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.