Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Portland Timbers’ 2015: The Unexpected Inevitable Run to Glory

It's a rough approximation, but a fair one.
[Author's Note: This will be the last post on Conifers & Citrus. It seems fitting to leave things here, as this blog becomes one story about how the Portland Timbers won MLS Cup. There'll be more about the move at the end. For now, though, let's talk Timbers and 2015.]

I'm not sure how I expected to feel about winning the league. What I do know is that what I did feel is hard to explain. And probably a little unsatisfying.

First, I've been here before, sort of. I fell in with DC United after Major League Soccer's inaugural season, drawn, at least in part, by one of MLS's few non-ridiculous team name/uniform combos (e.g. Dallas Burn, Tampa Bay Mutiny, San Jose Clash; times were not good, and the uniforms, worse). I had moved to DC in 1997, in search of a place to fit (as it happens, I fit DC as snugly as a hand in a shoe). One thing hadn't led to another, at least not directly, but I still bought season tickets and took in just about all the games. Seeing a team win with that kind of consistency was something, at least until it wasn't. All that winning, for lack of a better word...well, it bored me. 1997 wasn't so much a campaign as a coronation: it had all the suspense of a Tom Cruise movie. (Does he win in the end? Of course he does.)

As the Portland Timbers' run went from encouraging to the, uh, motherfucking championship, I assumed that I'd experience something different, something more powerful. I never knew bad times with that DC (there, sniff....wasn't time). Also, it's not truly love till shit has got, however briefly, real – which, here, means continuing to watch a team, even love them, after you've spotted some warts, a trio of stray nasal hairs, and breathed into the reeking pit of halitosis that is your beloved's mouth. When you can look past all that and lay down every night next to that person, maybe even make sweet, sweet love, that's when you get to call it love. Anyway, with those warts, maybe your team, say, failed to reach the post-season one season and then didn't look a whole lot like clearing a lower bar to reach the post-season for much of the following season...stop me if you've heard this somewhere before...

Timbers fans all know what comes next: Portland's players bouncing like sugar-high toddlers in a big bouncy-house (or stadium) in central Ohio with fireworks shooting skyward behind them. They weren't alone, of course, not with 2,000 – 3,000 of friends bouncing right along with them. Meanwhile (roughly) 2,000 miles west, tens of thousands of Portlanders spilled out of bars and other ad hoc venues (e.g. the Crystal Ballroom and Revolution Hall) to raise their voices to the clouded heavens. I sang with some people for a while. And it was good. When Timbers fans stumbled out of the bar across the street, we sang at them a while. And that was good, too. Everyone looked very happy. Social media feeds rattled with disbelief and elation. The best description here is Hemingway-esque: it was good.

As I walked away from the bar that afternoon, hints of that old 1997 boredom followed me all the way to the train and rode with me over that long trip home. All I could think was, why don't I feel as excited as everyone else looked? Did it have something to do with the game?

Friday, December 4, 2015

Columbus Crew v. Portland Timbers: MLS Cup Primer, Enemy Edition

Shh...he's trying not to hear me, so's as not to worry.
I had more research time planned – tonight was to be the day to go deep on the Portland Timbers – but with work buzzing like an angry hive all week, and me spending more time than usual in the office, something had to give. Work pays the bills, this doesn’t, etc. (In its defense, my job benefits include daily reminders of my own, and humanity’s general insignificance. Keeps me grounded...)

Then again, I know these guys, the Timbers. Gods know I’ve spent enough time staring at them, writing about them, and talking about them over drinks. Then there are those spare hours spent spying from the bushes into the Nagbes’ kitchen, the days laying beneath Liam Ridgewell’s deck, listening to him contemplate life, soccer, and Lake Oswego (the lake, mind, not the town, which he does not care for), or the hidey-holes I have in Rodney Wallace’s walk-in closet and Diego Chara’s pantry. Close observation, people: it’s our specialty here at Conifers & Citrus. (What? Disclaimer? We don’t have a legal department, Randall.)

I did a couple mini-games tonight, and fond memories, including last weekend’s massive draw against FC Dallas and the September 26 win over Columbus Crew SC – and, crucially, in Columbus. Such a lovely trip down Memory Lane…more on that later, obviously...

As for Columbus Crew SC, the Timbers’ opponent in MLS Cup 2015…wait, again, HOLY SHIT!! Even with several friends making the pilgrimage to one of the Holy Places of American Soccer, my head’s only two-thirds of the way around this particular reality. Bear with me.

I didn’t have the time I wanted for Columbus, either (I worked late last night, Judy; you saw, you were here…yes, ice cream when I’m done typing.), but I did manage to take a long (90+) minute look at their MLS-Cup clinching win over the New York Red Bulls, plus the three preceding mini-games (just...look it up if you don’t know; there’s a lot below) I feel like I got a fair amount out of all of that – I’m sick to death of the color green right now, if nothing else (e.g. soccer field color) – but I’ve got what I’ve got and, uh, here it is . (I know, Judy; sell myself; I remember the self-confidence seminar…I am affirming every day. OK, most days. The offseason, Judy; I’ll get better then.) Firstly...

Sunday, November 29, 2015

An Epistle to the Hillsborites (And Some Teasers on Portland's Win Over FC Dallas)

It was good back then., it wasn't.
As anyone who's likely to visit this site already knows, the Portland Timbers booked their ticket to MLS Cup 2015 by way of a gutsy(-wrenching) 2-2 draw against FC Dallas, in Dallas. The first thing I have to say about that is, HELL, GODDAMN FUCK HOLY SHIT CRABAPPLES, YES!!

That's to say, I can't believe that the Timbers, the mighty, mighty Timbers, could very well be hoisting the actual MLS Cup one week hence. As good as Columbus Crew SC looked today – i.e. tight as the H.M.S. Titanic at launch (and, ideally, much the same at the end of that journey...if without the loss of life, so no skimping on lifeboats) – Portland looks just as good for the win as Columbus does. As anyone knows who followed the Timbers all season, that's just super-goddamn impressive and, for lack of a better phrase, warm squishies all 'round.

