Thursday, September 27, 2007


If reports like this one are to be believed, the Hated Seattle Sounders are on the verge of making the leap to Major League Soccer. (Nevermind the fact that they're also on the verge of the USL First Division championship; that's a subject too painful to delve into.) It seems that after years of begging and threatening to move to every other cowtown on Puget Sound, Seattle drummed up the sugar daddies needed to make the leap to the big circuit. (A solid fanbase? Eh, we'll get to that later. Hey, we sold out a friendly!)

This, of course, threatens to leave the Portland Timbers without their most loathed rivals, condemned to a future of "heated" games against Victoria United or Burnaby Rovers or whatever other club emerges from the BC hinterlands to claim the Sounders' place. That's despite—and I will go on record here—boasting a hardcore supporters section that's larger and louder than anything MLS has to offer, and despite consistently turning out more paying fans than Seattle. (Success on the pitch? Eh, we'll get to that later. Hey, we have bagpipes!)

Memo to MLS: Seattle. Portland. This is a match made in Hades, and one you would do well to incorporate into your showbiz plans. The rivalry between the two cities was never in danger of cooling...but now it just got a whole...LOT...HOTTTTTTER.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Standard-Issue Heartbreak

Penalties. The very word is like a curse—like divorce, something occasionally necessary as a last resort but never a happy affair for anyone involved, and very often a scarring tragedy for the most fragile people involved. (In marriage, it's the kids. In soccer, it's the fans. In both cases, professional counseling is often needed.) After 210 minutes of deadlocked soccer, the Atlanta Silverbacks ended the Portland Timbers' season last night. On f______ penalties. We're okay. No, really, we're okay. We're okay, we're okay, we're okay....

The game itself was a classic bit of United Soccer Leagues nastiness, half wrestling match and half chess game between two middling grand masters both playing black. The Timbers looked like the better side through this meatgrinder, playing more positively and even sometimes flashing a little art. (Andrew Gregor—backheel?!?) Atlanta—well, they were tall. At the same time, Portland didn't really get in there too often, and when they did they produced only a few moments of danger. A great run by Bryan Jordan in the first half should have yielded a penalty, unless FIFA pulled a stealth rule change to permit defenders to shove forwards over the endline. A trickling header in extra time kissed the post and popped straight into the hands of Atlanta's keeper, who looked as surprised as anyone. Otherwise, too many long balls went in eccentric directions, and too much play was lost in the midfield.

And then the penalties—some of the worst penalties I've ever seen taken, and that includes both sides. The Silverbacks bagged a few, though, and it was enough to end Portland's improbable bid for the tarnished plastic crown that is the First Division title. Defeat (or as Al Gore might call it, the little-known third category) doesn't take away from the fact that some very special things happened in Soccer City this year. You only had to look around the overflow Timbers Army—trumpets and bagpipes and banners and a thing that sounded like Tolkien's Horn of Gondor—and see the way the large crowd in other sections responded to the hardcores' frantic harangues. This club has become a cultural juggernaut. I saw a lot of faces that have been there from the beginning, when there were maybe 50 people standing behind the north goal. And I saw a lot of kids who were probably about eight back then, and who've made the Timbers a big part of their lives. The Army, a populist uprising against everything boring and packaged in fandom today, is a thing of beauty. But now it goes away for awhile.

After the brutal conclusion, the Timbers made their ceremonial lap around the ground. How many of these guys will be back? One just never knows—life in the USL, in its tenuousness, resembles actual life to an uncomfortable degree. This team wasn't supposed to do anything, but it did. The boys lined up, linked hands, raised their arms and bowed like a theatrical troupe after the curtain. Show's over—just a little standard-issue heartbreak, and it's done.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Requiem for a Special One

MASSSSSSSIVE day in football news. The Eleven Devils Editorial Suite was abuzz with the ownership tangle at Arsenal—why must all Premiership takeover dramas involve either shadowy post-Soviet steel magnates or American plutocrats or both? why can't anyone nice ever chuck in a bid?—when the Execution of Jose flashed across the wires.

I'm hardly a Chelsea fan (no, that's my in every family, &c....), but it is sad that the Poshest have now lost their one asset guaranteed, week in and out, to entertain. Heavens know that the dreary grind of Drogbaball isn't keeping anyone riveted, but bless 'im, you could always count on Jose Mourniho. Many found the manager's trademark existential-Surrealist-magical-egotist style "annoying" or "grating". I guess it's just like caviar or certain pungent Gallic cheeses: an acquired taste.

We probably won't be long deprived. The geniuses on the email list shared by my futsal team, the Mighty Unicorns, already arrived at the perfect next mission for Mourinho: taking the helm of the Los Angeles BeckhamStars after this rancid season ends and Frank Yallop and Alexi Lalas receive their inevitable pink slips. Jose + Hollywood = Pure Potential. If MLS Commish Don Garber can take a moment from his next Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Omaha or Tuscaloosa or ______________, he should jump on his mobile. Tell Jose he will have friends here. He will be loved. We understand his kind...not really, but tell him that.

Meanwhile, let us leave Jose Mourinho with a piece of his own deep philosophy:

"So I know all about the ups and downs of football. I know that one day I will be sacked."

