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PORTLAND — Any process of maturing involves a certain amount of pain.
The Portland Timbers certainly experienced that truth on Wednesday.
Minutes away from climbing into first place in Major League Soccer's Western Conference, the Timbers watched substitute Cole Grossman score his second MLS goal and let Real Salt Lake salvage a 3-3 tie on a wild night at Jeld-Wen Field.
Kalif Alhassan's second career goal in the 86th minute put Portland on the brink of a win that would have pushed the Timbers into a tie with Real Salt Lake. Instead, the home team was left to a disappointing draw.
With the tie, the Timbers have 39 points (nine wins, three losses and 12 ties) and remain three points behind Western Conference leader Real Salt Lake (12-8-6, 42 points). The Timbers' advantage is that they have played two fewer matches than RSL. They share second place with Colorado.
"If we’re being honest, I think we’re all pretty gutted not to get that three points (win)," Timbers coach Caleb Porter said.
Wednesday's match was a back-and-forth battle in which each team made the other pay for giveaways, and for fouls.
The night started well enough for the home team. The Timbers came out flying, with Diego Valeri hitting the post in the fourth minute. In the 24th minute, Rodney Wallace drew a foul on the left wing, then scored with his head off Valeri's well-placed free kick.
It was the seventh consecutive Timbers goal set up by the Argentine midfielder, who has 11 assists on the season.
But Valeri was involved in Real Salt Lake's tying goal. After Portland cleared a Morales free kick from the 18-yard box, Valeri missed a chance to boot the ball out of the corner. Morales' second cross found the head of Yordany Alvarez. Donovan Ricketts blocked his shot, but Nat Borchers was positioned for the open tap in.
The second RSL goal had the Timbers crowd worked up. Referee Ricardo Salazar awarded a penalty kick after Andrew Jean Baptiste tangled with Morales with the ball loose inside the penalty area. Replays seemed to indicate little contact, but it didn't matter as Morales calmly converted the penalty kick.
“There was a hold by the defender on the attacker, and that classifies as one of the nine penal fouls, so inside the penalty area the decision is a penalty kick,” Salazar told a pool reporter after the match.
As frustrating as that turn of events was for the Timbers, the RSL opportunity came after an unforced giveaway by the Timbers allowed the visitors to quickly shift onto the attack.
Porter credited RSL for its goals, but said his team let the visitors back into the game by backing off after scoring the early goal. His Timbers are at their best when they are pressing the action, Porter said.
"We need to play the way we played to get the goals," Porter said.
The Timbers got a penalty kick of their own in the 57th minute because of a RSL handball near the top of the 18-yard box. Valeri beat Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Jeff Attinella to tie the score 2-2.
In the 79th minute, Alvarez was given a red card for a reckless leg-on-leg foul on Diego Chara. That gave the Timbers a man advantage for the final 17 minutes of action.
Alhassan gave the Timbers the lead in the 86th minute, scoring the only goal from a buildup in the game. The opportunity came when 19-year-old right back Alvas Powell sent a cross toward the penalty spot. Jose Valencia got enough of the ball to tap it to Alhassan, who used time and space to rip a shot into the left-side netting.
At that point, it looked like this might be a night when the Timbers took a notable forward step. But on a play when the Timbers missed several chances to clear the ball from danger, Grossman played hero when a ball landed at his feet and he squirted a shot beyond a diving Donovan Ricketts and just inside the post.
This was the first of three league matches between the Timbers and RSL. And as dramatic as it was, neither team was at full strength. Real Salt Lake was without captain Kyle Beckerman, top scorer Alvaro Sabario and starting goalkeeper Nick Rimando. Portland was without captain Will Johnson, Jack Jewsbury and forward Frederic Piquionne because of injuries.
The Timbers don't have much time to recover. On Sunday, they travel to Seattle. In addition to potential injury absences, Portland will be without Chara, who drew his fifth yellow card on Wednesday and will be suspended for the Seattle match.
"We don't have time to be too disappointed," Porter said. "We have a big game on Sunday. We need to move on quickly."