As much as I'd like to go on about how Fanendo Adi continued to cement his name into Timbers lore tonight, or how Lucas Melano opened this first chapter of his legend, or how Nat Borchers fucking kung-fu-kicked away a clear equalizer, I feel like I'm sitting down tonight with enough meaningful mysteries in my head to keep me from writing anything definitive, or even worthwhile about tonight's game, specifically. To give examples of questions begging answers, I can't say how Portland built the maze that kept Dallas' Mauro Diaz from finding any kind of daylight today, or how they bottled up Fabian Castillo for, more or less, the full 90. Given that, I'll leave that sort of heavy, technical lifting for another night – next Saturday, in fact, when I hope to dig into just how Columbus stifled Red Bull New York's defense over 180 improbable minutes...these are mysteries that need answering ahead of (gulp!) MLS Cup. Which is, like, a week away. EEEEEeeeeeee!! And Auuuugggghhhhhh!! (Ecstasy, Agony; you get the picture).

First of all, that involves a review of the tape(s), which I will do this week. (But, Jeff, what about the 2015 season reviews? Work in progress, Randall. Don't talk now, son, dad has a project. Judy: put the pork chops and grits on a plate; I'll nuke it later; and, kisses, all for you, sunshine.) For now, though, rather than write about how, say, Portland needs to better manage the game against Columbus than they did against Dallas tonight (quick question: did anyone else shit their actual pants at about the 80th minute, or was that an, um, extremely local phenomenon?), or to ask about just how Columbus absorbed the volume of the Atlantic Ocean without dripping a drop, I want to kick around something perhaps larger in the North American Soccer landscape: specifically, I want to talk about how, tonight, soccer was the biggest attraction in an unlikely town. Hillsboro, Oregon, to be precise.

Friday, November 27, 2015

A Preface: The Cliff Notes Version of the 2015 Season Review

Hoping for better full versions than we have here.
The 2015 season ended some time ago for a little under half of Major League Soccer's clubs/teams/franchises; so ended the regular season. Between there and here, seasons have ended for as many clubs (eight. that's eight teams), which leaves us with the four teams left in contention. Well, some of those four teams are more in contention than others...OWWW! (Fuck, what was that? I'm JINXING it? Do you really think that’s a thing, Randall? Are we twelve-year-old fucking girls, Randall? Shit!)

Anyway, the more time that passes into the rearview, the keener I am to get started on the big, dumb off-season I have planned between here and the kick off of the 2016 MLS Season. Yes, it's the ol' Look-Backward-So-We-Can-Look-Forward-With-Clear-Eyes, Season's End Review of the year that was in Major League Soccer, and for each club in MLS. I say that knowing that at least four clubs have more tales to tell before their 2015 ends (Randall! Randall! Back off, man. Back. Off. Corner. Get in the FUCK-ing corner and stay there! Don’t move. Don’t. Are we clear? I said are we clear?!), but, at this point in the season, each and every club in MLS has written their story for their 2015. Also, if I don't start this soon, I don't see how I get this done before First Kick 2016. (As in, holy shit, I have to crank out these puppies, probably at a clip of two per week, so efficiency's king, speed-reading's queen, and god damn the video.)

How's this gonna work, then? Below, I will tell a brief, thumbnail tale (rhyming!) of each MLS team's 2015 season. The subsequent reviews for each club will examine how well my sometimes distant perception of each team holds up. I'm checking my sense of reality against some better approximation of reality, essentially. How to get the better approximation of reality is a work in progress...for the record. Judy is doing the research on that as we speak. (Need anything, hon? Tea? Yeah, I'll clean the garage; next weekend, Judy, can't it be next weekend?)

If you're new to this site, you might ask, well, "what are your credentials, sir?" I'll start by directing that curious hypothetical straw-man to the Conifers & Citrus Interest Rankings, which are posted at right. Those record the number of times I watched a full 90-minute game for each of the clubs in MLS this season. That hasn't been updated for a while, but I've watched at least 12 of those clubs one or more times since the last update (Portland chief among them, of course), and I watch every condensed, mini-game that MLS put up on MLS Live all year long (even if the state of mind in which I watch these can be relaxed-tilting-toward-coma).

Off-the-cuff impressions of each of Major League Soccer's 20 clubs for the past season unfold below, going from worst to first (per the final standings). The reviews will come out in the same order. And, ideally, those will look forward as well as back. For what it's worth, I think that'll come out sorta elegantly, in that the best teams will generally (very generally) have the most to fix in the coming off-season. OK, caveats posted, so let's lock and load.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Timbers Top Dallas in Leg 1: Rumors of a Steady State

The man at left is Caleb Porter's copilot. Good times.
It all hinged on The Goal of Destiny. When a random scrap player from your team – say, Dairon Asprilla – scores that crackerjack, out-o'-nowhere special goal that your team of choice so rarely scores, it's time to set aside all sense of doubt, to suspend all reasonable disbelief, and, when all's said and done, to believe that all the trends might be too irresistible to resist, and to accept that, yes, things are going really goddamn well with your local soccer team.

As all who care to know know by now, the Portland Timbers built a big beautiful lead in the opening game of their home-and-home series against FC Dallas tonight, taking a 3-1 win (familiar? yes!) over Texas' historic also-rans (yep, I'm fronting!). The Timbers won this one in the best way possible for this kind of series: they came out and dominated, from the get, from the go, and, with small exceptions, from start to finish. The Portland Timbers look really real, people, in a way that anyone watching them in August, or even September, would have given you very good money in order to buy very good drugs that promised to let them feel some lesser form of anxiety about the current and future state of all things Timbers.

But the margin, it didn't feel so large in real time as it does now, did it? Portland drew first blood with a barreling goal from Liam Ridgewell, but Dallas threatened in some achingly familiar ways. Not the most familiar ways, mind you - the Timbers defense did a good enough job corralling Fabian Castillo that teams around the league should review the tape (Jorge Villafana, in particular, appeared to have a clear mind as to how to play Castillo right – e.g. leave a gap between you and him, assuming that the worst thing he can do is get actually past you) – and they generally stayed compact when Dallas had possession (yay!) – but the Timbers allowed a set of set pieces in a spot on the field that 100%-absolutely could have spelled disaster. With Mauro Diaz misfiring, it didn't matter in the end and that's the tale of the tape: the better team (Portland) wasn't punished for some moments of less-than-perfect judgment (free kicks), so they won the game and rightly so.

