Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Kitsap Pumas – Portland Timbers (09-06-2009)

With only two weeks left in the Northwest, I try to take every opportunity to see a game, particularly if it involves my new team, the Portland Timbers. So, when I found out that they played a game in Bremerton, Washington, on a Tuesday night, I took the day off and drove up to the most northwestern part of the USA. Normally you would drive the roughly 450 km in 5 hours, but because of horrible traffic it took me over an hour longer (excluding stops).

Still, having left Eugene before noon, I arrived at the Bremerton Memorial Stadium, part of Bremerton High School a good twenty minutes before kick-off. I even had time to look at the fan stand of the home team, the Kitsap Pumas. While the stand itself was not very professional, the choice of merchandise was the best I’ve seen for a PDL team.

As the weather was glorious, I paid $7 for a generic ticket that gave me access to the whole stadium except the small covered stand. As I entered, I made my way to the hamburger stand (i.e. a woman, a table, and a home bbq), as I was starving. I walked around the stadium, which looked like a fair.

I don’t think I have ever been at a football game where there were clowns making dogs from balloons and where they sold cotton candy. Welcome to Kitsap Count(r)y! A couple of minutes before kick-off the players came out of the high school building and made their way to the pitch, preceded by the local Washington State champions.

So, this game was between the Kitsap Pumas, a new PDL team, and the Portland Timbers, an established USL team. The occasion was the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, a competition open to all clubs affiliated with the United States Soccer Federation. Since 2008 this competition has attracted the attention of the major US teams, as the winner has the right to play the CONCACAF Champions League.

Although the Kitsap Pumas were founded only a year ago, they have had a great start to their first season, not losing a game so far (of 7 played). The also had a very decent crowd, roughly 500-600, including some boisterous youngsters. The Timbers Army arrived to the stadium around kick-off time, no doubt delayed by the horrible traffic, but it took them a good 10 minutes to enter the stadium (don’t ask me why). I estimated that they were roughly 75 men, women, and kids strong – not too bad for a Tuesday evening game (and a 277 km drive!).

As a European, who has been around some tough crowds, I find it very funny how some people in the US react to the Timbers Army; as if they are the Chelsea Firm. J Around me various people got worked up over the few provocative songs and curses that the Army threw around.

As a groundhopper, and loner, I kept my space among the home fans and waited for the Timbers to make me cheer. And this almost happened in the first minute, when the Pumas goalie bravely saved a good chance for the visitors. Little did I know that this would be the best Timbers chance of the first half.

The hosts reacted swiftly, having their first header (somewhat) on goal the next minute. After that the chances would become fewer, as most of the game was between the two penalty boxes, with the lower-ranked Pumas easily holding their own against the fairly lame Timbers. There was little pressure on the ball and players, which obviously helped the Pumas, while the passing of the Timbers was sub-standard. I guess this game wasn’t very high on their list of priorities, or they simply assumed they could win in without much effort. Hence, a well-deserved 0-0 half time score.

As the Timbers Army used half time to change sides, in the hope to be behind the goal where the goals would be, forcing the home fans to switch too, I got myself a chili dog and found the memorial of the stadium, in a corner, commemorating those Bremertonians fallen since WW I. Nice that this can be respected in a football stadium.

Like the first half had, the second half started with a vengeance. Before the Pumas even knew they were back on the pitch, the Timbers had scored the 0-1. It all looked very easy and made me wonder why they hadn’t done this before. The Timbers directly sat back, but it took the Pumas almost 10 minutes to overcome the shock. In the 54th minute they had a good attack, but the goal was canceled because of offside. Just two minutes they had an almost identical attack, but this time it was shot wide.

Although the Pumas were the busiest team on the pitch, the Timbers did have the better opportunities to score. Most were screwed up either at the stage of the end pass or of the finish. Some were stopped by the loud, but skilful goalie of the Pumas.

As I was already heading over to the scoreboard to take my picture of the final score, a Pumas defender headed the ball too softly back to his goalie, and the Timbers striker got between them and coolly lobbed the ball over the unfortunate goalie: 0-2 in the 89th minute. Barely one minute later, in extra time, a frustrated Pumas defender makes a rough tackle in the box, although there was no pressure on the goal, and the referee gave a penalty.

Even though 0-3 looks like a clear victory, I must say that I was rather impressed by the Pumas and disappointed by my Timbers. Sure, they didn’t try hard, and the Pumas are clearly not an average PDL team, but a team like the Timbers, who want to play MLS in 2011, should play much better against this type of opposition. I saw very few good combination or attacks, and overall a lame performance. Fortunately, the players did come over to thank the Timbers Army for coming out to support them.

