Thursday, July 21, 2011

Chicago Fire – Portland Timbers (16-07-2011)

My wife and I had been looking forward to this game for months. We had actually invited many of our colleagues and students. In the end, just three came, but it was quality over quantity, as they became part of the Timbers Army within minutes. After a bit under 3 hour drive, we arrive at Toyota Park, in Bridgeview, Illinois, 13 miles (21 km) southwest of Chicago.

After forking out $15 for parking (not cool!), we went to the ticket office to buy tickets for the away section 134. The tickets were $28 each, even though the Timbers Army had sold them for $20 before the game. Moreover, despite the fact that the section was far from full, our students were told that section 134 was sold out and got tickets for section 133.

We walked a little bit around the stadium, as there was still an hour until kick-off, where there were various organized activities as well as spontaneous tailgating. I was most struck by the large presence of Hispanics – the stadium even has a Section Latino.

It was a warm summer evening, hot and humid (ca. 90F/32C), and there was an official attendance of 16.419 in the 22.000 capacity soccer-specific Toyota Park. Among them, the boys from Section 8, who had a special banner for their friends of the Timbers Army.

The Timbers Army had initially wanted to come out in full force, but was hit by very high plane prices. In the end some 75 TA were in attendance, several like us from the Midwest, and we song during the whole game.

Both the Fire and the Timbers had lost many of their past games, so there was much at stake for this game. It was soon clear why both are at the bottom of the table, as the level of play was poor, to say the least. Both tactically and technically mistakes followed mistakes, but both teams played with great heart. In the 25th minute the Timbers got a break, after a striker was tripped, and Jewsbury buried the penalty: 0-1 TIMBERS!!!

The play didn’t change much after the goal, although the Timbers started to defend deeper and deeper. The Fire had most of the ball, but created very little chances. Only their left-wing attacker was really threatening, but the final ball was often lacking. In addition to a free shot at the crossbar, the Fire challenged the Timbers goalie a couple of times, but the half time score remained: 0-1.

The second half was much of the same. Timbers defending too deep, Fire unable to create real chances, and the Timbers Army singing. While both teams worked their butts off, the quality of play was low… very low. Halfway the second half Section 8 decides to put on a fireworks show, which creates some nice pix.

Not much later, a Fire player gets his second yellow card, after a dumb foul in midfield, which should have wrapped the game up for the Timbers. Unfortunately, it didn’t, and the Fire created more chances with 10 men than with 11. This included yet another powerful shot at the crossbar, and some saves by the Timbers goalie. Moreover, the Timbers again stopped playing in the 87th minute, instead choosing to waste time (which they suck at, so it only means that rather than perhaps scoring a second goal, and tying the game up, they waste a couple of seconds and then lose the ball and have to defend again). Fortunately, we kept our lead: 0-1, first away win in MLS history!!!

As I could finally breathe again, coach John Spencer came over to thank the TA fans. Classy! A bit later the players came over too, and were passionately thanked for their great performance. I wonder, do they ever discuss how lucky they are that they have such fans?

Ok, this trip was not so much about the Chicago Fire (see my earlier visit here). But the Fire has a nice stadium and a good group of supporters. It’s a shame Toyota Park is so far outside of the city and the Fire has to compete with two baseball teams (Cubs and White Sox). The Timbers Army again showed that they are the premier traveling football fans. Can’t wait to see them again soon, somewhere in the country!

Portland Timbers – Seattle Sounders (10-07-2011)

As I am sitting on the couch in my Indy apartment on a Friday afternoon, I get a text message from my friend Mokumer: I have an extra ticket for the Seattle game. I look at my wife… could I? She doesn’t say no, so I am all over the internet, in the end finding a flight with maximum frequent flyer miles and minimum cash. The next day I take a flight to Portland and on Sunday morning I meet up with Mokumer for brunch at the Marathon Taverna, around the corner of the stadium.

About 12:30, thirty minutes before kick-off, we go to JELD-WEN Field, as PGE Park is now called. I haven’t been at the stadium since they rebuild the baseball stadium into a soccer-specific stadium. I really like the way they have integrated it into the little spot available (JELD-WEN Field is one of the few MLS Stadiums in the heart of the city!). We get into section 137, where the Timbers Army is already present in full force and singing their hearts out.

We decide to sit at the top of the stand, where it is a bit less crowdy. We meet up with some friends of Mokumer, exchange stories about the Netherlands, agree that we need a win and that the "Shittle Flounders" should be destroyed, and join the singing. The atmosphere is electric. The stadium was sold out with 18.627 anxious supporters. I am so happy that I came.

As this is the first ever home game in the MLS against the arch rival, the Timbers Army has created an impressive tifo action. They have made several huge banners, taunting the ca. 500 Seattle supporters who made the ca. 175 miles (275 km) drive south on the I-5.

I stand behind most of the huge banners, so can’t see them all, but am impressed by how organized everything is. The Timbers Army controls the sections behind the goal in a manner reminiscent of the great ultra groups in Latin America and Southern Europe. The final banner is a claim to the title of best club in the Pacific Northwest: King of Clubs!