Before I bury the lead, I want to say it here explicitly: the Timbers look really solid right now; this club defends at damn-near close to the highest level in Major League Soccer, but they have since figured out how to score goals...wait...doing actual research for one of, don’t spoil my moment...yes, thought so, Portland has scored 24 goals in the second half of the season, versus 17 goals in the first half; throw in the playoffs, where Portland has scored, uh, seven more goals in four games. That's not some brilliant, massive haul, but, yeah, with one goal per game giving way to something...mathematically better, I'd argue that Portland has worked out scoring goals. That's cool, but that's not the coolest thing. When your team plays defense like that, they're going to win if/when the offense comes online. And against any team in MLS. Any. Team.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The U.S., St. Vincent & the Grenadines, and an Inevitable Win

I see the U.S. winning the World Cup.
Call it a good start, I guess. Or just call it the right one. With the U.S. Men's National Team tangling with a small island minnow like St. Vincent & the Grenadines, anything too far short of clear victory would have begged questions. One of those could have been, how the hell did St. Vincent score that first goal?

Within the U.S. context, this is the equivalent of those preseason spring warm-ups that Major League Soccer clubs play against the local college: victory is basically assured and the day will be a success so long as Hristo Stoichov or Dema Kovalenko doesn't break some poor kid's leg (hmm...thought Kovalenko broke a college kid, too; nope, just one of my all-time favorite MLS players, Ronnie O'Brien). In any event, St. Vincent (or do they prefer the Grenadines, when people aren't feeling up for spitting out the whole mouthful?) could barely get out of their half. The game only becomes interesting if you rewrite the rules to allow Grenadines (going with that one, this time) a goal every time they got the ball across the midfield stripe at the feet of one of their players. Even with that revision, I think they still would have lost last night...

So, I guess that leaves talking about the U.S. Men's collective and individual performances. On the collective side, see above, I suppose. At its simplest, the U.S. just had to figure out how to break down the St. Vincentians (also, probably not correct...know what, hold on: I'm going to figure out how to do this right, show a little respect. OK, have my resource...added "the" to the nation's formal title; and, hence forward, I will call the players and their country by their right name; OK, got it). And they did. To their credit, the Vincentians fought hard to keep the U.S. in front of them and to make their one goal stand up...and that lasted about 6 minutes or so. It did take a nice headed goal by Bobby Wood to equalize, at least, and a couple U.S. goals felt a little lucky, thanks to deflections (still, did not know Fabian Johnson could take a respectable free kick; see all the goals here). And so the U.S. walked out 6-1 winners.

I'll wrap up with thoughts on a couple players, even while acknowledging that a game like this provides a pretty distorted lens by which to judge anything. To put that more clearly: there are things U.S. attackers can do against the Vincentians that they can't do against even Trinidad & Tobago (who, for the record, won last night). Anyway, on with the Yanks, starting with a very special debut.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The U.S. Men and the Beginning of the Journey: World Cup Qualifying

Good times.
As the United States Men’s National Team embarks upon what everyone hopes, and all assume, with be its eighth consecutive successful World Cup qualification tournament, I’m feeling a little philosophical. Here, “philosophical” means anxious in that unique way one feels after 7 or 8 years of marriage – i.e. safe in the knowledge that things are fine, and probably will remain fine - but, again, just “fine,” as opposed to “great,” “orgasmically intense,” “soul-suckingly shitty,” or any other usefully definitive emotional state – so, what’s there to do but smile and suck it up till one or both of you is dead.

So, cheerful, in other words.

As everyone knows, U.S. Soccer is not in a happy place right now. While every past U.S. coach ended his tenure under some uncomfortable scrutiny, U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure possesses all the Sturm und Drang of a Wagnerian opera, stuff of the intensity not seen since Steve Sampson’s weird experimentation and early exit from the 1998 World Cup. Arguments have raged for at least a year now over whether Klinsmann is guiding the U.S. Men’s program or ripping out the rails from beneath it; they’ve hit such a pitch since the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the meek display against Mexico in the (stupid) Confederations Cup play-in that some pundits have speculated (hopefully) that a failure by Klinsmann’s team to take at least four points from these first two qualifiers could finally force U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati to look past the (apparent, but clearly real) blood-brother arrangement he has with Klinsmann and fire the man.

I have no opinion on that particular point beyond acknowledging a certain emotional numbness. It’s not unlike marriage sex in Year 8 (missionary OK, Judy? No, you don’t have to move. Sure, you can leave the TV on). That’s to say, I don’t think anything changes and I don’t expect it to get better, really. Look, just kick the fucking ball, already. Just play the game, yeah?

It’s precisely times like this, in the Marianas-esque depths of ennui, that one is inevitably drawn to the past. As one thinks about all those past campaigns, both the long marches of getting troops and the supply “tail” to the front (qualifying) and the decisive, pitched battles (the actual World Cup tourneys), one’s memory drifts here and there with no clear object, or even intention. Memory does its own thing, here, and one sees what one sees and dwells on whatever comes up.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Timbers Triumph: On a Plan Coming Together

Not my fault. That show was manifestly stupid.
Everyone knows the super-agent movie trope when the super-villain sets up some Rube Goldberg contraption to kill the super-spy, often one that functions on a glacial time-line, as opposed to just putting a big bullet straight through the friggin' head of his nemesis. That approach to taking care of the biggest of one's 99 problems is so obviously silly that only an obvious movie could lampoon it (one of the not much lamented Austin Powers franchise; funniest thing I've ever seen Seth Green do, for sure).

But I understand the super-villain mind. When some asshole has foiled your plans for world domination over and over and over – maybe he even hurt or killed that fluffy white cat you love with all your nefarious heart – you don’t want to just kill the guy: you want that son of a bitch to spend his last hours (and good revenge totally requires hours) tallying up all the ways he's fucked. All the ways that you, Master Super Villain, have 100%-guaranteed, and from every possible angle, that he is fucked. The goal isn't just to vanquish one's foe. For all I know, it's to see if you can't make him cry a little. (NOTE: Roger Moore squirted a few every time he had to run for a scene by the time of his long-overdue retirement from the Bond franchise; NOTE to NOTE: Apocryphal; NOTE to NOTE to NOTE: I heard he had a stunt double run for him, which isn't remotely Bond-esque, but my story about tears is 100% fabricated.)

I'm not saying I wanted the Portland Timbers to dominate and humiliate the Vancouver Whitecaps yesterday. First of all, that would be just rude, what with the classy tweet they posted today congratulating the Timbers and the Timbers Army. I mean, I can be vulgar, crass, etc. etc. I do, however, aspire to some basic quantity of class. Good taste...I'll do that later (Edit, Randall: Oh, the punches he pulls; there's some rot in the attic, people; war crimes in his head earlier today).

