I call it the Curse of the Simpsons Soccer Episode. You know the one: Bart and Lisa show up at the stadium revved up to check out the World's Most Popular Sport (tm)...and get nothing more than "to the center...out to the wing...back to the center..." To wit, every time I talk one of my non-futbol friends into checking out a match, it ends up being pretty dire.
At half-time of last night's Portland Timbers v. Seattle Sounders hate-cup tie at PGE Park, my pal the Norwegian (big Vikings fan...big) and I repaired to the concourses. "Um, well," I said. "At this level of soccer, you kind of have to use your imagination." He said he was cool with it. I don't know that I was.
I know, I know. The Timbers are in Year One (or should that be the more dramatic "Year Zero"?) of a self-professed three-year rebuild. New gaffman Gavin Wilkinson gave us all plenty of warning: we aim to contend for one of the eight playoff spots in the 12-team USL First Division, nothing more. That implies the Verdes will be scrapping for every point, and with a home win, a tight away loss and last night's not-much-deserved 2 :: 2 home draw, that is certainly the case so far. I guess you could say everything's going according to plan.
But that's rationality talking, and rationality is a stranger to the terraces during the 90 minutes between whistles. When your side is up against Evil Made Flesh, you don't want to see incremental progress, you want to see an epochal stand—Gandalf versus the Balrog, Rocky pummelling Dolph Lundgren, some shit out of that new gay porn Greek army snuff flick 300 (not that there's anything wrong with that). Instead, ye olde "announced crowd" of 5,700+ got a solid 75 minutes of "up in the air...over to the side...up in the air..."
Matches on the dreadful PGE Park surface always resemble full-contact volleyball. We know this. But the Sounders—taller, burlier, and most gallingly much smoother than the herky-jerky Timbers—coped with it better than the home side. They slit the central defense like a snitch at Sturgis inside ten minutes, and generally bossed the first half. The early insertion of human timebomb Tom Poltl said a lot about the Timbers' lack of edge in a match that is usually something close to a street fight. Poltl did his usual rabid terrier impression—good stuff as ever, and an inspiration to those of us born with out such intangibles as finesse and grace. Unfortunately, it took another 40 minutes, and another concession, before the Timbers knocked off the disjointed airball shite and started to jab for real.
After going down 2-0 (and after each side had a goal semi-dubiously disallowed), Portland got its flow on. Oregon State grad (and you can't lick them Beavers!) Bryan Jordan looks like the real deal—a sparky, duck-and-weave forward who's a threat every time the ball is at his feet. He lanced in the first fight-back goal, then put Andrew "The Angriest Smurf" Gregor on the spot by taking a mauling at the top of the area. Presto-chango, the Timbers nabbed a point from more or less nothing; the Army (in decent voice all night) had something to sing about; laps of honor were taken, etc.
It doesn't change the fact that this one was three-quarters godawful. There wasn't even much of the venom and spite one depends on these Seattle fixtures to provide. Ah, well. We got through it. One shudders to think what Sunday's match against the ever-powerful Ragin' Rhinos of Rochester will bring.
Meanwhile, we were left to ponder the emotional conundrum of Hugo Alcaraz-Cuellar. Long the Timbers' most elegant player, OOO-go left for Seattle over the off-season. Just business, understand—nothing personal. So while the Army extolled Gregor—any self-respecting Timbers fan would have described him as a combination war criminal/loan shark/bicycle thief last year—we booed Hugo. Booed the man we used to drink with at the Bull Pen. And even so, he was still the only player on the pitch with a touch of art about him.
Painful. But in the immortal words of Flavor Flav, that's the way the ball bounces, G.