Saturday, July 3, 2010

It must be the grass from Oregon

No...not that grass!  The fields for World Cup are partly seeded with good ol' Willamette Valley grass.  I'm thinking that's gotta be the factor that accounts for this year's World Cup matches being so broadly more exciting than those of some recent cups.
So. To illustrate my point,  Germany became the UberTeam by crashing through the Argentinians for four goals this morning before I'd even had my coffee.   I didn't see it,  but I saw the replays of Maradona's anquish on the sidelines.   It may be repayment for the Mano del Dio.   Apparently the ten earlier goals were more a reflection of individual talent against lesser opponents than of a well-crafted tactical machine that would hold up under pressure.  
I did tune in for Spain's battle with Paraguay and was completely rewarded.   It was one of those moments when I almost wished that both teams could advance.   Paraguay was gritty,  played as a team,  did not give up, and had opportunities including a goal called back for offside.  Paraguay's Alcaraz, who plays for Brugge and has been an anchor of the country's stout defense,  was in agony after giving up the original penalty.  The Paraguayan keeper, Villar,  faced with a Spanish penalty kick,  managed to stop it (admittedly only on the second go) and escaped a possible red card as he flung himself after the loose ball and took down a Spanish attacker just wide of the goalpost. 
Spain, by comparison, struggled to find its form in the first half as Paraguay threw itself in the way of the normal Iberian fluidity.  In the second half,  though,  the Spaniards looked more poised and patient and increasingly their style showed.  A moment of serious heartburn occurred when Pique was called for pulling down his mark in the box on a setpiece.  The replay in slowmo fully justified the call.   And the ensuing PK (a PK from Pique?) looked like it would put the South Americans ahead but Casillas made an extraordinary save, holding the ball close.  
It wasn't until Villa's strike late in the game that Spain took the lead and were able to bring the suspense to an end.   
But again officiating stuck its grimy finger into the regular run of things and affected the outcome.   The penalty that Paraguay escaped?   Batres,  the Center from Guatemala,  called back the first penalty which had gone in the net.   The reason, he indicated, was that players had encroached before the ball was kicked.   And it appeared that was true.  But ironically,  a brief replay of the penalty at the other end of the pitch showed that players appeared to be encroaching in that instance as well.   The problem of inconsistency is heightened when the ref's decision took a goal from Spain but also might have given Paraguay a second crack at the net. 
Not quite the Shakespearean drama of the Ghana v Uruguay match,  but this one was full of emotion and demonstrations of great heart on both sides of the pitch.   I'd say it was among the best matches I've seen in this competition.   And there've been quite a few.
So my predictions for the final four?  Only half right.  I got Spain and the Netherlands.  But I'm content.   And as I look at the clock I realize I've got to get on my pony and head for town!  The Timbers are taking on the 'Caps in an hour.   I need to be there. 

Friday, July 2, 2010

The kind of World Cup matches I'd like to see more of!

The Nederlanders were as solid as they needed to be today.  The early Brazilian goal,  a lovely through ball down an open lane as big as a freeway,  didn't dishearten the Orange side at all.  They'd already come back in the pre-tournament from being down one to Hungary. That didn't unsettle them although it took till the fifty-sixth minute to come back and take the lead.  Dutch grit was plenty in evidence in this game against the Brazilians.   My good friend and longtime soccer observer, Mark, noted recently that Brazil's play no longer is the beautiful game for which they were famous.  That observation proved true today as Brazilian players early on took to banging the orangemen around.  I think there were six early fouls.  And the Dutch may have wanted to demonstrate that they'd had enough after Robben hooked and spun to the ground in the right corner.  It was shortly afterward that Sneijder arced his long cross into the box,  completely flummoxing Julio Cesar and the Brazilian defender jumping next to him.   When Orange tallied a second time with a flicked on cross from Robben at the corner,  the South Americans came unglued.  Four minutes later, Felipe Melo was stamping on Robbens lying on the ground earning him a red card.  Kaka's face reflected petulance.  And the clock ticked down.   Without question the Netehrlands got some luck on their side.  Brazil,  until the players began to express their frustration, was dangerous.  But the result was satisfying.   And I thought I'd seen one of the most exciting matches of the Copa so far.

