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?

As the game clock counted up to 90:00 (plus stoppage time), it became increasingly clear that Columbus Crew SC would never score. Portland had scored two early and all signs pointed to those standing as long as Leningrad – and without the intense discomfort. With that, the last 30 minutes of MLS Cup amounted to waiting for a clock count up to 90:00 (again, plus stoppage time). It took a few days to figure out what was missing (well, that and getting past envying an entire city full of people blessed with a capacity to be uncomplicatedly happy about something so utterly uncomplicated as one's team lifting a major trophy; fuck that, the major trophy of their particular league; and, btw, I disagree with the order in that link). What I missed, though, was both big and legitimate – i.e. that sweet, buzzing sense of tension that makes spectator sports worth watching. Success barely feels like success without the risk of failure and, last Sunday, the risk of failure ended at the 60th minute.

It took some therapy (in the form of many long conversations with myself (I am my own therapist; the hourly rates are entirely reasonable) in the various bathrooms I pass through in my life) to process these emotions, or lack thereof. Today, I have words for this important distinction: I wanted EXCITEMENT, and expected it, but when the Timbers won MLS Cup I just felt...satisfaction. The whole thing – the plan, the mission, the dream (HT: The Thermals) – it all worked. A tighter game, even watching the Timbers roar back from an early deficit (as Crew SC failed to do), that would have been exciting. Then again, it also would have muddied the narrative of the Portland Timbers 2015 season. Hmm...needs reframing.

When was the last time I actually worried about the Portland Timbers losing a game?

I'm going with the post-season play-in game against Sporting Kansas City. Winning that game, improbably as it happened, exorcised demons of seasons past, along with the haunting whispers about throwing away points, or even just plain choking. After that win, Portland stepped onto the field with their front foot until they walked onto the winner's dais at MLS Cup: FC Dallas loomed large till Portland punched first and kicked last in the home leg of the Western Conference finals. Prior to that, the Timbers put a moribund Vancouver Whitecaps side out of its misery; the 'Caps, having lost their thread right around the same time Portland had seized theirs and started their ascent toward the heavens, never had a chance. With that in the background, Columbus' wounds looked fatal immediately after Rodney Wallace knocked in the Timbers' Tainted Goal (may it forever live on as a capitalized term, a la The Hand of God (see, World: building our own legend)). The worry that Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter would breathe fire during his halftime speech and send out his players with a bonfire under their butts lasted about 10 minutes into that second half. Never happened, obviously. And, so Portland won the Cup.

I guess my point is that the Portland Timbers won MLS Cup quite a bit before Sunday: the win over Columbus just put a bow on it. Call it the difference between earning your degree and walking at graduation: the ceremony is bullshit, but the hard work, that's what really counts. 2015 was the story of hours spent in lab and lecture hall, of arriving at that place of perfect balance, to where the machinery fit together and spun the right way. And that took eight months. Eight months of ripping out hair, watching friends grasp for the right words to explain what wasn't working and why (and, gods know, I've done my share), which players they'd bench, or even trade (here's a dirty little secret). Viewed through uptight eyes, things looked bleak for much of the season. Put that another way, raise your hand if, back even as late as August, you truly believed Portland would win MLS Cup. If you're raising your hand right now, 1) I can't see you; 2) you're a liar.

So, MLS Cup, The Event, left me feeling somewhat flat. Or just...chill (non-sexual; there were ample witnesses). I just didn't expect that. I'll tell you something, though: I loved the regular season, i.e. the work and process that got Portland to where they wound up. That's what I value and what I'll ultimately remember about the, frankly, miraculous 2015 MLS season. This post is presented as a memorial to that and, ideally, it will live on as long as the Internet. (Stay my itchy delete finger, for it is a-twitchin'.) Failing that, I hope it lives as long as people search terms like "Portland Timbers" and "MLS Cup." It'll probably help if they slip "Conifers" into their search, too...

Also, rather than bury it at the end (for I do go on), I also want to say how thankful I am to have met so many...just goddamn good and nice people over the course of this season. It's been a pleasure and I look forward to working with, and seeing, all y'all next season and, hopefully, for many seasons to come.

On to the review. Of which...

I'll begin by passing out a couple grains of salt. I said and wrote some stupid shit this season: call that a confession. It took me weeks to embrace Fanendo Adi, and even then I "hugged him back" only grudgingly. Why, just this past week, I pleaded with the Timbers brain-trust to come out cautious in MLS Cup, which would have meant no Diego Valeri charging over Steve Clark to score the fastest goal in MLS Cup history. Then there's The Big One: yes, I contemplated trading Darlington Nagbe. So, yeah, I got some stuff wrong, turned into a blind alley or two and kept right on walking as if the wall would move, etc. Still, I can defend the Nagbe thing, because it both came before The Switch and argued for it (honest; hit the last link, it's in there).

