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.

For reasons that bear no real remarking, I started tonight at a place called Tabbs in Cornelius, Oregon. It's not a bad place, if you’re ever out there, but it's not where I usually go. The Sports Look, home of the Panookie (which I have never tried, nor do I intend to), is where I typically take in games out where I live. It's a nice sports bar/bowling alley complex, a place that employs just goddamn nice people. And, like a lot of similar places, it's populated by its share of regulars. The staff aside, I don't always talk to everyone – or anyone, really – but tonight was different. Even with the NFL on damn near every channel (as often happens), I had more people than ever before ask me about the Timbers and how they were doing in the 2015 post-season.

More to the point, everyone who asked had at least a vague sense of where things stood in the series. Even a tipsy Baltimorean, a guy who had been abroad as recently as the (completely shitty) attacks in Paris, knew enough to ask whether Portland had made it past Dallas, after beating the Vancouver Whitecaps. Another guy, someone who I had seen before and who had watched a game near me – and this is a guy who looks all futbol Americano down to his [Team] hat and (I think) [Team] jersey – knew enough about the state of things to reasonably hold his own through not one, but a series of conversations.

The staff at the Sports Look was no less aware, but they've been tracking on some level for most the year. (I've asked all of them whether keeping tabs on most sports is part of the gig for a sports bar bartender and they all tell me that it's not all that vital; but I digress.) The people around me, people I've seen again and again, but to whom I've never spoken, those are the kinds of people who seem curious about the Timbers these days. And, holy shit, I can't tell you how new that is, at least culturally.

As with most old folks, I've probably told this story before, but, look, just bear with me. I remember the days when I could get a steak dinner for a nickel. A nickel, I tell you. OK, not that, but what I do remember are the days when getting a soccer game on in any sports bar meant enduring the contempt of the staff, persistent derision from every other patron in the bar, and never, never being able to get volume on the game, not for any reason at all, even if the only other thing on was a three-year-old re-run of America's Fucking Un-Funniest Home Videos. True, I've lived in places where this was more or less of a problem (e.g. Washington D.C. in the late 90s, or Boston in the later 90s), but, 1) it was never easy, and 2) more often than not, it meant going to the one place literally miles across town where a bar would reliably show games with sound and without complaint (I'm both looking at, and saluting, The Plough & Stars in Cambridge, MA, who fucking killed EPL coverage back in the day; still, if you know the town, you know that riding from Jamaica Plain to Cambridge super early in the morning meant downing a bag of lactose acid and dicks with the morning cuppa).

I'll set aside the ton of bullshit that passed between here and there (as well as the sheer magic of finding U.S. v. Belgium in a tiny New Mexico town at the tail end of a road trip (was it?) two years ago), and fast forward tonight. Most of the staff I know asked about the game tonight, but that's just customer service, with its equal portions of self-interest and wanting to be (at least) cordial to a familiar face. What struck me, though, was the way the staff talked amongst themselves about not just the game, but the particular result and what it meant; by that I mean, the staff knew details, even the away goal rule. I don't mean uniformly or at granular detail, but, by and large, they knew about the MLS playoffs in a way that equates pretty damn favorably to what they'd know about, say, the NBA playoffs, or even the NBA.

Interactions with the patrons, the NFL regulars in particular, get to something bigger still. As much as these were people who have seen me staring at, and barking in the general direction of, screens both small and silent, tonight was the first time several of them seriously engaged with me about the Timbers and soccer in general. Like the staff, they knew (generally) about where things stood, the concept of aggregate-goals series, etc. They were generic sports fans, in other words. More striking, though, was an interest in tactics – e.g. the general whys and wherefores of soccer. Here, it gets more interesting still.

The several NFL fans I talked to had some contact with the Timbers: one had attended the win over the Colorado Rapids, which, he reminded me ('cause I forgot), clinched Portland's place in the post-season (look, my memory is, frankly, fucking rotten on certain kinds of details). Another, as it happens, had been watching out of the corner of his eye for some time. The former, the one who had attended the Colorado game, recalled a wild, brilliant night in a place (Providence Park, obvs) that he'd never been before, but would very much like to go again. With the other guy, discussions, even arguments, ensued over tactics and formations; given the planning that goes into every single play of any given football game, this shouldn't surprise anyone. And when he asked me, "why does a player run to the end-line like that, essentially taking himself out of the play?" I did the best I could with it (e.g. some sort of logic that, like that play, often runs out).

The point is, these guys, along with the staff, were interested. They wanted to know how soccer works, they wanted to engage it on the same level that they engage the NFL. Maybe they grew up with it on some level, or maybe they're just getting caught in the considerable, local hype inherent to Portland's particular market (face it; the Timbers are sorta big here); whatever, I had discussions and arguments with football fans about soccer formations (which, in fascinating contrast, they view in really rigid terms), the impact of weather and altitude on a game, and the differences in conditioning, and, yes, why they like football better than soccer (yeah, that happens – and nothing wrong with it). One guy even mused about why he watches the NFL at all any more given the domestic abuse bullshit (and, to answer the obvious question, no, I didn't have the heart to tell him about FIFA's god-fucking-awful track record of serial amorality).

There is a counter-point to this, one that involved me asking a shit-ton of questions about the NFL, a sport I know well enough and a league on which my information is about, oh, 20 years outdated. I started by asking them about what's going on in the NFL; I showed (sincere) interest in their whys and wherefores and that opened the conversation to MLS's and soccer's whys and wherefores. The point here is two-fold: 1) I think this is how fans come to the game, and 2) even if they don’t come to the game, I had some really cool fucking conversations tonight. So, yay!

Again, I'll dig into the particulars of Portland's win over Dallas...shit, I mean the draw over Dallas, and the win over the series, not to mention Columbus' cool suffocation of New York (a phrase that, can we all agree, will never be uttered again, at least not till global warming drowns the Big Apple?). That'll come Saturday. I think. Tonight, though, I'm mostly fascinated about how the game grows here, in the United States of America. I think I saw the actual organic process tonight. As much as I like to think I was born with the gene, it's likelier that some other part of my psyche opened up and invited in soccer. It could have been as simple as Soccer Made in Germany being the thing I did when I didn't have to go to church (trust me; it's hard to cherish anything as much as that).

The angels call to different people in different tongues in the end, but I do get the very real sense that the Army is growing - and at a really good time, at least in terms of this whole thing catching fire. I mean, think of what it could be like. Maybe an entire generation of fans tells their kids that they caught the fever the year the Portland Timbers went to MLS Cup. Hell, they might even remember the year when the team won the whole goddamn thing... that what the fan base really wants. I mean, the Portland Trailblazers won the NBA Championship in (was it?) 1977? Since then, though...well, if nothing else, at least the love is still there. Anyway, till Saturday.

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