"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.