That said, beating Vancouver the way the Timbers did last night, and at the end of this season, shares more than a couple things with the super-villain's Super-Spy Death Trap. Timbers fans have studied its shape and structure for months now. Over time, they came to understand that the mechanics of the Timbers machine is overly complex, it has too many goddamn parts – and most of those don’t ever seem to fit together right – and it took far too goddamn long to function well, never mind as promised. And yet, isn't that glorious, mangled contraption working like gangbusters right now? I mean, holy shit, the goddamn thing works!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

MLS: Limping Numbly Between the First and Second Legs

Whoa. I know the 4-3-3.
Last night, after marching through two-and-a- half mini-games from last weekend's the first legs of Major League Soccer’s conference semifinals, I gave up watching. Just didn’t have the...jesus, don't even wanna finish that sentence. I later took to twitter to announce that I had nothing to add to the convo, so I wouldn't. Nice people affirmed my laziness and I thank them for their kindness (and their implied unwillingness to read shitty content). Smart generous people, every one, even that mooching little fuck, Tiny Tim.

This morning, however, I woke up with something to say. MLS has made some sense for, oh, these last few weeks. I'm not sure I like it. What I mean is that teams that performed well toward the end of the regular season and into the post-season have continued to do so; the clubs that hadn't done so hot, well, they moved to this great big farm in Canada, way the hell up there, where they're going to live happily ever after (everyone got this lie about their absent pets when they were kids, right?). In plain English, the bad clubs' seasons are over, the proverbial cream has risen up the playoff experience ladder, and, holy shit, the games matter.

And there's the rub: are they somehow less interesting for it? I'll elaborate...because I don't think this is clear (or, honestly, all that important, but I digress). 

When fans and pundits clock the conference semifinal pairings, it feels like it didn't take a ton of thought to tick through the list and come reasonably close to pegging the winners. I'm not claiming it's automatic – we're not talking my psychic ability to change traffic signals with my mind (possibly seeing what I want to see) – and, yeah, some good stuff and weird crap happened – e.g. away goals, the Montreal Impact's Didier Drogba sick assist on Columbus Crew SC's road goal (the man just can't stop scoring, people), his bizarre open-field tackle on Columbus 'keeper Steven Clark; the New York Red Bull's Ronald Zubar tried to kill a Finn (Markus Halsti) and receiving no caution, etc. – but nothing happened, really, that upset the cart, not in the big picture.

MLS is a lot of things, but predictable? Not bloody often, at least not during the regular season – aka, The Time When the Only Streaks Are Brown. All that irregularity (nice accidental choice of nouns!) makes the glut of regular season games some little bit more meaningless. On the other hand, unpredictability doesn't live all that far from excitement, so I feel a little something gets lost when things get predictable. It could just be I miss having something to wonder about. What is there to talk about really if all that's going to happen is what's expected?

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Timbers Draw Vancouver: Expectations Managed

Dear World: You're welcome.
Before getting into the meat of this thing, I want to state that I will post some thoughts on the first legs of the other three MLS Conference semifinals. It's only the mini-games for Montreal Impact v. Columbus Crew and Seattle Sounders v. FC Dallas. I sat all the way through DC United v. New York Red Bulls...of which I could say I have no regrets, but...

While we're on the mini-games, something struck me as I reviewed the (limited) tape for the Portland Timbers goal-less draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps. They're funny things, the mini-games, in that they inflate the competence and calamity of any given game. Don't know why that never hit me till today, but, yeah, that's a pretty distorted lens in the end. Have no goddamn clue how I'll adjust to that next season.

Wait, they're also the opportunity to pick up on little things one might have missed – e.g. because I watched the game with muffled sound, I didn't know that Taylor Twellman and Adrian Heath spotted a naked tricyclist in Portland last night. Ah, shine on Rose City, you crazy diamonds. I also missed how Madden-esque Twellman has become (e.g. obsessed with his own sometimes trivial fixations at time; see, potential concussions and theories on the state and presence of Steven Beitashour's wedding ring). There's a certain charm to it, really, Anyway, the game. The game, the game...

At least three people today told me that they were satisfied with the result, again the goal-less draw that, let's face it, anyone reading this post watched earlier today. Once one takes in all the factors – injuries/ailments to Diego "Mystery Ailment" Chara and Adam "Flu" Kwarasey, respectively, as well as a sometimes visible lack of rest (for some more than others) - that's a damned hard position to argue against. And I don't intend to argue against that, so much as to drag the result back to a kind of cold, neutral perspective. Because, to be clear, today's draw would pop little beads of sweat into Timbers fans' brows, and rightly so, under virtually any other set of circumstances. And so begins today's tale of acceptance...

Friday, October 30, 2015

Timbers Top KC: On the Most Epic Night in Portland Soccer History

We're all Patty Hearst now.
[Editor’s Note: The bastards at MLS Live have yet to release the full game to the archives and I don’t have cable. As such, the deeply detailed conclusion to this report, which I promised yesterday, yeah, that ain’t happenin’. Time’s too short.]

[A Note from Randall: I went through and chopped out some of the kudzu from the original post while Jeff’s back was turned. The man loves his words and analogies irrationally and too well.]

Between getting home late [Thursday] night, drinking all the water in the entire goddamn neighborhood, trying and failing to relax using a (literally) numbing variety of sleep aids, and waking [Friday] morning with a pack of wild dogs tearing at the wrinkled matter between my ears [we’re talking about one of those existential hangovers of the soul] […cut more stuff…], I had [to put off posting] anything about the Stockholm Syndrome spectacle that the Portland Timbers put its fans through last night until [today].

Having reviewed the [severely, unjustly limited] tape, I’m going to put [my best foot forward, the one without athlete’s foot] to [make some sense of that rare, magnificent thing, the genuine historic game]

…and I’m still coming to grips with how I’m not going to die in a bar Sunday afternoon from watching all those games. So, check your local news for that one ("Man Dies in a Hillsboro, Oregon Bar: Could This Story Be More Depressing?") We're talking David Blaine-level feats of street magic idiocy.

