala) 44
Portland Timbers: Troy Perkins; Lovel Palmer, Eric Brunner, David Horst, Mike Chabala; Sal Zizzo (Darlington Nagbe, 79), Jack Jewsbury, Diego Chara, Kalif Alhassan (Rodney Wallace, 84); Kenny Cooper (Eric Alexander, 71), Jorge Perlaza.
Chivas USA: Dan Kennedy; Michael Lahoud (Mariano Trujillo, 11), Michael Umaña, Heath Pearce, Ante Jazic; Ben Zemanski (Justin Braun, 60), Paulo Nagamura (Simon Elliott, 38), Nick LaBrocca, Laurent Courtois; Alejandro Moreno, Marcos Mondaini. Unused subs: Jorge Flores, Blair Gavin, David Junior Lopes, Zach Thornton.
Yellow cards: Nagamura 31, Trujillo 43, Chara 47+, Jazic 86.
Referee: Edvin Jurisevic. Att.: 18,627.