Just as it was becoming possible to imagine the New York Red Bulls might put a little run together, along came a midweek trip to Philadelphia to return expectations firmly back to where they belong: in a low place.
Of course, losing 3-1 on the road to the Union is not the end of...anything, really. Philadelphia hasn't turned its season around, but the team has now scored 16 goals in its last six games - or half its total for the season (32, if the math is elusive). Despite the glut of goals, it has only won three of those matches, which makes the Union an average team, for the moment.
RBNY is also pretty average this year. So much so that Mike Petke tacitly acknowledged he picked the wrong cherries from last year's Supporters' Shield winning defense and gave up trying to get anything out of the misfits and castoffs acquired to replace the parts of the 2013 back line tossed aside in the off-season. So we have our new-look defense, which is basically three guys who will probably be pretty good in a year or two, and Jamison Olave.
When you commit to a rebuilding project, especially in defense, you commit to having a few games you wish you could forget. This was one of those games.
The back four was pretty poor throughout. Sebastien Le Toux seemed to able to find a way past the left side of the defense any time he wanted it; over on the right, Andrew Wenger made Chris Duvall's one-on-one defending look in need of attention.
And, unfortunately, Matt Miazga once again drew the short straw of being the guy whose inexperience was made to count most against him. He was out of position for the Union's first goal, which arrived in the ninth minute, after Conor Casey waddled through a gap the size of...Conor Casey...in the back line and picked out a nice spot for the ball - back of the net, just out of Luis Robles's reach.
Miazga didn't cover himself in glory for the Union's second goal either. He elected to press high, leaving Casey unmarked and lunging at Fred in midfield. The Brazilian evaded the tackle, pushed the ball wide to Sheanon Williams, who crossed into the space vacated by Miazga. Casey flicked the ball across Jamison Olave, and Fred finished the move he'd started with a confident finish. Miazga watched the entire play at a half-jog back from his failed tackle.
On the bright side, these are different sorts of errors from the one he made in his last game, when a missed clearance gifted the Crew a goal. Errors of judgement, which are what he made in this match, can be fixed with experience - which he is rapidly accumulating.
It is still possible for Miazga to cycle through the full range of defensive miscues before October, and become a league-ready center-back in time for the playoffs. And that, fortunately, is the point of this exercise.
The Red Bulls are not going to win the Supporters' Shield. As things stand, they have 23 points from 19 games. A cautious estimate of the total required to win the league this year is 62, and Seattle can get there by winning every other game from here on out.
For RBNY to hit 62 points, it'll need to win 13 of the remaining 15 games in its MLS schedule - and teams with a lot less to do will have to collapse. It sort of happened last year, but the Red Bulls were better (they had 28 points after 19 games in 2013) and still won only nine of the last 15 games of the season.
"Only" nine is faint praise. RBNY went on a hell of tear to win the Shield, and now it needs to go on a hell of tear to make the playoffs. The target to reach thepost-season is still 50 points, though most teams in the East seem a little sub-par at the moment so that may change shortly. To get to 50 points, RBNY needs another 27, which is nine wins.
Fortuitously, nine is also the number of home games remaining in the season. There was a time the Red Bulls were pretty good at home. This is encouraging.
So forget this limp performance in mid-July. Mark this one down as experience for the young back line. Try not to get too aggravated by the infuriating refereeing. Yes, the Red Bulls have fallen victim remarkably frequently to bad luck, bad calls, and occasionally just bad understanding of the rules.
This week, Tim Cahill had a goal disallowed because Bradley Wright-Phillips was in an offside position. Since RBNY has twice been lectured by the league on the finer points of passive offside, it is frustrating to have a goal called back under circumstances strikingly similar to those which won Harrison Shipp a goal for Chicago and Gilberto a goal for Toronto.
And there was another penalty. Yes, Eric Alexander fouled Maurice Edu in the box. But it was a tit-for-tat foul - Edu had fouled Alexander. The referee saw only the tat, and RBNY conceded a third goal just as it seemed to be getting back into the match.
It didn't get back into the match. BWP scored between the Union's second and third goals, assisted by Thierry Henry again - himself assisted by Oyongo, who is a creative gem at left back. But no further goals followed. Tim Cahill's radar was off for most of the night, making the disqualification of his one really good effort all the more irritating. Lloyd Sam had a couple of chances, but appeared determined to make Zac MacMath look like Bill Hamid when Hamid decides to look like Nick Rimando.
Thierry Henry was everywhere, but the rest of the team was too often content to let him carry the burden of possession, or simply incapable of following his train of thought or the trajectory of his passes.
So RBNY lost. The team lacks the consistency to challenge for the league title: we knew this. What we don't know is whether this team can get it together to challenge for the Cup. That is the only trophy remaining on the table for this season.
Getting into the playoffs is the only ambition still worth worrying about. To get there, RBNY needs to win more than it loses from here on out - and it can do that by winning at home.
The next game, against San Jose on Saturday, just got a little more important than it would have been if the result in Philadelphia had been different. But it is always important to win your home games in MLS, regardless of how many trophies you are chasing.
So not much changed after this match. RBNY is still good but not great. RBNY still needs three points on Saturday.
And that is the silver lining to this loss: if you are going to get spanked by a so-so team, have the grace and decency to do it away from home and just a couple of days before the next game.
The chance to erase this memory will be here very soon, and that is almost soon enough.