SANDY — Prior to Wednesday's match, Jason Kreis confidently believed with the return of all-star midfielder Javier Morales, there was still hope for Real Salt Lake to catch Los Angeles in the race for the MLS Supporter's Shield.
Those hopes were dashed in just 11 minutes Wednesday.
On a night when Javier Morales returned to the field for the first time since May 7, RSL couldn't overcome an early red card to Kyle Beckerman as the visiting Chicago Fire stunned RSL 3-0 in front of a record crowd of 20,762 at Rio Tinto Stadium.
The victory was just Chicago's second on the road this season. For RSL, the loss effectively ends its hopes of catching the Galaxy for the best record.
"I'm very worried, I won't be sleeping tonight. To take results like this in a row at this time of year could be critical. The questions are now in front of the players, how will they react?" said RSL coach Jason Kreis.
RSL's coach, who didn't hide his aggravation, said all three goals and Beckerman's red card were the result of a lack of discipline.
Now, it's looking more and more like Real Salt Lake is headed for a first-round playoff clash with Seattle.
Wednesday's match was RSL's last game-in-hand on the rest of the Western Conference. Every team is now level with 30 games played, and with four games left, RSL trails first-place Los Angeles by 10 points and second-place Seattle by three points.
The manner in which RSL lost to Chicago — courtesy of a Beckerman head-butt — was mind-boggling on a night that had makings of being one of the most memorable in franchise history.
Things began to unravel quickly.
Chicago opened the scoring in the 10th minute capitalizing on a quick throw-in and a slow double-team near the sideline. After Patrick Nyarko received the ball, he quickly passed to teammate Daniel Paladini before the Beckerman-Robbie Russell double-team could arrive.
That left Jamison Olave on an island to defend Fire midfielders Paladini and Marco Pappa. Olave had no choice but to pressure the ball at the edge of the penalty area, so Paladini calmly slipped a pass to Pappa who buried the shot for the 1-0 lead.
"To give a goal away on a throw-in, which we harp on again and again — to give a goal away that softly is a complete lack of discipline," said Kreis.
A minute later, RSL's hopes for a comeback were all but dashed. Strangely, it wasn't Chicago that did the damage, but Beckerman who headed-butted Paladini at the midfield stripe.
Beckerman was obviously upset Paladini clipped him from behind, and he was quickly shown a red card for his retaliation head-butt.
Beckerman wasn't around to talk to the media afterward, but Kreis said he didn't try and make excuses afterward.
Kreis tried to shore up the midfield by inserting Yordany Alvarez into the match for Lui Gil just a few minutes after Beckerman's ejection.
RSL's best opportunity to equalize in the first half came in the 28th minute as Alvaro Saborio slipped behind Chicago's back line to latch onto an Andy Williams long ball, but Saborio couldn't corral the ball cleanly and his rushed shot drifted wide left.
Pappa officially put the game out of reach in the 38th minute burying a Pavel Pardo through ball for the 2-0 lead. Pappa completed his hat trick with a 75th-minute strike capitalizing on another RSL mistake.
The loss was RSL's second straight, and comes on the heels of a 4-1 drubbing at D.C. United.
"That's going to happen. Once a season you're going to get a game like that, but to have it happen two games in a row is disappointing. If there's a wake-up call, it's right now. We have L.A. this weekend, and they're not going to back down to us at all," said defender Nat Borchers.
Despite the overall frustration of the night, the moment the sell-out crowd was anxiously awaiting finally arrived in the 61st minute as Morales entered the match for Chris Wingert. He was greeted with a standing ovation for his first appearance in nearly five months, and his first touch on a free kick nearly resulted in a Fabian Espindola goal.
"It was uplifting for sure. He's been gone for so long. To have him back on the pitch was great. He did really well considering the circumstances," said Borchers.