But then I turned the television on  (I had been watching the ESPN3 stream of Brazil v Netherlands) and discovered,  to my surprise that there were still seven or eight minutes left in the neck and neck match between Ghana and Uruguay.  I don't think I've ever seen quite as dramatic a contest as the end of this epic struggle.   Clearly, both teams were exerting themselves mightily and were playing ferocious defense without giving up efforts to string their passes into the opposing goal.   To my eye, Ghana began to gain momentum in the waning minutes, three or four times putting a ball on the feet or chest of an attacker in front of Uruquay's goal only to be repelled each time!  The teams,  clearly weary and foot heavy,  battled again for more than thirty minutes because there is added time to the added time.  Valiantly.  Still trying to maintain their shape,  to get back and cover, to move off the ball,  to think creatively no matter how parts of the brain scream 'stop running'.    Yes, there are dives in the game and a shameful practice that is.   But there are also moments of true agony.   Gyan,  the Ghanaian forward,  scrambling hard to get the strike that will save it all with a full run down the right wing.  Goes down in the corner as he rotates to cut back.   Uruguayan players complain.  But the replay shows the tackle crashing into the back of his lower leg as his foot plants and turns.  This is no game for poseurs.

And then,  with stoppage time at 120+ and slipping away,  Ghana had a shot at point blank range! The shot was blocked, but, immediately volleyed back. Muslera, the Uruguayan keeper, was lost from the first shot, but two defenders stood on the goal line and one, Suarez,  cleared the ball with his hand!  Chaos ensued.  Senor Bencerenca,  the official,  gave Suarez the boot for the handball and pointed to the spot.  Immediately millions focused their attention on Asamoah Gyan, Ghana's #3, who steps to take the kick. Certainly the Black Stars will win!  A Uruguyan player,  maybe Suarez, is walking away in tears with a teammate trying to comfort him.  Gyan strikes the ball.  Muslera dives left!  The ball rises,  centerline,  hits the crossbar and heads to heaven.  Gyan missed!   He looks skyward and turns away putting his jersey between his teeth.  He was given the chance to bring Africa to the next level.  And he missed.  Prince-Boateng tries to comfort him.   Muslera reaches up and kisses the crossbar.   He does it again.   The referee signals the end of extra time.  The game will go to PKs.  I do not think I can recall a more dramatic moment in watching futbol for thirty five years.  Incredible.   

And probably we all know the rest of the tale.  How Gyan recovered some of his self-esteem with a well-placed shot.  But ultimately it was Muslera who was the hero,  stopping two of the Black Stars' kicks and anchoring the win for the Uruguayan side.  The battle could not have been won and lost on a much smaller margin of difference.  A single penalty kick,  perhaps taken a little in haste and affected by the immense pressure of a continent's hopes riding in the balance.  I hope that Asamoah Gyan can believe that he is a hero and not a goat.   It's like the old rhyme,  "For want of a nail the shoe was lost....etc."   Except I think that was about an English king and that's an entirely different story.  

The link is to You Tube footage of those closing moments.  I suspect this will be a classic.

When it was all over,  I thought about our Portland Timbers losing on PKs the other night to the Flounders.   And it occurred to me that things could be much much worse.  One could end a World Cup run of legendary character with a single kick.  It happens.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Morning After...

