Until halfway through the second half of Saturday night's 1-0 loss to Columbus, the New England Revolution couldn't catch a break and probably didn't deserve one.
New England struggled to create much in the way of attacking opportunities with the continued absence of playmaker Steve Ralston acutely felt in the final third.
Referee Paul Ward denied what the Revs believed was a certain penalty when Crew defender Andy Iro appeared to handle Kenny Mansally's shot after a half-hour.
To cap it all off, the Revs conceded a pub-quality goal when Matt Reis and Emmanuel Osei failed to communicate and allowed Gino Padula's long-distance free kick to elude them and bounce into the net.
For one flickering moment, it looked like the Revolution caught the break they needed. Emmanuel Ekpo saw red in the 65th minute after his forearm connected with Kevin Alston's nose as the two jostled for a header.
It turned out to be a false dawn.
New England couldn't find a way to use its extra man to break down the resolute Crew rearguard and find the precious equalizer that would have increased its lead over D.C. United, FC Dallas and Toronto FC for the eighth and final playoff spot to three points.
"A purist would say that you've got an extra man, so you should pass the ball around a little bit better," Revolution coach Steve Nicol said. "The bottom line is that we didn't do anything with quality, so our passing wasn't good enough to do anything with that. At the end of the day, they packed it in and we had to try to get scraps. We didn't get on the end of any."
Nicol pressed Shalrie Joseph into the attacking third as a striker and switched to a 3-5-2 formation in an attempt to spark the moribund offense. The Crew's ability to deal with the poor service that followed made sure Joseph had little impact.
"It doesn't matter who you have up there, if you don't give them quality service, they're going to be in trouble," Nicol said.
In the end, the Revs' inability to take advantage of the extra man summed up an evening where they didn't start well and never really found their rhythm on the night.
"It's a disappointing outcome," Revolution defender Darrius Barnes said. "We never really got into a rhythm. Usually, when we start off slow, we usually can catch up. Tonight, we never caught our stride. It's an all-around disappointing game for everybody to be in this playoff fight and put in a performance like that is not acceptable. We definitely have to rebound and put pressure on ourselves to win these last two games."
With Chicago in town next weekend and a visit to Columbus beckoning in the final match of the season, New England faces a difficult end to the season. If the Revs want to avoid missing the playoffs, they'll have to realize that performances like the one turned in against a Crew side weakened by the absence of six regular starters won't be enough to accomplish that goal.
"We have to wake up and realize what's at stake right now," Joseph said. "The thing about MLS is that once you get into the playoffs, you can still win it. Once you get in, you can make noise. We just need to get a win next week and try to beat Chicago."
Kyle McCarthy is a contributor to MLSnet.com.