Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Elementary Particles: Barcelona v Real Zaragoza

The papers, in and beyond the borders of Spain, have been speculating about a possible move away from Barca to Chelsea for Ronaldinho. And despite vociferous denials from the Camp Nou via president Joan Laporta and coach Frank Rijkaard, the press continues to beat the drums that there's turmoil within the club, et cetera. Nothing new, of course. And frankly, if Chelsea want to spend 80 million euros on Ronaldinho, they can have him since no player is worth that much money. And if the big, fleet-footed Brazilian would rather play for the Blues than with the Blaugrana, then my heart is broken and good riddance.

But I don't think he's going anywhere, certainly not to Chelsea, and as Laporta and Rijkaard mentioned in their press conferences over the last few days--"Barca is where it is today thanks to him." And so it is.

Still, critics insist that Barca is unable to play without Ronnie and that the team is unstable without him. I find such comments amusing since it's obvious that they haven't been watching the squad of late. I know it's still early and that some players have taken awhile to find their forms, but the last three matches have been showcases for fabulous, progressive football at its finest, and I think proof that the team is strong with or without their celestial #10.

GolTV co-announcer Phil Schoen summed it up best today as Barca dismantled an increasingly frustrated and impotent Real Zaragoza side: "Whenever you get tired of the modern, cynical game, you might want to leave this one on tape." With Ronaldinho still out because of an injury (and I ain't talking an injury on the dance floor while he was juggling Rum bottles or whatever it was he was supposed to have done... if you listen to the Spanish press) the team played better than I've seem them all season and maybe even longer. They look strong. They look fabulous. And they'll look even better than ever once Henry actually can break through his malaise (though he played fine all game despite his woeful finishing... but he's getting there) and fine-tune his communication with Messi and Iniesta. I'm thinking next match, Henry will definitely step up and remind us all of yesteryear.

No surprise, Messi was peaking yet again, and like the match on Saturday against Sevilla, he almost earned another hat-trick. But he did garner another two goals. Iniesta also notched another beauty and he continues to be my second favorite player on the squad (after captain Puyol, who will hopefully be back from the injury list soon). I hope to write about Iniesta once my project is finished within the next few weeks. He's been a consistent joy to watch and his performances just grow stronger and stronger in that left-side attacking midfield position vacated by Mr. #10. A joy to behold and his vision and pace never fail to impress me. The kids dynamite--Gio Dos Santos and Bojan Krkic--made their moves known, too, and I'm excited to see what they'll continue to bring to the club over the years. Even Marquez scored! End result: Barca 4, Real Zaragoza 1.

All in all, it was a brilliant mid-week match and a straight shot to the critics who naively think that Barca can't hold their own without Ronaldinho. He'd no doubt be missed--I personally would hate to see him depart--but we'd get by. He may have made the club what it is today--i.e. a global brand--but he didn't put the club on the map. All of the individuals that make up this glorious squad are important components of its success--including Oleguer! But none of them are bigger than it; none of them are bigger than the history, the supporters, the residue of good and bad memories that surely permeate the atmosphere within the Camp Nou. That history combined with those players and those Fortean moves are the elementary particles that make Barca so dear to so many the world over.

I hope the fans greet Ronaldinho with loving arms when he returns to the pitch soon. But I also hope that he doesn't forget that we'll sleep fine without him if he ditches us for that icy Russian blonde.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

You Cannot Stop Us. We Are the Rose City.

Over at Soccer City USA there are numerous threads saying all the things I would say here: we are bursting with pride and love for our team. Of course we are sad to have lost the semifinal match against Atlanta, but we are not disappointed in the Timbers one bit. These are tears of joy, not anger or frustration. There is so much eloquence and emotion over there that my own contribution here seems almost superfluous, but here goes.

I won't try to recap the grueling match, which you can read about here, or rehash complaints against the refereeing. I want to try to remember what it was like:

As the boys in green, subdued, paid their final respects of the 2007 season to the North End supporters, the defiant chant arose: We're gonna win the league! We're gonna win the league! I don't know how, I don't know when! We're gonna win the league! (Next year!) I sang along until my voice broke and I had to focus on blinking back tears, because we won't be back to watch them win next year. Oh, I can't complain: we'll be seeing lots of football elsewhere, the Hammers and Barca and St. Pauli and plenty more, but our hearts will be back in PGE Park and we will be following the Timbers as closely as we can.