At five thirty last evening,  I was waiting to meet up with my group and hand out their tickets when I spied my friend Roger.   Like me,  he's been going to Timbers games for some decades now.  I hailed him and he told me he'd confronted a moral dilemma on the way to PGE Park.   "I saw two sizeable groups of people dressed in Sounders gear heading the wrong way.  I asked myself what was the right thing to do.  And decided since they had two hours to find the stadium,  I wasn't obligated to jump in and give them directions."   I assured him that he was on moral solid ground, and besides, they were probably just looking for a bar to "refresh" before the match.  
When the team finally took the field last night,  the lineup choices were interesting.  Think that Dike and Taki both contributed a lot as did Nemo.  Seemed as if Ryan Pore was a a little on edge.  And Cronin as well.  Sitting in the stands and waiting for the game to begin,  several of us talked about how much attention was given to not letting in an early goal.   I guess the thirteenth minute isn't real early, but it was dismaying to let one in before we'd found our pace in the game.   I liked the team's aggression out of the gate.  Was good stuff.   I still wish Dansu would distribute the ball out of the back with more control.   On that score,  I was impressed with Ross Smith's play.  As an aside I noted that Smith's retro shorts have attracted notice from folks other than me.  Open Letter to Ross Smith on Soccer City USA is an example.  I couldn't help but notice that his display photo for the Timbers' shows him with a kind of kewpie hair style.  What are they trying to do to this guy?   
Kasey Keller?  Can't minimize how much his poise contributes in a shootout situation.   Oh...and I was disappointed that the team wasn't able to do more when the Sounders went down a man.  It was clear toward the end that Dike had burned through his reserves of energy,  a great effort.  I might have given him a break earlier.  Keita didn't have time to get his stride coming in as late as he did.   Well...I'm not in charge.  Easy to make decisions after the fact. was great to see the Army in full roar.  And many more of them filling the Army sections. The new season ticket plan (yes I got mine) having Timbers Army designated sections and tickets is a great idea.   The quibble I have is the outliers from the Army who are not sitting with the group but feel obliged to go through all the ritual moves the Army does with little regard for the people sitting around them.   If you're a six foot tall guy standing up and holding your scarf over your head with ten rows of people behind you trying to see the goal we're attacking,  you are going to be a nuisance.   All of those of other folks are your fellow Timbers fans; getting mad at them when they ask politely that you put your scarf down is lame.   So put your friggin' scarf down!    
I think the real test for our side is coming up Saturday when the Caps revisit.   Can we put together a good competition and win against a fierce rival in a game that counts?  Can we avoid making the twenty or so passes to the other team that cause people like myself to grit our teeth? 
God, I hope so.  If there is a god of soccer,  I hope he or she can spare a little kindness in a busy football week for the Boys in Green.    Peace out!  

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Counting Down...

Last June we gathered a crew of twenty or so Timbers friends,  had a little warmup gathering at Albina Community Bank in the Pearl, and took a walk up to PGE Park hoping to see our boys whomp the visiting Sounders.   Sadly it didn't turn out that way.  Here we go again!  7:30 tonight we'll see if we can't put the jimjam into their attacks and get a win.   

My World Cup final four!

I'm going out on a limb here.   What a great final eight!  I love the fact that Ghana and Uruguay have both made it through, unexpectedly,  and one of them will go on for sure since they play each other.  My money's on Ghana.  They played well against good opponents and an African team in the final four would have a certain righteousness.  Okay,  I've been saying the Dutch will come on and make a good show in the tournament,  and this is the moment to do it.  I know all the smart money is on Brazil,  but I'm going to roll with the Dutch sneaking a goal in and hanging on.  I've gotta go with Argentina for the victory against Germany.  I think it will be a great game,  but the Argentines are on a roll and they have had a strong tournament.  Germany, even with an increasingly steady effort in the last game,  doesn't have enough guns to stop the South Americans.  So...the last game I've gotta call Spain just because I'd like to see them play more.  I think Villa's goal against Portugal was a sign of their capabilities though Spain's scoring wasn't as exuberant as either Brazil nor Argentina.   That's it!  Ghana. Netherlands. Argentina. Spain.   We'll see.   Regardless,  the games will be excellent.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Timbers' Rowdy Rumble

As an old timer,  I like continuity.   Makes it easier if I don't have to remember too many new things and can just brush off the old.  The Timbers faced off Sunday afternoon against the Tampa Bay Rowdies at PGE Park in a very physical match.  As the picture shows,  the old NASL Rowdies used the green and gold bumblebee stripes way back in the 70s.   Interestingly Old Tampa Bay Rowdies featured Clyde Best and Stewart Scullion.  Best,  pictured here,  scored the second goal in beating the Timbers at the 1975 Soccer championship and was later recruited to play here in PDX.   If you can't beat 'em hire 'em!   

As I mentioned,  Sunday's match was very scrappy.  Timbers' coaches,  according to The Big O's coverage,  started a different configuration of players hoping to unlock the potential they believe lies in the talented crew. Bright Dike (dee-kay as I think everyone is learning) was a bull in front and cracked the woodwork early in the game. And he wasn't the only one.  Shots were taken close, out on the rim of the penalty area and from the flanks.  At the end it paid off with a crackerjack finish from Dike.    It was great to see a match when a goal wasn't given up with seconds left.  On a sad note,  however, Josh Cameron,  who had just been featured in a newspaper writeup before the match,  was carried off on a stretcher.   