The creativity and swagger of the Timbers Army is not really copied by the boys in green and white. We have, without any doubt, the most British team in the MLS. Everything is physical, long and high balls (even know the tall striker Cooper has been replaced by the very short striker Perlaza), while tactically and technically it is very poor. Fortunately, Seattle is not much better, particularly in the first half. 0-0 is the only logical half time score and, despite the poor play, I have been nervous for the full 45 minutes.

The second half started with a blast. In the 46th minute we score… well, to fair, they score, but in their own net: 1-0 TIMBERS!!! I cannot believe it, scream and shout, and am bathed in beer by someone behind me. 1-0 up, through an own goal… seems to have been the only way it could happen.

Unfortunately, the happiness lasts only for a short time. Ten minutes later Freddy Montero (“No means no!”) scores a free kick from just outside of the box and makes it look really easy. The Sounders are getting better in the game now, but it is the Timbers that score, again through a lucky. But who cares, it’s 2-1! The second piece of wood, cut by Timber Joey and his chainsaw, makes it up section 136.

This time it takes us even less than 5 minutes to give the lead away. In the 74th minute they equalize: 2-2. And in the 83rd minute it gets even worse: the last Timbers defender fouls the Seattle striker: penalty and red card: 2-3, game over.
No Picture of Final Score
I am absolutely gutted, although I continue to sing with the Timbers Army and even applaud the players, who come to receive their two slices of wood from Timber Joey in front of the Timbers Army. Mokumer deals with it easier – ajax fans are never very loyal ;-) – and reminds me that this is our first season and, to be honest, we are just not that good. He is right, we are not, but we fight and have the best supporters in the whole world… well, in the MLS at least!

The next day I go back for breakfast at the Marathon Tavern, and walk passed JELD-WEN Field. So peaceful. As if we never lost against the Sounders… if only.

River City Rovers – Forest City London (04-07-2011)

I was looking for things to do on the 4th of July and found that in Louisville they have fireworks over the Ohio River… but, more importantly, they have a Premier Development League (PDL) team, the River City Rovers, which played a game that evening. And so, after a brief afternoon walk in the city center, we drove about 15 miles from downtown, to a very affluent, and very white, neighborhood, to the elitist Christian Academy of Louisville.

After paying $2 for parking (really?), we paid $10 for general admission and entered the school’s sporting grounds. Although the school has a decent football stadium, the River City Rovers play on a soccer pitch next to it, with some make-shift bleachers on one side of the pitch. Founded in 2010, the River City Rovers are in their first PDL season, in the Great Lakes Division. Tonight’s game was against Forest City London, from Canada, and thus the game was started with two national anthems.

There were exactly 125 people in the stadium (me included); I counted them personally. Some 5-10 were away fans; probably linked to the team. One of the linesmen was… a woman! The Canadian players tried to intimidate her from the start, putting pressure on her to favor them. In general, the Canadian players were much more like Europeans than Americans; where American soccer players are really polite, they don’t swear and address the referee as “sir,” the Canadians were complaining and cursing; to the chagrin of the spectators (this was, after all, at the Christian Academy ;-).

From the first minutes it was clear that this was going to be a poor quality game. After 4 minutes the Rovers give a good pass to the penalty spot, and the guy hits over the ball. In the 10th minute Forest City has a free kick at 17 meters, and kick it 5 meters over the goal. A minute later the guests should have gotten a penalty because of holding, but the ref doesn’t whistle it. After 23 minutes a long ball is missed by the Canadian goalie, and the Rovers score an easy goal: 1-0.

After that both teams have some soft chances, but overall the passing is extremely poor and few real chances are created. The Rovers goalie makes some decent saves; turns out he is a Dutch guy, who used to play in the ajax youth. Begs the question: what went so horribly wrong that he would end up here? Half Time: 1-0.

During the half time everyone plays on the pitch; mostly little kids and a couple of adult Africans (who looks kind of lost in this see of conservative Christian white Americanism). The second half is more of the same; perhaps even less quality. In the 61th minute a messy situation in the goal area leads to the equalizer: 1-1. A couple minutes later the Canadian goalie intercepts a good attack. In the 65th minute a Forest City player shoots from 16 meters with his left foot: 15 meters wide!

The rest of the game is a lot of work, and little play. There is a nasty head collision, which leads to a long break, but both players can continue. In the 84th minute three Forest City attack three Rovers defenders, but they pass rather than shoot, and the chance is wasted. In the 88th minute there is much confusion in the Canadian box, but the goalie pulls out a great save. In the dying seconds of the game, the guests go at goal one more time, but shoot wide. Clearly, 1-1 is the maximum possible for these two teams.

The PDL is a weird league. The difference between teams such as the River City Rovers and, say, Kitsap Pumas are so enormous. Moreover, one starts to wonder about the whole use of the enterprise, as they play a very short season, have no youth teams, and exist largely outside of the main cities (in rich, white suburbs).