The mood at the wake after the match was one of melancholy defiance, punctuated by bagpipers. And then the players arrived. I saw Tommy Potl wander in, followed by Lawrence Olum, Scot Thompson. Something like half the team showed up. A beautiful end to a beautiful season, and we knew then it was time to go, so we finished our pints, shook hands with Olum and thanked him, and left. For the first time in weeks, on the way home, no one stopped us or shouted from cars to find out the score, as though the city already knew its summer love affair with the Timbers had come to an end.

What an amazing showing from the Portland fans! There are so many people who have worked so very hard over the years to make the experience of attending a Timbers game what it is--most visibly, those who dream up and then make into reality those mad displays of tifo, those who turn up early to hang banners and haul flags and other paraphernalia back and forth from the Bullpen, and the capos, who spend much of the game with their backs to the action on the pitch in order to perform the often thankless but crucial task of keeping a rowdy crowd of drunks* in full voice and on tune. Even when they are sometimes rowdy and drunk themselves.

I went to my first Timbers game in, I think, 2003, when I bought a GA ticket and slouched into a seat in 207 and witnessed a small but spirited party erupt in the section below. I never imagined then, and I did not imagine even at the start of this season, that I would eventually see seven or eight or nine sections in PGE Park standing and singing for an entire game. That I would see the entire west side of the stadium on their feet. And here is what I thought, at the close of the brilliant, beautiful, 2007 season: we have done what naysayers around the world did not believe could be done. Here in the United States, we have taught one another, and we have taught Portland, how to attend a football match. We have done the impossible, and that makes us mighty.**

Finally, I have no idea if any players for the Timbers have ever seen or are even aware that this blog exists, but if any ever stumble across this: thank you for bringing us so much joy this season. Much love to you all.

More here:
The saddest photo you've ever seen
More pictures from Allison Andrews
KPTV video of Monday night Gavin Wilkinson interview
Oregonian piece on who's signed for 2008 thus far
Scot Thompson in the Tribune: "I love this team to death."
Forgot to post this the other day: Josh Wicks is USL First Division Keeper of the Year
Timbers among nominees for USL First Division Rookie of the Year, Defender of the Year, and Coach of the Year
You Tube highlight reel of the 2007 season

*Disclaimer: Rowdy crowd of drunks is an exaggeration used for purposes of humor. I am well aware that not only is the entire North End not a bunch of drunks, but that some faithful followers of the Timbers are a good fifteen or more years away from legal drinking age.
**Sorry. Geek alert.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Timbers and Jose and women in soccer

Lots happening in the football world this week and too little time here at apm headquarters to do it all justice, but quickly:

Of course, no news is bigger than this afternoon's semi-final showdown, Portland Timbers against the Atlanta Silverbacks in the race to the USL First Division Championship. Five p.m., PGE Park, also televised on Fox Soccer Channel, get there early and make noise until you can't. The boys tied Atlanta 1-1 in the first leg on Friday, which suddenly makes me think the USL needs the away goals rule...not because it would put the Timbers ahead of the Silverbacks (although that would be one advantage, obviously) but because it would make all the playoffs more exciting: it seems a bit weird to have traveled all that way only to produce what might as well be a 0-0 scoreline for all the difference it makes to the playoffs. Oh well; I also think US soccer needs to abandon playoffs altogether, which basically gives the regular season all the importance of a series of practices, and introduce relegation and promotion, and I would also like a puppy and a pony and to see pigs fly past my window, so, yeah. Moving on to the real world...

I am as aghast at the rest of the footballing world at the soap opera unfolding at Stamford Bridge. I'm not even going to attempt to link up to any of the gazillions of articles covering this; I'm sure you can find your own way to the main Guardian football page and beyond. (Okay: here's one.) I'm no Chelsea fan and have made no secret of how much Jose Mourinho can irritate I certainly never imagined a chain of events that would actually not only make me feel sorry for Chelsea fans, but for Mourinho himself. Anyone who drags out that tired old chestnut about Chelsea's success being due not to Mourinho's coaching skills but to Roman Abramovich's pocketbook doesn't know what he's talking about: you need look no further than the struggles of Real Madrid's superstar Galactico lineup (uh, before last season, that is) to see proof that tons of money and talent do not an unbeatable squad make. Mourinho was obviously a fantastic coach and as annoying as he could be, I loved to hate him: I am going to miss his crazy press conferences, his passive-aggressive pronouncements, his disagreeable, disdainful manner of answering questions as though he could barely bring himself to respond to the press, who were all so very far beneath him. As for Abramovich, I can't fathom how he became a billionaire if he has made insane business decisions like this in the past. My prediction: Mourinho, who's been treated disgracefully, can take his time looking for a new job if the reports are true that his contract through 2010 was bought out, and will certainly land on his feet, while Chelsea plummets in the standings, the Big Four that some swore up and down (ridiculously, I always thought) was as unchanging as the constellations is no more, and the English Premiership table gets really, really interesting this season.

