An ex-friend of mine used to like to say at stressful moments in his soccer coaching career: "Soccer is a cruel game."I tend to believe that. And I think that is why I love the game the way I do.
Football is combination gladiatorial game, circus and reality TV serial. Baseball is a Norman Rockwell picture painted in greed and statistics. Basketball is modern U.S. urban life dissected into 12-minute quarters.
But at bottom they are just games, intended to be lively, diverting and fun. They are intended to titillate the spectator with displays of athletic showmanship highlighted with lots of scoring.
Soccer has some aspects of that, obviously. But soccer is also the one major sport that often features long stretches of play without scoring. There is no shot clock, no downs, no outs...if you want to and can you can spend a lot of game time passing the ball about aimlessly.And soccer is a game that features many, many moments of agonizing disappointment. For every wondrous goal the true fan will see many, many more wide shots, rebounds off posts and crossbars, pure misses, ugly tackles, errant passes and crosses...perhaps the most characteristic sound the real fan hears isn't the roar of celebration but the moan of a great shot tipped round the post, the outraged bellows of clumsy gift goal to an inept opponent.
Here in Portland I have become, for the first time, not just a fan of the game in general but a fan of a particular team. And have discovered the special cruelty the game holds when you really care about what a bunch of other people do with a round ball.
Tonight was a good example. I met my friends Brent and Julie for drinks and dinner and then went to the game between our Portland Timbers and the oddly-named Carolina Railhawks at Civic Stadium. The Shed End, the north end of the old barn where the Timbers Army stands, was its usual raucous self. We sang and chanted, shouted encouragement at the Timbers and imprecations at the enemy and had an all-around noisy, comradely time.
The Timbers have hit a bad patch lately, losing games to bad teams and giving up bad goals late in tight games. My personal feeling is that the current coach is one of these people who have good people and technical skills; he seems to be good at assembling teams and picking players. His teams always seem to arrive at the pitch well prepared.And the 2010 Timbers seem well designed to succeed in the USL; they have a good mixture of young and veteran players, strong, tough players and fast, tricky ones. They have their strikers, their distributors, playmakers and defenders. In all, on paper the 2010 squad looks well.
But so far these talents haven't produced on the field. After a great first three games the Timbers have started losing to poor teams - they tend to play down to the level of their opponents - and giving up late goals in games they should be winning.
And tonight was no exception. The team ran out looking better than they had in weeks. Great ball movement, with short, accurate passes replacing the ugly long lobs that had been the standard. Great action up from from the delightfully named Bright Dike at forward. Many great chances and finally a goal from the explosive Ryan Pore in the 61st minute.
But...by the 75th minute I got that sick feeling; play was swinging against the Timbers, that the team was tiring, that things were going wrong. Passes started going astray. Marking got sloppy. And this is when Coach Wilkenson's inability to figure out game situations came into play. He made one substitution, and that one a poor choice, pulling the only one of our forwards that had been troubling the Carolina defense all night. With the pressure off up front the Railhawks began to push forward...and, again, the coach didn't pull his team behind the ball or put in fresh legs on defense.
So the tired defenders were outrun, a chippy little ball spun into the 6-yard box...and the Timbers ran off with only a one-point draw against a team they should have dominated from whistle to whistle.And we stood stunned, songs and shouts dying around us, staring out at a great effort gone to waste, 90 minutes of good play gutted in the 91st. We didn't even have the heart to join in singing "Rose City 'Til I Die".
And it's like we sing; I AM Rose City 'til I die. And that means being there to chant, sing and cheer, in the hard times as well as the good, for the draws and losses as well as the wins, for the lost chances as well as the made ones. That's part of being a true supporter.
And beyond the commitment of a fan soccer as a game is a good thing; it reminds us that life is often cruel, that heartbreak and disappointment are as or more common than success, that being nice and playing hard and believing in yourself often end up with you lying on the rain-soaked turf watching the bastards out of Carolina celebrate an undeserved goal and reflecting that if you stand around waiting for life to be fair some rotten bastards will come along and snatch it out from within your hands.