PORTLAND — The free-fall continued, and in the worst of places.
The sinking Sounders tried everything Sunday to break a miserable run of form, including benching their starting goalkeeper for the first time in franchise history. Instead, the misery continued — not to mention more personnel woes — in a nationally televised 1-0 road loss to the rival Timbers in front of 20,674 rowdy fans at Jeld-Wen Field.
Another defeat hurt, but players and coaches salvaged some pride in a return to competitiveness, including hitting the crossbar twice, after having been outscored 9-2 in two blowouts this past week.
“The last two games obviously we didn’t have maybe as much heart as we wanted,” said goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann, who replaced struggling starter Michael Gspurning.
“Today I thought we battled all the way to the very last minute.”
By not winning, Seattle failed to reclaim the Cascadia Cup (it went to the Vancouver Whitecaps) and also failed to clinch a playoff berth.
The sinking Sounders (15-11-6, 51 points) have lost three games in a row for the first time since 2010. And a five-game winless streak only invokes memories of the team’s last-place start in March.
“If we had played with the effort we had tonight the last two games, we wouldn’t be in this position right now,” said coach Sigi Schmid.
Portland (13-5-14, 53 points) leaped into first place in the Western Conference, thanks to a 45th-minute goal by Kalif Alhassan. The Timbers have gone 14 games unbeaten at home and six games unbeaten overall.
Green smoke filled the stadium as the updated standings were shown after the final whistle.
“Everyone is super gutted,” Hahnemann said.
Trailing 1-0 in the second half, the Sounders’ comeback efforts took a blow in the 74th minute when Osvaldo Alonso was issued a red card for apparently swinging an elbow toward the face of Timbers captain Will Johnson.
Alonso had to be restrained multiple times as he protested vehemently along with some of his teammates, a scene that appeared to perfectly capture his team’s current frustrations.
“I put my elbow up, but I never (swung),” said Alonso.
Schmid said he didn’t see the play, but he wasn’t surprised at who was involved: “Will Johnson always seems to be at the other end of things. I don’t know what he says or what he does to instigate things.”
Seattle, while short-handed, still had a decent chance to tie the game in the 80th minute, but David Estrada’s low shot was kept out on a diving save by goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts.
In stoppage time, a lucky bounce left the ball at Steve Zakuani’s feet in front of the goal, but his shot was deflected and hit the crossbar to deny the Sounders a stunning equalizer.
“That’s kind of the way it was today,” Zakuani said. “Almost stole the point but it wasn’t meant to be.”
Sunday marked the first time in 14 games the Sounders had been shut out dating to July 13, ending the longest run the team has ever had. Clint Dempsey, who suffered a sprained shoulder in his first start since Aug. 31, hit the crossbar in the first half.
“Right now nothing is falling for us,” said Schmid. “We seem to be a little bit snakebit.”