Finally, I haven't been able to write about the Women's World Cup in China as I'd hoped, but the US women defeated England and move on to semifinals, while my fellow apm-er Derek predicts another victory for Germany, having viewed their middle-of-the-night (our time) beatdown of the tough North Koreans. I am really pleased that the Guardian, after initially not really seeming to realize that the tournament was even happening, is doing a lot of coverage of women's soccer, and David James in particular gives me more reasons to love him by writing multiple pieces on the tournament in China.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I can't help falling in love with you

Someone should have been writing a book about the Portland Timbers this season; I want to read it. I want to watch the feel-good Hollywood movie about this improbably brilliant season, the season that should never have happened and should not be happening still, not in the wake of finishing in last place the season before, spirits broken, a coach out of touch with players and fans, and ongoing acrimony between supporters, Timbers front office, and security that culminated in the ousting of eight loyal longtime fans following their doomed pyrotechnic protest*.

One year on, supercoach Gavin Wilkinson has turned the team around entirely--surpassing even his own expectations of spending three years rehabilitating the sickly squad--while after years of absentee ownership with an attitude toward soccer ranging from the indifferent to the outright hostile, enter Merritt Paulson, and I think--correct me if I'm wrong--he wanted to own a baseball team, but he took a few looks around at the Timbers, at soccer-mad Portland, and at the fookin' mental supporters group and he got it! Finally, management sat down with a representative group of fans, each found out that the other group is not made up of hideous monsters (in the case of fans, hideous monsters planning to rip children from the bosoms of middle America and devour them but worst of all teach them to swear while they're doing it and in the case of management, hideous monsters intent on launching a cleansing campaign against anyone in homemade Timbers gear or weird-looking at all in a broadly interpreted sort of way, a campaign led by an army of humorless, decidedly un-MILF-like [sorry, boys] soccer moms in tricked-out minivans spangled with bumper stickers boosting the cause of suburban vacuity and zombification) ...whew, I just ran out of breath. The point being: who could have foreseen a season like this one, so soon after last year's disaster?

So the Timbers defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps 3-0 on Sunday night, for a 3-1 aggregate quarterfinal score, and Timbers move on to the semis. And as the scoreline mounted Sunday night, I loved you all, North End. I wanted to marry every single one of you, twice, so it's a damn good thing they don't allow for that sort of thing because today my hand would still be too cramped from signing all those annulment papers to write this post. What else? Spectacular tifo opened the match and the North End, sprawling across at least five packed sections, was monstrously loud. The banished flare-wielding crew marked the end of their year-long expulsion, entering with a bagpiping band. Awards were handed to players, a pre-game plaque for Kiki Lara as Community Player of the Year and a halftime ceremony for Josh Wicks to receive his Supporters Player of the Year trophy.

The match itself got off to a shaky start for the Timbers: some shockingly miscalculated passes, easily plucked by the Whitecaps, and calls that just didn't seem to go our way. As the minutes mounted and the scoreline remained level, my sense that this would be another Timbers-quarterfinal-crash-and-burn grew. And then the break: a 27th minute header from Justin Thompson, and after that it was anybody's game to win. Timbers looked better after the half and goals by Andrew Gregor and Jaime Ambriz clinched the victory. The third goal felt like a dream, the kind where you know it's a dream because it doesn't ever get this good in real life.

Ecstatic as I was to see them head home empty-handed, I couldn't quite bring myself to join in the Your season ends tonight! final-minutes taunting of the Whitecaps, having had the same nightmarish refrain in my head during previous seasons. (Make no mistake: Seattle I'd have taunted with glee.) Although things turned ugly on the pitch at the end, the players had the class to turn and applaud the Timbers supporters before going over to thank their contingent of traveling fans. Afterwards, at the Bullpen, I chatted with a guy who had come to the game almost by accident: giving a friend an emergency ride, he'd meant to drop her off and leave and was somehow persuaded to stick around. He said he wasn't into sports and had never been interested in attending a match, but ended up having a fantastic time and planned on returning. It was a different crowd, a different atmosphere, than he'd imagined or experienced round a sporting event before.