Monday, September 17, 2007


Funny thing, life. Just a year ago, if you'd asked a fan of the Portland Timbers about one Andrew Gregor, they would likely have intimated that he was just the sort of chap who, given different circumstances, could have served as Slobodan Milosevic's confidential personal assistant or worked as an expediter in the white-slave trade. Of course, he was a Seattle Sounder back then. Now, he's a Timbers hero—his fizzy little outside shot skipped over a hapless Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeper and bounded into the net in front of the frothy Timbers Army with the joyful verve of a young bunny. It was the goal the Timbers needed to win their aggregate quarterfinal series against the 'Caps (though they'd add one more). And it was occasion for Gregor, who has the steel nerves and icy blood of a veteran mercenary, to stand stock-still with his fists in the air as his green-clad Timber mates swarmed him.

A very nice moment on a good afternoon of (s)crappy, edgy, ragged-in-a-good-way United Soccer Leagues First Division playoff action—a perfect day for football, from the cup-tie atmosphere to the gray, cool Englandy skies. The Eleven Devils Press Team watched the match from the sedate confines of PGE Park's family section, surrounded by squealing seven-year-old girls and their fathers, who repeatedly informed their charges that "we're rooting for the green team, the greeeeeeeen team, they're trying to get the ball in this net over here..." Ah well. Sometimes football isn't perfect, but it's never all that bad, anyway.

Now, the Timbers "return on success" amounts to a two-legged tie with the Atlanta Silverbacks. That's one long-ass flight to ATL for Friday, followed by a similarly long-ass flight home for the Sunday finale. That's the glamor and prestige of the USL for you. In any case, the hated Seattle Sounders are even worse off, with their first semifinal match slated for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. And thus we find ourselves torn: assuming, of course, that the Timbers can make the Final, do we want the Sounders to lose to the Islanders, thus ensuring our rivals' humiliation and a theoretically weaker opponent for Portland...or do we want the Sounders to win, setting up the apocalyptic Mother of All Battles in the Final?

You tell me.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The UnBeautiful Game

"I don't get all the 'beautiful game' stuff," my pal and Albina-Going Football Club teammate Liverpool Mike once said. "I mean, sure—if you can play beautifully, go for it. But if you can't, you still have to try to win, right?"

Understand that LM pines for the days when English clubs made it through their seasons with squads of just 14 or 15 players; when the European Cup was a straight-no-chaser series of two-legged ties, no group stage fancy-pantsing on behalf of the big clubs' bankers. One might fairly describe his football aesthetic as old school. Thing is, though, he's right—in our zeal for football's artistry, fans (I'd say particularly us yanquis) neglect the truth that soccer is more often a game of grit, cojones and guile.

All this springs to mind because the Portland Timbers, our beloved USL First Division battleaxes, just barged their way through an astonishing (relatively) season of success. Beaten just five times in regular-season play, the Green Machine now looks to parlay second place in the table into a playoff championship. The knock-outs begin this week with a tie against the hated Vancouver Whitecaps...and, as Eleven Devils predicted, could possibly lead to a meeting with the super-duper-hated Seattle Sounders in the league final.

Manager Gavin Wilkinson, a brass-knuckles defender from New Zealand whose very being defines "blue-collar ethic," deserves enormous credit, and possibly a job as an MLS turn-around specialist. (If Sexy Jurgen doesn't take the LA job...) Taking over after the toxic reign of Chris "Where Is He Now?" Agnello, Wilko forged a low-low-budget team of rookies and veteran roustabouts into a steely side. That was after he lost (or bid adieu to) long-time Latin heartthrobs Hugo Alcaraz-Cuellar and Byron Alvarez, the Timbers' perennial flair players, to free transfers. The soft bigotry of low expectations greeted the revamped side; I think we were all hoping for a semi-respectable mid-table finish.

How did they do it? The scorelines tell the tale: 0-0; 1-0; 2-1; 1-0; 2-2; 0-0; 0-0; 1-1...On one occasion, the Timbers scored four goals; another time, they scored three. Those delirious outbursts both came against a team named, for satirical purposes, the California Victory, and represented the most free-wheeling good times the Timbers had this season. Other than that, it's been raw determination, canny defending and goalkeeping. Pretty? Well, I haven't been to many matches, but it doesn't sound pretty to me.

On the other hand, does it really matter? When you have no money, play a league schedule designed to brutalize and wear down players and face uncertain future prospects (as the Timbers always have faced), are you under obligation to play beautifully? Or an obligation to leave it all on the field, playing whatever bucket-of-bolts style you can hammer together? I'd say the latter. It may not be a great advertisement for the game, but this time around, it might be good enough for a cup.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Clear Space in the Psych Ward

England has a couple of games coming up. That means things are going to get weird.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

You Know That Real Madrid is Behind This...Somehow

The Spanish FA, acting on behalf of the Monarchy, the State and the Last Crusade, put the kibosh on Team USA's odd (but awesome) scheduled friendly against Catalunya. Leaving aside the issue of why (or why not) non-national regions can't (or can) field national teams (unless they happen to be Wales...or something), this obviously leaves a gap in the schedule.

I suggest that CASCADIA call the US Soccer Federation without delay.