[Editor’s Note: Caught Randall, the little shit; locked him in cellar with a two pound bag of carrots and a case of Snapple. Everything’s below is different. Moving on.]

I’ll begin by saying that I learned a thing or two last night. For one, I learned that men over 40 should not yell for two straight hours. The medical term for this is “stroke risk.” Whatever, I earned it: the goddamn terrible ref (Armando Villarreal), whose series of coin-flippingly perverse decisions put health and safety at risk, let the physical crap get out of hand, and then came a penalty kick shoot-out that…that…look, the thing existed in a world beyond sensation, in spite of itself. The level and frequency of wobbly penalty shooting was enough to make a member of the English National Team blush; a less invested audience would have shifted out of tension and into impatience. And yet, could anyone at Providence Park have been anything short of all-in?

I want to pick up the Stockholm Syndrome theme because I think it’s endemic to sports fandom. The defining rule of one team per trophy means that, with each of Major League Soccer’s competitions, major (MLS Cup, the long lusted-after CCL trophy) and minor (U.S. Open Cup, Supporters’ Shield), means that 19 teams miss out every single time. For those 19 teams, a given fan’s peace of mind, his/her sense of the season, turns on how early into the journey his/her club falls. 12 of MLS’s 20 clubs are now officially out of the running for MLS Cup; only one of those, e.g. the same Sporking…ooh, typo, but I like and am sticking with it. Anyway, of all the clubs out of the running for MLS Cup, only the same Sporking KC club has a consolation/prize trophy to validate their season.

Stripped of variables like the quality of the players, a good coach at the helm, various curses (looking at you, Toronto FC) every team in MLS has a 5% chance of winning one of the three domestic trophies. Even with the variables in play, the sheer mass of vagaries built into MLS as a competition, argue in favor of sticking with that 5%. Basically, disappointment is the likeliest conclusion to any season for virtually every soccer fan in the country. And yet a fan is bound to his/her club. He or she pushed past expectations of disappointment, or even abuse for fans in Chicago, Colorado and Philadelphia, and just invests in the club. In that sense, then, fans are captives, sometimes abused ones, and yet they always love their captors.

The team rewards its fans on a good day: think of Thursday as the sort of day when our collective captors give us a little more chain and drop some fresh fruit into the will-sapping gruel they normally serve. Regardless, the Portland Timbers did us all a solid when they lugged their proverbial “big, brass balls” longer and further than they had to, or arguably should have. We all just witnessed history, which is a privilege anytime it actually happens. I know I’m thrilled I was there for it. Super fucking glad, honestly. It was an honor to share the evening with each and every person in that stadium, as well as the unknown thousands watching at home.

After putting up such ornate framing, it’s time to turn to the game, what happened in it and what it might mean going forward. Anyone who read this post’s first iteration knows that I cut and pasted the thing into something other than what it was (and something better, hopefully). One crucial confession, however, needs to stay in place: which I’ll preserve in the block quote below:
“Talking about what needs fixing is sort of this site’s Prime Directive. The urgency of a do-or-die game runs said Prime Directive right the fuck over: all I could see [Thursday night] was the ball and where it was or wasn’t going. I was too busy pleading with Timbers players and all the gods whose names my mouth could still form to get the ball in the correct fucking goal (this was a short list in the end, outside of gods named “Oowwauggghhh, FUCK!!!”). This lead to some weird things.

“First of all, I can only remember the goals that came in extra time: Krisztian Nemeth’s, the one that put KC up a goal late and forced my heart into my throat, and Maximiliano Urruti’s; but I only recall the latter as a bulge in the net. I only know who scored the other two (Rodney Wallace, for Portland, and Kevin Ellis for KC) from reading a couple write-ups today.”
I left in a couple hasty first impressions as well, but I’m only keeping the three I liked. Here are those:

- I want to nestle inside Nat Borchers’ beard for as long as this season continues. It bet it feels safe in there. (Just saying it again, Borchers has been excellent this season; second only to Diego Chara for me in terms of importance.)

- Things got steeply fucking worse when George Fochive came on. Last Word on Sports slipped a graph into its review (supplied by the Armchair Analyst) that pointed to a decision on Portland’s part to bunker and try to ride out the win. Whether or not that was true*, Fochive stood out time and again by playing the ball behind and generally away from teammates. By the time he stepped up to take his PK, I had zero faith that he’d put it away.

- * Oh yeah, Liam Ridgewell lumped a ball straight up the middle during this period, and..I think that’s when my voice gave out. And the little vessels in my brain went, “pop!”

OK, onto the new stuff.

As I read match recaps of game, the one idea that I kept coming across was Portland’s “domination” of the first half. This is precisely why I’m cranky about not being able to review all, or most of the full, archived game, because the 20-minute mini-game simply can’t capture this. Not being able to directly verify that – and I need to verify due to the gaps in memory and perception noted above – leaves me stumbling through this post like some stoned, half-prepared teenager trying to mumble his way to a solid C on an oral presentation. Again, fucking MLS Live. To carry on, dutifully…

Up to the point when Wallace scored Portland’s opener, that condensed game showed an early feast of corners for the Timbers, a couple cracks in the KC defense that Sporking quickly patched up (Matt Besler got a pretty big shout-out in ExtraTime Radio’s review), and a couple fouls by KC that most people (ETR’s neutral professionals included) agree could have been red cards (again, my frothing frustration with Villarreal is both fresh and totally justified). The box score gives Portland a meaningful edge in shots overall and…and…hold on, just digging into the interactivity of the box score feature. Holy shit. Anyone else know about this? Feel like I’m in one of your higher end science museum for kids. What’s this button do….ooohh…..

Anyway, the numbers that best match my memory of the game show up in Portland’s possession and passing accuracy stats. The accumulation of give-aways proved maddening by game’s end; as noted above, Fochive was terrible on this score, but he had plenty of co-conspirators by the end of the second half. Possession with Purpose forwarded a decently plausible theory that the shift brought on when Fochive came on for Lucas Melano cratered Portland’s possession by ceding too much of both the field and the ball to Sporking KC. Again, I thought I saw this earlier, again, I confessed to not remembering the goals, which are sorta a big deal, so take a big lick of salt before swallowing this here shot of tequila.