The Kitsap Pumas are definitely worth a visit if you are in the Northwest. There is something authentic about them, even if the small-town fair atmosphere is a bit odd at a football game. Be prepared to drive for a long time, however, as Bremerton is in the ass end of the US. I was back in Eugene at 2 AM, tired but quite satisfied.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Seattle Sounders – Columbus Crew (30-05-2009)

The Seattle Sounders are the newest addition to the Major League Soccer (MLS), which will most probably have two more Northwestern teams in 2011: Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps. All these teams have established traditions in earlier leagues; the Sounders were a USL team in the period 1994-2008 and an NASL team from 1974 till 1983. They play their games at Qwest Field, also home of the Seattle Seahawks (NFL); for NFL games it holds 67,000, but for MLS games it is capped at 32,000 (i.e. the upper ring is closed off). Although 32,000 is a lot for the MLS, the Sounders have so far drawn an average of roughly 28,000 people! Hence, I had ordered my ticket in advance, through the inevitable rip-off Ticketmaster, which charged me a total of $40.45 for a (tight) seat behind the goal.

I drove up from Eugene early, taking my time for the 460 km drive and for a visit to Red Mill Burgers. I parked downtown, checked into my hotel, and then walked to 3rd Street, where I took a bus for a couple of blocks, until I got out and simply followed the green crowd to the stadium. Within the stadium people were entertained by a (Brazilian?) guy who did all kind of tricks with the ball, as well as the Sounders band (playing anything from Beyonce to the Red Hot Chili Peppers); something you normally only see at college teams.

For full disclosure, I must admit that I am a (recent) Portland Timbers fan and that we hate the Shittle Flounders. Although my allegiance isn’t that strong yet, I didn’t have a hard time finding dislike with the Sounders. There was something artificial about the whole experience (including the English announcer); but more about that… after the national anthem (which a surprising number of fans sang along with).

The game was between the newcomers from Seattle and the current MLS champions, Columbus Crew. The official attendance was 29,126, an impressive number for any league. I even identified some 50 Crew fans, probably all inhabitants of Seattle; as I doubt many had made the 4.000 km (!) trip from Columbus, Ohio. The Sounders ‘ultras’ were behind the other goal, sporting many banners, a large flag, but few songs.

After a good start of the season, the Sounders have drawn most of its games, and people were eager for a home win. Particularly because the Crew have a difficult start this season, and the Sounders have the most famous player in the MLS: Swedish international Freddie Ljungberg (ex-Arsenal and ex-West Ham United) – let’s face it, Beckham is not in the MLS! Most supporters were donning the typical green colors of the Sounders, which, together with the sheer numbers, did give it a real European football look.

The start of the game was for the Crew. After a first shot and a good chance, the visitors scored in the 11th minute with a strong shot: 0-1 and the stadium went quiet. Slowly but steadily the hosts got back into the game, while the whiny fans increasingly complained about the opponents and referee (who was indeed crap, but didn’t favor anyone). The fact that kids were handed small cow bells to make noise helped the atmosphere, as did the occasional interference of the band (which was right above me). In the 30th minute, Ljungberg was fouled in the box and got a penalty, which he took himself.

And once again, the old football law was confirmed: thou shan’t take thou’s own penalty! Now the fans around me were even whinier, though not about Ljungberg, who put in a fairly dismal performance and mainly excelled in complaining to the referee and his fellow players. At the same time, it was the Crew who had the better chances, once stopped by a very smart foul (which only cost the defender a yellow card but prevented a possible goal) and once by the famous Sounders goalie, 39-year old Kasey Keller. To my silent joy, 0-1 was the half time score.

The second half started with a lot of pressure from the hosts, but to little avail. The visitors dominated the midfield, where they passed the ball around comfortably. However, in the 57th minute the Sounders set up a fantastic attack, admittedly through Ljunberg, which was finished with an insane volley in the far corner: 1-1! This gave the Sounders and their fans a bit more belief in a victory, even though most of the game got stuck between the two penalty boxes. The most exciting, and debated, period was when the referee punished a pass back to the Crew goalie, which led to an indirect free kick at roughly 10 meters of the goal.

Despite minutes of discussion and shoving, the free kick ended as 99% of these do, with a lame shot in the wall of people. The closer we came to the end of the game, the more desperate the fans and players became. Now everything the Crew or referee did was booed and whistled. Obviously, this didn’t change the fact that the visitors had little problems keeping the tie. When, in the first minute of extra time a Sounders defender got a red card, it was clear that this game was going to end in yet another draw: 1-1.