Small observations.   I would really like to understand Ross Smith's shorts.   Respectfully.   The man looks like he came from the 70s when sport shorts really short!   Anyone have a thought on that?   The guy played well,  looks smart.....and who cares really about his kit.  Right.
The other thing that got my attention was the name Kljestan on the Tampa Bay roster.   Turns out it's Sacha's big brother Gordon who is carrying the family banner for the Rowdies.   The things I didn't know!   Enough for now I guess.

Next up....the Flounders!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Ghana Again

I'll just say out of the gate that yesterday's US loss to Ghana wasn't the worst thing that happened on a soccer pitch.   Let's just say that when my crew, Old Nicks,  faced off against Volga, the collective Russian-speaking old boys of the local league,   the result wasn't pretty.  For the first time all season we only had two subs,  one of them being me with a gimped achilles.   And the onset of summerlike heat wasn't helpful either.   But, enough whining.  Back to the world stage.

I liked the US v Ghana match.  I thought both teams played hard and there was some good stuff.  The US vulnerability in defense isn't a surprise at this point though I still can't quite understand how the lapses happen when so often the defense does well.   The US struggle to put the ball in the net is also known,  and is less hard to understand.  Altidore,  our striker,  only got off a single shot to my recollection.   Someone once told me you can't score if you don't shoot.  I dunno.  Gomez to his credit started shooting.   Dempsey,  working like a manic steam engine,  was getting knocked around enough that he had a hard time getting shots off.  The Black Stars were organized and persistent.   And the winning goal was a great effort against two defenders.   

So the red white and blue go home and begin to regroup.  That's where I think we see real questions begin to arise.   For the next Cup in 2014  the US team will face the reality that we have to have younger players with experience at the international level.   Cherundolo, Demerit, and Bocanegra will all be in their mid-thirties by the next round.   Donovan will be thirty-two and five of this year's selection will be the same age or close to it.     The identification of strong and experienced American players who are coming up and in their early twenties is going to be a giant issue.  I'm just quote my friend, AJ.

England robbed of goal in Germany match

I just saw the headline saying "Germans Trounce England" this morning.   I didn't watch the match live but streamed most of it,  and my response is Bollocks!  Officials trounce football is more honest.  The Germans deserve the win but it wasn't a trouncing.   And the momentum could have been quite different had England's second goal--clear on the replay-- been allowed in the late first half.   Regardless,  the question of how officiating affects the game keeps bubbling to the surface.   What was FIFA's reason again for not allowing the devices in goal that verify a ball's crossed completely over the line?   

Portland Timbers strip down crest

The Portland Timbers announced this past week that they had,  after consideration, revised the 'crest' design which was unveiled two weeks back at the halftime of the US v England match gathering in Director's Park.  The new design is not dramatically different than the first one,  the differences are largely graphical elements which gave an illusion of dimensionality to the blade of the ax and the team name.   So this is a flattened image,  simpler and more crisp.   
The visual merits of the two are certainly valid fodder for debate and each would probably have its proponents.  The real story here though is the process.  The Timbers chose to engage in graphic design by popular consensus of sorts,  engaging in the revision process after the first version elicited boos from many in the crowd at the park event.   I'm guessing that the first concept was run past a fair number of fans and focus groups before it was trotted out so there's nothing wrong with the idea of getting input.  Merritt Paulson, in the release on the change, is quoted saying  “We welcomed fan input in the process and feel the final result appropriately honors our traditions..."   Back in the 70s Timbers Old School,  there was a lot of fan input of various sorts,  particularly in the run of '78 but not with the organization and muscle of the Timbers' Army,  today's supporter group.  The Army has been good in building the club's image for evoking passion.  A friend of mine who follows the game more intensely than I'm able suggested that the Timbers Army seemed to imagine themselves as the American version of St. Pauli's fans in the Bundesliga,  a communard collective allied with the Club against "the Man".   The ultimate in blue collar football.    I would have said something like Green Bay fans sense of ownership in their team.   Both may be somewhat apt.  The danger in such pairings,  as was demonstrated in France during the Revolution,  is that 'the people'  are fickle.   
Personally,  I like the second version of the crest better.  But ultimately I take my support of the Timbers from what happens on the field and from the fact they're my home team not from the design on their uniforms.