All in all, though, as much as the Timbers struck me as sloppy and impatient in possession (and I accept it got worse as the game wore on), the central feat of their performance comes with going to toe-to-toe against a Sporking team that often relies on “setting the tone” – or, non-euphemistically, they foul often, hard and with less shame than they ought. Maintaining that level against the Vancouver Whitecaps team that comes to visit tomorrow – i.e. well-rested and with a “robust” presence of their own in central midfield and defense – becomes a very real challenge, if not an area of concern. I expect Vancouver will let them play more than KC did, but cracking that strong, central core won’t come without some hammering. So, god damn the short turn-around.

Since I can’t dig deep on the game (grrr…), I thought I’d close with thoughts on the three Timbers players who received too little praise for the win, at least in my estimation. In no particular order…

Rodney Wallace
Fortunately, the mini-game featured enough data points to highlight Wallace’s considerable contribution to the win. He did more than score the scrappy, opening, coulda-been-a-winna goal (which he finished ever so well), e.g., how often he stretched KC vertically, he hard he battled on set-pieces, etc. etc. etc. It does even deeper, though. When I took a tour through the Conifers & Citrus archives for a sort of big-concept post a couple weeks back, I noted how often I gave positive notice to Wallace; a recount taken just now pulled six examples of uncomplicated praise for Rodney, and across the length of the season (there were also three instances where I advocated for throwing Wallace on the trash heap; still, twice as many good as bad!). The point is, Wallace enjoyed a solid 2015 and, for me, too few people gave his season the credit it has earned. A lot of the talk has centered on Melano since he came on board – and,  yes, that comes in both good word and bad – but Wallace does a very respectable job of opening up space for Portland. His decisions aren’t always perfect – Rodney flails in crosses and lost-cause shots with the best of ‘em – but he’s also a helluva an asset and an even better bargain.

Dairon Asprilla
Very few people I talk to rate Asprilla as highly (irrationally?) as I do; I even snuck in a compare/contrast with Melano in a modest little hit-piece on our young, costly Argie about a month ago. I’d also that Asprilla lent support to my estimation of him with that performance in extra time, and even during the shoot-out. Yeah, yeah, the assist is the obvious thing, but the mini-game also featured a strong dribble/distribution sequence that did Darlington Nagbe proud (think he was even the recipient). Asprilla didn’t get much opportunity to contribute this year, never mind shine. I view that as a mistake, even as I’m as hard-pressed as anyone to come up with how Caleb Porter, et al. fits him in. My two-word answer to that: squad rotation. Along with every club in MLS, the Timbers need more of it.

Maximiliano Urruti
Urruti did very well to knock in the goal that saved Portland’s season, because, hot fucking potato. Seriously, if you’ve ever tried to re-direct a ball moving that fast I’m confident it didn’t look nearly as good as Urruti’s did. It goes without saying that it hasn’t been Maxi’s year. It’s also fair to argue that, like Asprilla, he didn’t get much of a chance either. To be clear, Fanendo Adi earned his role as First Forward (thinking First Violin for some reason), but, 2) again, squad rotation, and 1) I think Urruti’s approach to the game syncs up fairly well with how I believe Portland attacks best…

…think I’ll leave it there, otherwise, I’ll go on for another two pages. I know there’s a reckoning coming with players like Asprilla and Urruti; there are others besides, but I think Wallace is safe (better be safe, dammit). I just think this is something that the Timbers organization needs to work through very carefully, and the above players’ contribution to an historic win shows why.

As for the Vancouver series, it sucks a little to acknowledge how damn unfavorably it lines up. Portland starts with a home game on heavy legs, followed by a road game. There is a key detail in the equation – namely, that both Portland and Vancouver travel well, 7-8-2versus 7-7-3, respectively. And that strikes a curious balance in that it alludes to the possibility that Vancouver could trouble a tired Portland club at home, while also staying open for return service in the second game at BC Place.

It’ll be very interesting to see how Portland plays that first leg. Wide-open sounds very dangerous on paper. I’ll close on that. Damn. If nothing else, 2015 ended really well.

Monday, October 26, 2015

MLS: The 2015 Play-In Primer

Id of the site.
Rather than pretend to actual, informed knowledge, I'm beginning this with the following confession/warning:
Sometime around the beginning of September, my interest in general Major League Soccer games and information slackens. For instance,'s Kick Off holds less interest – perhaps because they’re just not all that interesting any more. And when I watch the mini-games, I'm usually a bit looser than I am earlier in the season. Or I'm usually a bit tighter, depending on the era in which you're reading this (nice gams, btw). And, to dig a little deeper and pull the rest of the confession out of my pocket, I...I have skipped a mini-game or two. [Gasp!] It’s just that, things have taken a certain shape by this point of the season. Or at least I think I have. Whether that's right or wrong, well...I...
Look, I have nothing to add to that statement. Basically, at some unknown point in every MLS season – and this is since I can remember, honestly – a time comes when I feel like I know enough about each of MLS club that I can switch off a little. Or just I do. At least this year, I'm getting both information and confirmation on teams from podcasts, and that stuffs cotton in some of the gaps, but once I get the sense that the questions have run out...

I guess that's it. I stop having questions. Or maybe questions go past their expiration date at a certain point in any given season – for instance:

Q: Is the Chicago Fire going to turn it around?
A: They're not. They're just not.

OK, that's enough o' that shit. Time to talk, maybe even predict, the play-in round. As has been said (roughly) in the now immortal Bill O'Reilly clip, "fuck it, we'll just do it live! We're doing it live!" No, notes, no checking the web for information: it's just a full, big-picture state of...things. That pop in my head. It's like word association, just like a game of charades! Yes, this'll be fun. (It’s not going to be fun.) OK, time to get into it, and in order…well, some kind of order. I’m just going left to right on this thing.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Portland Rocks the Rapids: Happy!

31 weeks in the making, yo. Secret formula.
Well, that was fascinating. Twitter broke down halfway through – don't know if that's just my service provider, my phone, or Portland Timbers fans melting twitter (please let it be the latter) – so I couldn't launch (frankly, broadly ignored) bon mots throughout the course of the game. Still, holy shit, and welcome to the playoffs, Portland! And at a spot that lets you host the next round? Absolutely goddamn delectable! I'd like to think the club, the players, and the front office has been aging this particular barrel of grapes, so that it can age properly, but I'm closer to think it involved some kind of prison-specialty "home-brew," something utterly spontaneous, a little desperate, etc.. And yet, helluva win. Three straight wins with a goal differential clocking at 10 for and 3 against spells momentum in any tournament. And that's where Portland is right now, after a one-way railroad win over the Colorado Rapids. Can I get a huzzah?