So, what to make of this game. On the one hand, this was clearly the most ‘European’ football game I have seen in the US. There was a big crowd, which was sporting the official gear, and the level of the game was acceptable (similar to a lower level game in the Dutch eredivisie). On the other hand, few fans seemed true football fans and the whole experience was very managed and corporate. That said, this does come from a Timbers fan, so maybe you will enjoy it more! In any case, I can’t wait for 2011!
Yakima Reds – Spokane Spiders (23-05-2009)

The state of Washington is not just home to the newest MLS team, the Seattle Sounders (see above), but also to a broad variety of Premier Development League (PDL) teams, including the Yakima Reds. The name sounds more Japanese than American, but refers to a Native American tribe, the Yakima, who have a reservation in central Washington; an area that looks more like the Southwest, with a mix of steppe and desert, than the Northwest, known for its luscious green.

We took our time driving the 477 km up from Eugene, so we could thoroughly enjoy the beautiful Columbia Gorge River, as well as sample some burgers along the way. In the end, we were pressed for time, and even arrived late at the game; or better, at the right game, as we first mistakenly entered a (American) football game of a local high school. Anyway, roughly 12 minutes late we bought two huge tickets for $6 each and entered the one stand of the Marquette Stadium (capacity 1,500). We had missed the first goal: 1-0.

There were some 200 people at the game, mostly Hispanics, many families and kids, enjoying a glorious warm summer evening (though with increasing wind gusts). This was not that surprising, as the town of Yakima has a large Hispanic population and most players of the Reds are Hispanic. Although Yakima is the closest opponent for the Spiders, it is still 327 km away, so it was no surprise that there were no away supporters.

The level of play was not much different from other PDL matches I saw recently, although some Yakima players had good skills. Still, the pace of play was low and overall neither team played very aggressively. Hence, not many big chances and a half time score of 1-0.

The second half started with a good safe of the new goalie of the Reds. Although the game remained relatively scarce on real chances, there were more flares of excitement. For example, in the 53rd minute a Yakima player tipped the ball beautifully over a defender, but then shot wide, while in the 61st minute a Spiders player controlled the ball phenomenally, but then shot just wide. As the teams started to tire, there were more bad passes and scrimmages, but still no goals.

As the last time I saw the Yakima Reds, against the Cascade Surge, I enjoyed watch the little midfielder (nr. 13), who is agile and very technical (though not always very efficient). In the 70th minute a semi-planned attack over three players was finished from 3 meters: 2-0. Game, set and match!

The Yakima Reds are a tiny team from a small town in the middle of the Evergreen State. Undoubtedly, it will not grow beyond a PDL team, but as long as it keeps a largely Hispanic squad, it will have a solid support.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Eugene Metro FC Select – Club America Reserves (02-06-2009)

Finally a game in my own town: Eugene, Oregon. However, Eugene Metro Fútbol Club was founded in 2006 and is mainly involved in youth development and soccer clinics and camps. However, they also have an EMFC Select Team, consisting of college-age players from various universities in Oregon (Portland, Oregon State, and Concordia) as well as UCLA, from California. There are no players from the local University of Oregon, which only has women soccer. The EMFC Select Team plays two “international friendlies” this summer: against the reserves of Club America and of Bayern München.

I went to the game with my colleague D. and his daughter N., an enthusiastic “soccer” player. I had bought tickets in advance, at a local Mexican supermarket ($10 for an adult, one free youth per adult). Because of an extended dinner, we arrived rather late at the stadium of Willamette High School, which has a new turf pitch (used for the school’s (American) football team). It turned out that the locals were 1-0 up!

There were probably around 500 people at the game, which is much more than at various PDL games I have attended so far. At least 300 were local Mexicans, mostly fans of Club America, one of the biggest football teams in Mexico. Among the “white” Americans were many young girls, still the prime basis of “soccer” in the USA. It was good among real football fans again; the Mexicans clearly understand the game, unlike their “native” fellows.

I had expected Club America to tear EUFC a new asshole, as (1) they are the reserves of one of the best teams in Mexico, a real football country; and (2) EMFC is a selection of players from all over, so they won’t have played together much. However, the hosts clearly played together a lot, as they had good combinations. Club America had the better players, many playing with crazy numbers (GK had 60, midfielder 98, striker 111!), but lost most duels against the highly motivated college boys. As EMFC was 1-0 up, they defended their lead with 10 men behind the ball and aggressive play; enough against a little motivated opponent. Hence, 1-0 was also the half time score.

At half time it started to rain... hard! We had fortunately moved to the covered stand, just before half time, and stayed dry. As the players returned for the second half, the intense rain continued and thunder and lightening started – something people in the Northwest are not very familiar with. After two minutes the referee suspended the game for 20 minutes, and everyone was encouraged to take shelter in the gym (even the ones on the covered stand, as it was metal). Although I have attended various games in worse weather, for example FC Avenir Beggen against FC Mamer 32, the referee decided to stop the game, despite the fact that the weather had moderated.

So, somewhat disappointed, we left, having seen just under 30 minutes of play.