Ah, "The Switch": the decision to pull Nagbe from the wing and into central midfield and to pull Diego Chara (aka, The Little Engine That Absolutely Will) a little deeper still. That sucker will be...whichever ventricle pulses oxygenated blood into the body. Basically, I expect that The Switch to be the beating heart of most narratives about the Timbers' proverbial Happy Ending (again, not a proverb; would have made a brilliant image, though). That's justifiable to a large extent: with Chara more dedicated to covering the defense, an already stout defense became a wall. Nagbe, for his part, proved a capable defender, which was just swell (thanks!), but the switch also improved the control and lethality of the Timbers' transition from defense to offense. Nagbe could run from a deeper position with Valeri, or Wallace, or Adi, or Dairon Asprilla or Lucas Melano running in front of him at a back-pedaling defense. The Timbers attack best from the deep, as argued here; that could be a pet theory, but I'm sticking to it.

All the same, too much emphasis on The Switch buries a couple realities. For one, that late, hot run would have piled up into a small hill of dicks had the Timbers failed to hold a high enough spot in the table. The team hit the level courtesy of a solid – and pre-The Switch – run from May 9 to July 5; they went 7-3-0 over that time, and even snuck four straight W's. It was a little funky in that it happened slightly after I thought it would (or, really, should; see talk of "soft stretch of May"): after stumbling against Montreal, Houston, and Toronto (all away games, it bears noting, especially in light of the Timbers later, well-deserved "road-warrior" rep), the Timbers went on to beat: DC and the New England Revolution (this was back when people thought highly of both), before going on to pound on the Seattle Sounders twice in the month of June, the last of them hard enough to fry their northern neighbors' wiring (just...savor that second moment afresh, for it was holy). This passage of steely victories has already been forgotten in all likelihood, quite possibly because it lacks a narrative to explain it (see: Switch, The). Still, it happened and that bears marking.

Now, assuming Timbers fans are willing to stare the suppressed memories full in the face, things went pretty goddamn wobbly after those 10 games: Portland went 2-4-4 over the ensuing 10 games (symmetry!). Dig into the details and it gets worse: the Timbers could only beat lowly clubs like the Chicago Fire and Real Salt Lake – and, then, only by one thin goal – but even those crap wins shared space with a blowout loss to the Philadelphia Union (by 3 goals?!), as well as a good ol' fashion Texas ass-whuppin' by Dallas. The goal-differential was crap (7 goals for v. 13 against), etc. The Timbers pulled out of that swoon, literally, in the nick of time and, that's when they started with the whole making history thing – MLS Cup-winning history.

I wonder what each of us will tell our kids about The Switch as the years go by. My guess is that what happens in 2016 will go a long ways toward defining its legend.

Speaking of legends, who remembers the start of the season, when all anyone could talk about was the missing, walking wounded? Here, tragedy and triumph mingle because only one man came all the way back. After putting in a pretty anonymous season – I swear that Valeri returned "fer reals" at least half a dozen times after his first appearance in May – every fan's first or second favorite Diego (your choice) turned pivotal in the post-season, whether through the slick set-up play during the win over Dallas or hitting Crew SC with a reverse shocker (fingers go to opposite holes, basically) 30 short seconds into Sunday's game. All in all, it's gonna take one Hell of a player to knock Valeri out of Timbers' fans memories. Just...thanks, Diego.

And that brings us to Johnson. The talk tells us that Will Johnson will leave Portland and that's not bittersweet; it's just bitter. The man just bled for the club: he claimed the captain's armband by giving a quantity of shit too large to overlook. Johnson did come back this year – I even saw talismanic qualities in him for about a month – but, as the season waned, and as each successive line-up came out, Johnson's name stopped showing up. The club couldn't find a place for him in the end, something that seems almost exotically perverse after 2013 and 2014. I can't recall a time when anyone pinned Portland's various woes on him. I guess that's all a long way of saying, vaya con dios, Mr. Johnson, and bon chance in your next stop.

Portland survived those absences, and others, in a number of ways. George Fochive enjoyed some time at the d-mid role, but faded after starting strong. Anytime either Nat Borchers or Liam Ridgewell missed a game – and this was blessed rare for both of them – a much-improved Norberto Paparatto (who has devoted fans) stepped in. If Alvas Powell screws up too much or too often, Timbers fans can now relax knowing that Taylor Peay can step in. That said, no Timber player filled in as selflessly and with such reliable effect as Jack "Salty Dog" Jewsbury. At least two of his three goals stood up as late winners – including a last-gasp, no-look oddball that swiped three points at home against the San Jose Earthquakes. I don't do faith well, so I fretted about Jewsbury's legs giving out all season, and I'll be damned if the old bastard didn't carry on with enough professionalism and consistency all the way into the playoffs. Son of a toothy bitch...or toothy son of a bitch...shit, which is better? Or less worse?

