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...