As much as I talked about "unlocking Nagbe" across various posts and tweets over the past week, I'm nothing like sure it was that simple. Like it or not, the Timbers have MLS's most complicated player in no one thought Landon Donovan would pass that particular torch anyone, but there you go. What does he want most: it ("it" being optimal professional success and all its trappings), or the love of his children, or a trip to Cambodia, a week in a Vegas(-area) brothel? No one will ever know for sure, at least not until some specific set of data points gets settled definitively. All I know is that Nagbe picked it up the Burnished Crown of Inscrutability without anyone noticing. Or maybe he just picked up pieces of it. Jesus, is it hard to tell, or who?

Setting aside mysteries for now – these are questions that time will answer – Nagbe bought, owned, sold, and re-bought at an extraordinarily-inflated value Sunday night. He defined omnipresence by putting in a couple odd tackles in the defensive third, and carrying the ball out of the back on a minimum of [random number generator] five occasions[?]. At the same time, he popped up around the goal just as many times, whether to score, play in someone else to score, or to simply set off panic in Colorado’s defensive third. Put together - and, here, I'm talking less about tonight than the season as a whole - Nagbe played the engrossing role of the talented friend in the crowd. He attends your show and, knowing he's super fucking talented, you invite him on stage, where he proceeds to lay down a shredding guitar solo, a magic act, and a tap routine that changes fucking history. And without props or equipment. You're left to think, why the hell isn't he doing this every week and getting paid, son? Somewhere in there, you come to understand that you’re the kind to spot talent, rather than possess it. (Um, personal problems, as yet unresolved. Judy? Where are my anti-depressants?)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Portland Beat (the Crap) Out of LA: The Bearable Lightness of a Mystery Solved

Portrait of the author after Tuesday's ETR...
Last night, I decided to break my oft-stated vow to never watch a game a second time. That’s the space-time altering power of last Sunday’s win over the Los Angeles Galaxy. As all Timbers fans know, the game broke sharply in the Portland Timbers’ favor, and that’s a hard thing for long-time, occasionally-suffering Timbers fans to wrap their heads around mentally, psychically, even emotionally. Oft-punchless Portland dropping a five-spot? That’s freakin’ unheard of (this year). And contentment? That’s for people from places where clouds don’t blot out the sun. And happiness. Clearly, this situation recommended a little investigation into how chickens and eggs lined up, because repeatability is a goal when it comes to that kind of thing.

When I took in the mini-game on a midnight dreary (or blurry or hazy; or just Sunday night), I got the spirit all wrong: I took in the game the same way I’d enjoy a favorite movie – i.e. waiting for my favorite lines, so I could parrot that back to the screen and laugh like an idiot. Because I was watching soccer instead, I just smiled like a dork at each goal and whispered to myself, “just the best, right?” (Because my family hates soccer; hell, Judy barely cares and I haven’t seen Randall in weeks.)

That said, a devil in the details didn’t escape notice: 1) how was Dan Gargan left alone to block Fanendo Adi (that was Portland’s second)? 2) just where was Omar Gonzalez going when Nagbe hit LA with La Disjoncteur de Retour (Portland’s 4th; ht: google translate – that’s “back breaker” in French, a phrase I hereby introduce and hope to use often)? 3) you gotta sleep late and do something dumb to make Jorge (Villafana) look like Lionel (Messi) (the set up the Timbers’ fifth goal). Subtle, what-the-fuck qualities touched on even the “good” goals - e.g. 4) was Lucas Melano’s pass actually intended for Adi on the first goal; and 5) did Steven Gerrard miss Diego Chara’s run because he looked right over the wee Colombian’s head?

I don’t bring all the above up to sow seeds of doubt; I am not a fun-sucker (sun-fucker? maybe). Having now re-watched (as much of) the game (as I am willing to, e.g. the second half…but, hey, all of it; huh, who knew the vow would hold up), I can address all the above questions/statements as follows: 1) Omar Gonzalez had to step to Melano, thereby stranding “Sleepy” Dan Gargan; 2) off night for Omar all ‘round, really; 3) Leonardo’s flailing non-intervention played the parts of “late” and “dumb” to the hilt; 4) still think no (but helluva a job by Adi to corral it), and 5) nah, Gerrard just plain switched off.

Defensive mistakes are meant to be exploited, so the Timbers did nothing less than recognize the gift horse(s) and ride it (them) to a thrashing. Still, the Timbers did plenty right, starting with burying the kind of tricky chance they haven’t all season (thinking Adi’s first here). Moreover, Portland came back into the game like with the calm intent of a slasher movie villain who walks after his quarry, safe in the knowledge he’ll eventually run him/her down. Liam Ridgewell fired a pair of warning shots before the dam burst and it all came together in a slow, satisfying constriction that built pressure on LA until their weak spots (e.g. Leonadro) split at the seams and everything came undone.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

MLS Post-Season Handicapping. And a Little Mockery

Forgot the watermelon, motherfucker...
"....every team in @MLS has at least 10 losses. Never happened before."
- The Armchair Analyst, tweet, 10/19/2015
I'm fairly certain that I've argued IRL that 2015 has been one of Major League Soccer's weirder, more mediocre seasons; for all I know, I said the same somewhere in this site's archive. Whatever, it points to a deeper reality about MLS – i.e. that this league only rarely produces great teams. With allowances for argument, here's the short list: DC United's original (and slow-starting) team, or the Chicago Fire's first, Eastern-European-kissed outfit; the Houston Dynamo put together a consistent team, if not a great one, for a couple years' domination in the mid-aughts; a couple New England Revolution teams graced the same era by playing "Beautiful Losers"; one could also throw in the Columbus Crew's "Touch o' Argentina" '08 outfit (bit of a stretch; good team, though), or the exquisitely-balanced Real Salt Lake team that roared straight outta Sandy, Utah to become one of the league's steadiest sides until, oh, this weird 2015. There's probably a great Los Angeles Galaxy team in there, but fuck those guys. (OK, yes, goddammit; they're the pace-setters for MLS till further notice.)

A closer look at each of those clubs, and what they accomplished in the relevant seasons, would probably wipe some kind of smudge over their shine, but let's enjoy their memories even if we have to embellish a little.