Three days on, I still feel like I'm in the grip of a happy dream. I think the Timbers can defeat the Atlanta Silverbacks this weekend and I think they can beat any team they face in the final, but if their season ends this Sunday, they will have done enough for me this year, more than I could've asked for. Next year apm will be following the Timbers from afar, as we (or two-thirds of apm anyway) are hitting the road to check out soccer pitches in the rest of the world...and bringing you on-the-ground coverage of same, it's been extraordinary watching our boys make it this far.

Report and photos from Sunday night's match are here. Timbers play Friday night in Atlanta against the Silverbacks and the second leg this Sunday at 5 pm in PGE Park. (I think. Timbers website says 5, Fox Soccer Channel says they're showing the match at 4, so find out when you buy your ticket and don't take my word for it.) Tickets are on sale now at the PGE Park box office and the match will be televised live on FSC.

*scroll down thread for gorgeous pics from Allison Andrews

Friday, September 14, 2007

Timbers vs Whitecaps in First Leg Playoff Match Tonight

Do you smell that? Oh yeah, my chartreuse-minded, absinthe-fueled, green-fairy-feverish-hooligans (benevolent ones, of course) of the mighty Portland Timbers--tonight is olent of VICTORY! Our hometown lads won't be melting the Whitecaps at home, though. The Timbers begin their post-season campaign to win the league this evening against the always formidable Vancouver Whitecaps in a first leg match guaranteed to curl toes and elongate the anxious little stalks breaching your skinny green and white necks. Unfortunately, tonight's game isn't televised--though Sunday's second leg match will be on the glass teat at 5:00, courtesy of the Fox Soccer Channel. But you can saunter on down to Slabtown (1033 NW 16th Ave, Portland, OR, 97209; 503-223-0099) to eat happy hour vittles, slosh down drinks, and watch the game via web cast at 7:00.

You can read about how to obtain tickets for Sunday's playoff match here. See ya then! Ah yeah... I can smell the victory from here....

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Women's World Cup: US vs North Korea

The consolation for US soccer fans, who are long accustomed to hoping the men's team will put on a good show but can have no hope of winning a major international tournament like the World Cup, is our women's national team. They're a well-trained, well-funded group of professional athletes, and they're enormously successful: in four World Cups, they've won twice and placed third in two others.

But lots of the legends have retired over the last few years--Mia Hamm, Tiffany Milbrett, Brandi Chastain, to name just a few of the more household names--and this new squad has some young and inexperienced players. And little was known about the North Korean team they faced yesterday. No one who saw yesterday's match, however, is likely to forget that North Korean team, least of all the US women who, following Abby Wambach's powerful strike in the 50th minute that gave them the lead, found themselves struggling as the Koreans answered with goals in the 58th and 62nd minute. (Wambach went down with an injury to her head a few minutes after her goal, and both Korean goals were scored during the time she was off the pitch getting patched up.) Fortunately Heather O'Reilly equalized a few minutes later, and although the game continued to be dynamic and attacking, neither side was able to put away a winning goal.

The US defense made several errors, and new keeper Hope Solo let the first Korean goal--blasted in by Kil Son Hui--slip through her fingers. In the second half, however, Solo's confidence seemed to increase, and she finished with two spectacular saves in stoppage time. Both squads played a fast, exciting, aggressive game.

These games are on in the middle of the night in the US, not unlike the 2002 World Cup, so unless you are an insomniac or a night owl you might have trouble catching them live. Fortunately, ESPN 2 is replaying the US games, at least, at a reasonable time (4 pm Pacific). I'm going to keep watching and I'll try to write about as many of the matches as I can. There's plenty of drama here: the word is out that the formidable US team is vulnerable, and the Koreans a force to be reckoned with. Will the US shore up their defensive line and claim a decisive victory in the next match against Sweden on the 14th? How will their draw against North Korea affect their efforts to get out of their group? Will they reclaim their place as champions, lost in 2003?

If you are a fan of men's soccer, I hope you'll make an effort to catch at least one of these matches as well. The level of play is very high; moreover, many of the teams from other countries train in substandard conditions amid indifference and even prejudice regarding women in the sport. In other words, they do it for the love of the game. In a world of overpaid, overpampered, oversponsored superstar athletes, that's worth tuning in to.

More at the official FIFA site and the official US soccer site.