It feels weird, maybe even a little unjust, to have gone this deep into reviewing the Timbers 2015 while naming Borchers and Ridgewell only once; the earlier, generic reference to "defense" doesn't remotely make up for it. Same for goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey, who grew in my estimation with each successive post-game report. The beautiful game isn't so beautiful for defenders, I suppose, who often find themselves toiling in the shadows of the gaudy whores who play closer to the opposition goal. Borchers enjoyed a lot of spotlight – and righteously so – but I think the clearest tribute I can provide to any of these three players comes in one word: gods. They held Portland's shit together all season long, even when some notable stuff kept slippin'.

While the defense (generally) took care of business (seriously, check the Results Map and you'll see some shit losses), the same can't be said for the Timbers' attack. Ineffectual approach play and wayward aim put a ceiling on the Timbers' ambitions till the very end of the year. Small surprise, then, that the fan-base spent so much of the season raging over which player should start between Adi and Maximiliano Urruti; the now-departed Gaston Fernandez ducked in and out of that same mix as well (and I, uh, called him the team's "third arm" here....sheesh, man). Nearly two-thirds of the season was gone before Adi put the question to rest the only way a striker can – by scoring goals, more than any other Timber ever has. He doubled-down with hugely improved hold-up play – which some have put down to something simple as opting to body up instead of flopping for fouls – and other players benefited from that shift (see: Chara, Diego, for just one example).

Over a series of arguments (including one loose piece of madness early in the year when I told a friend I'd rather have Blas Perez than Adi), I arrived at a working theory that, when it comes to scoring goals, Adi functions best as something of a poacher. By season's end, he had honed the turn-'n'-shoot Timbers fans saw against FC Dallas into something uniquely lethal. With that, though, Urruti becomes another Timber in need a fond farewell. And...jesus. I'll be damned if it isn't sinking in at long last: the team, this small collection of super-talented humanity that every Timbers fan praised and damned since last won’t be the same next year. Sure, it'll be most of the same, but...damn. Just damn. Time to start the grieving process, yes?

There's a shock silver lining in all this, or least one that's a shock in context. Portland's general manager, Gavin Wilkinson, is a long-time hate-magnet for Timbers fans. Love him or hate him, one fact bears no dispute: Wilkinson built the team that just lifted MLS Cup. He didn't do it alone, obviously, and, at times, it got damned hard to see the path due to how the weeds grew over it, but the reality is that the Timbers brain-trust pulled together a team good enough to end 2015 on a flat-out crazy run, one that, since October 14, 2015, featured zero losses, three draws (yep, counting the play-in win over KC as a draw), and six wins. That's 6-1-3, and with a +12 goal differential – that's 21 goals scored, and just nine allowed. Fucking nuts, people.

So, yeah, Portland will lose some players – and, holy shit, I haven't even mentioned Jorge Villafana, the player appreciated most by gentlemen (because I'm trying to write something shorter than the Bible), who also appears to be heading for the checkout counter – but the Timbers have done a deceptively great job of building a team. It survived injuries, bringing in players not just new to Portland, but new to MLS, and, to top it all off, they brought in one player who, more than a few people feel, anchored the one great (if debatable) constant of the 2015 season – that'd be Borchers and the defense, respectively.

That's it, one man's version of the story of a championship team and the Portland Timbers' 2015 season. And that's where this site ends. I'll start posting another site, one called the PTFC Collective starting...soon, maybe as early as next week. I struggled a little with how to close down this site, at least until the Portland Timbers went and won MLS Goddamn Cup. Again, wow. I did this for another reason, too: I like British TV and Mexican telenovelas because they understand the artistic wisdom of ending a story where it ought. Open-ended serials, those favored by American show-runners, nearly all of whom want to keep on going so long as the cash rolls in, end up with pointless, endless subversions of the plot (doesn't matter, buddy, not so long as it ends in a "must-see wedding event" - this is Randall, signing off; internship ran out). So, yeah, why not walk away clean, and with the Happiest of Endings to boot. 2015 will forever be the annus mirabilis in the lives of tens of thousands of Portlanders, as well as their various fifth columns across the country (solidarity, brothers and sisters!!).

I want to circle back to the sensation of watching MLS Cup because something profound lurks in the there. I held one absolutely clear opinion in my head going into that game: I believed that Portland had made the most of the players they had. It didn't matter if they won or lost, really, because something like that would turn on whether or not they had a good day or a bad one. They had a great day, in the end – one well better than the av-e-rage day, certainly – a game in which they parried Crew SC's attack with the wooden calm of Neo from The Matrix (perhaps because Keanu Reeves  knows only wooden), blocking punches and dodging bullets until the clocks expired, heads dropped, and the city of Portland noisily celebrated the second championship since the Portland Trailblazers topped the NBA in, fuck it. Not my beat man.

It took most of week to fully comprehend how I watched the game: as the nodding, softly smiling sensai at the end of one of those sports and/or coming-of-age movie montages. Those always end with the hero saving the day and getting the girl, right? So it goes.

So, from me, Judy, and Randall, that's it, folks. The End.

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