This season, though. 2015? It's worse than a crap-shoot. It's just plain crap, albeit with a good collection of highlights in person and game-form. Overall, the quality presents less a spectacle of sporting excellence than asking fans to watch 20 teams try to haul an oiled-up watermelon to the top of a mud-pile. And that mud-pile is pretty fucking oiled up, too. Matt Doyle's tweet, quoted above forwards the spirit of the argument: whichever club wins MLS Cup at the end of this hillbilly wrasslin' fest won't brag too long, nor answer too loudly when asked about the latest, or even new, star that hangs over his club's crest...then again, me being me, I'd cherish the Portland Timbers winning MLS Cup this weird year that little bit more. I love all my chilluns', and the challenging ones a little more...

Speaking of the Timbers, here's something worth pointing out: the fan-base is restless (or it could be that my personal, most direct sample is demanding and fidgety?). Even if they can't agree on what changes to make, it/they generally want changes made to a team that's widely viewed as a couple steps behind good enough. To be clear, I am not casting aspersions here; go back through the archives of this thing and you will know petulance (see the time I had "nothing but contempt" for the club; yep, hissy fit; and yet it came in the most parental thing I've ever posted about the Timbers). Besides, what's so wrong about wanting the club that you ask Jesus to look after when you're signing off at night to be all of what they can be?

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Timbers Top RSL And Hope's Clever Disguise

We don't do silver linings here....
As I tweeted earlier today, there really isn't much left to say about the Portland Timbers in this 2015...and yet I found a way to say all kinds o' shit below. The central premise, though, is true: Portland will either make the Major League Soccer playoffs, or they will miss them. They took a big step toward tonight, with a 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake. The Timbers very probably put RSL's playoffs hopes to the sword...fuck it, they would have done the same to Portland given one single moment of brilliance...

That said, yes, I have to shit on the parade. Because rain isn't unpleasant enough, I have one big theme to address, one that puts no small amount of effort toward rubbing off the silver lining precisely to find the clouds. It grows from a mindset that I sensed around the people with whom I watched the game tonight. At game's end, the feeling expressed as a mixture of a lot of relief and a little shock: there was a sense of, holy shit, we won?

It's not so much shock, either: after all, the Timbers have picked 6 points out of the Rio Tinto safe this season. I'd also argue that Portland was the better team tonight – that's even before Jamison Olave got sent off fairly early in the second half. And yet, the...thing, whatever it is, hangs on a pair of thoughts, each of them containing a different impressions of Portland's offense. On the good nights, when Portland pounds the opposition goal with wave after wave of attacks (an endangered species in 2015), what pops into one's head is, "why won't the fucking ball go in?" Other nights, like tonight, when the attack is lean and opportunities few, the thoughts becomes a question: "can we steal it?" Those two diametrically opposed mindsets speak to vastly different impressions of one's team, and one of them shades toward the opposite of positive.

Tonight's win didn't require actual theft. Still, the game's lone goal resulted from the most basic, nakedly opportunistic approach in soccer – e.g. a ball over the top to a fast dude. Yep, Lucas Melano corralled a pass from Jorge Villafana (who should only get a secondary assist, with the first going to Melano's noggin) and out-ran two RSL defenders, until one of them (Olave) tripped his trailing leg on the edge of and/or just inside RSL's penalty area. Fanendo Adi took the ensuing, probably justified penalty kick (it wasn't a clear-cut call, but still a good one, for me), of which...

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

On Klinsmann: Feeling Cooler Heads With a Phrenologist’s Fine Hand

I sense...resistance to a certain line of thinking...
A couple good and wise posts went up earlier today. One sought to place Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure in a...let's go with a more grounded context, while the other clocked the tenor of broad, hysterically seething national outrage directed at Dear Jurgen and declared it...let's go with excessive.

For those new to this space, I have, in the past, joined the aforementioned chorus of "broad, hysterically seething national outrage"; it's possible that, in the past, I have blamed Klinsmann for everything from the most recent U.S. Men's National Team loss, through a minimum of two forms of cancer (yep, prostate; that's on him), and up to a general sense that, dang it, things just ain't what they used to be. Apple pie has tasted like straight-up shit for years, I tell you.

With that in mind, I just want to say: they're right. I tweeted both posts because both Will Parchman (first link above) and Wes Burdine (second link) offered strong arguments as to why we should all just calm the hell down. And, as both authors pointed out, that is not the same thing as not wanting Klinsmann gone. And I still want Klinsmann gone (and, frankly, I don't get the argument that Klinsmann swallowing a demotion to the role of technical director alone is a blow his ego couldn't sustain, because ego slightly bigger than Montana; pretty sure he can take it; yes, yes, but would he? Do you honestly think I care?).

Call those posts a welcome corrective, then, not unlike a friend calmly telling you to walk away from that dude who said something about your mom (really, dad? To mom? Jesus). With this post, I intend to walk through their points with two main thoughts in mind: 1) to attempt to explain just why Klinsmann pisses everyone off so very, very much (which is to Burdine's point); and 2) to take a stab at assessing where the U.S. Men are right now (which is, somewhat, to Parchman's) with the World Cup qualification cycle just about one month into the future.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

A Brief, Polite Comment on Last Night's Game (and U.S. Soccer's Hostage Situation)

What I'm watching for when I watch U.S. Soccer these days.
OK, I just read a whole bunch o' crap on the United States' Men's National Team loss to Mexico last night. Had to, really, because I can’t claim to know the U.S. team like I used to: while I watch all the games that count, I haven't caught a friendly in a couple years (virtually always scheduled during, or immediately after, work; I'm not taking time off for a friendly, people), and, on top of that, I only read closely about the games I watch.

It also bears noting that I wasn't all that invested in whether or not the U.S. won – e.g. see the argument here that the Confederations Cup is more a silly cash-cow than a worthwhile tournament – and, yes, I am 100% a card-carrying member of the angry mob that hunts Jurgen Klinsmann on Twitter and in other outlets, and have leaned that way since before 2014 (when I called a truce in support of shared rooting interest – e.g. the World Cup).

So, there they are, caveats express (e.g. I see the USMNT play about half dozen times a year) and implied (I don't know much about the players coming up to press the old guys). I don't have much to say about tactics, line-up, or actual game-play because I'm not familiar enough with the team to really dig in there, or to talk in anything but a general way. That said, let's start by picking up that second parenthetical...