Saturday, June 02, 2012


Last year around this time I wrote about that strange passion that unites a people, and a place, and a thing; the sport of soccer, and the team that plays professionally in Portland, and those Portlanders who love them both. I said;
"...the supporters sang their love of the Game, and the Team, and the team took that love and made it a force, gave it hearts and lungs and legs and sent it flying into the night sky and left us all shattered and hoarse, reveling in the love, and the joy of victory hard-won, and the almost-frightening power of the voice of that love that rose up over the darkened city, over the streets and bridges, over the rivers and the wooded mountains and the cold peaks glimmering under the stars until the daylight returns to awaken us all to our daily lives again."
Love - and I'm sure, or, at least, I hope, you all know of that power that love and its fierce transient cousin, passion possess - can throw monuments against the sky and bring bright purpose into our lives.

But love and passion have a dark side, too, and last night those emerged on the field of play and in the North End of the old Civic Stadium this past Wednesday night.
Because the Portland Timbers lost a soccer match, and lost it about as badly as a bunch of guys can lose.

It was a thing of wonder, and horror, and surpassing ugliness. Cal FC, the soccer vanity project and personal digitus impudicus of Eric Wynalda - a man who is perfectly described in the first linked article as "to controversy what Eric Wynalda is to douchebaggery" - came into the confines of Jeld-Wen Field with a bunch of ex- and partly-professional players pretending to be warehouse pallet-shifters and taco-truck drivers and a plan; to use his understanding of Timbers coach John Spencer's paleolithic soccer "tactics" against him.

Wynalda and his men knew what the Timbers would do - lope the ball up the wings and then boot it into the area in front of the goal. They know who would do this, and who would be inside waiting for the cross. And they knew how to stop it from working; press when they had an opening, lay back and bunker up when they didn't. Go immediately to the ball when it came inside and tangle up the player to force the turnover. Look for opportunities to make a counterattack off those turnovers. And hope.

And it worked like butter on toast.

Helped by the fact that the Timbers couldn't have scored if the entire Cal squad had sat down on the turf. The Boys in White took something like 44 shots. Of those perhaps 6 were aimed within the goal opening, and of those six no more than two were anything approaching dangerous, and one of those was offside.
The goal-scoring problems Wednesday night were not an aberration - if anything, Wednesday was a violent outbreak of what has, I am convinced, bitten deeply into this team and this year's squad; they've got the yips.

Anyone who has played a sport or a game knows the yips. You know how when you try something - a shot in basketball, a tennis serve, the runup to the delivery line on the bowling lane, a ring toss...and you know, just know beforehand that it's not going to work? That the shot will brick, the serve fault, the ball gutter.

The yips.

Add that to the coach's crude tactics and you have a team that has a hard time getting in position to score and, when they do, often can't execute.

So the hometown team was hopeless in front of goal, and one defensive mistake let the visitors score, and that was that; the Timbers were out of the U.S. Open Cup just like last year. So what?

The difference was the passion.
This year had been a troubling year for the Rose City and those who come out to root for her professional soccer team. Losses, and, worse, poor play, have continued.

And this is, not surprisingly, driving the supporters wild.

Now Portland has a reputation for a deep well of "fan culture"; as often as not the stories the media produces about the Timbers turn to the Timbers Army, and many of the Army see themselves - not the team - as the keepers of the Timbers flame. In part of an ugly argument in the comments section of the Slide Rule Pass article (and as an aside is there anything stupider than arguing over the Internet?) one commenter said flatly "I'll be here long after [player's name] is gone". Many of the fans in the North End see themselves as the True Believers, and this season's ugliness has brought an ugliness to their passion that, perhaps inevitably, erupted in fury Wednesday night.

With time running down in the overtime period the Army began chanting their anger. "Care like we do!" they roared, and "This is bullshit!". They questioned whether the players were really in the top flight of U.S. soccer.

The worst came after the match ended, with a beaten Portland team trudging off and one of the chant leaders - a capo, in the Italian of the original ultras - ripped into the team and their captain in particular. That player, Jack Jewsbury, his head bandaged from a bloody collision in the dying seconds of the match responded with a fury of his own and the entire evening dissolved into a welter of bitterness and spite.
The following day the Timbers websites were alight with this; fans accusing other fans of failing to support the team, those fans responding that they were entirely right in expressing their anger, long laments of how poorly the team played, and dire moaning of the games to come.

See what I mean about how soccer is like life?

But in soccer, as in life, the opposite of love isn't hate, but indifference. So long as the supporters are passionate enough to be roused to fury by losses the passion is still there. I would hate to see the day when we are so cold as to not care when the team is embarrassed playing the game we love.

Mind you - Wednesday night I believe some lines were crossed.

I believe that the supporters and the team should be like a family; steadfast in public. We should deal with our anger and frustration in public. You may be furious that Uncle Max embezzles from your family business but you don't run into the street chanting "This is bullshit!", do you? As we learned in the real Army; praise in public, reprimand in private.

I think that it's legitimate to rip the players for failing to play the game competently, but only if they fail because of a lack of effort. If a player hustles and bleeds for your team and pulls a rock, you should really cut him or her some slack.
But the furor has passed, we're on the Euro break, and Soccer City waits, and watches, and wonders what will come when the season resumes.

Because for all the drama, for all the thunder of the capos and the shouting, for all the frustration with the problems and hardships this Portland team has had this season, the passion is still there. The storm rages because the passionate fury of the elements behind it, and surely there will be another match and a brighter day.

The passion for sport is, fundamentally, a silly one. Our mad enthusiasm for a game that is, or should be, nothing but a diversion and an entertainment for us is as comical as it is genuine, isn't it? But, when you think about it, how in that is it that much different from the larger, more deadly passions we embrace? At least the passion isn't going into some awful thing, or into ruining lives and destroying cities.

If we're going to be foolish and passionate, why not be foolish and passionate about something wonderfully silly and fantastical as a game where you a bunch of hairless monkeys distinguished by opposeable thumbs can't pick up the ball?

Because there's still a party in Portland.
No one's sleeping tonight.


Lisa said...

This exploration of the human spirit is what makes for great sportswriting. Kicking a ball down a field could be technically described, but it would not summon up the reality of the event.

Daily events ride on the details; sports, on the player's and spectator's spirits ebb and flow.

Labrys said...

While I admit to not being terribly interested in sports; I am really pleased to see an interest in soccer growing in the US, at long last.

I played, as a child, while in Germany and enjoyed it so much more than softball or other more typical American sports.