Monday, August 26, 2019

Timbers Losing Streak Extended On A Very Emotional Night At The Park

Pandemonium struck in the 34th minutes, and it was awesome
Derby matches are always emotional and draining because there are always stakes involved, even if there isn't anything official to play for. It's part of what makes the rivalries so important, especially one like the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders FC enjoy. Sure, there is plenty of animosity over various results and situations over the years, but every once in a while, there are the occasional signs of mutual respect. The August 23rd date between the Timbers and the Sounders FC had plenty of actual stakes involved with the result - the fate of the Cascadia Cup would be determined to see if Seattle, the current holders, could continue their stewardship of the cup with a victory in the Rose City while also firming up their position within the top of the Western Conference standings. Portland, meanwhile, has struggled mightily at their home grounds after posting an emphatic win over their other Cascadian Rival, Vancouver, just two weeks previously in a driving rainstorm. While Portland did defeat Chicago days later, but the Timbers lost their focus and composure as the Fire nearly pulled even in stoppage time after Portland jumped to a big lead. Atlanta came in days later as the Timbers continued to try and find themselves, but a Josef Martinez goal seconds into the second half effectively squashed any chance for a rally as the Timbers absorbed a difficult loss at home. This match itself followed a similar pattern to the previous match in terms of play, but the Timbers were able to make it interesting and keep it close until the final moments. Unfortunately, the team lost their second match in a row at home by a 2 to 1 score, but this match had plenty of other implications happening off the pitch that added to the raw emotion of the night.

Timbers Coach Gio Savarese has been lamenting the team's struggles with focus and composure since nearly coughing up the lead against Chicago despite scoring two early goals and being up a man due to an ejection in the 30th minute. Portland fell behind against Atlanta off a deflected goal in the first half, but the strike by Martinez right after the break seemed to pull the energy out of the team for any sort of comeback. With Larrys Mabiala still out due to injury and Jorge Moreira not available due to accumulation suspension, Savarese had to make some adjustments to a backline that has been struggling at moments in the past few weeks. Zarek Valentin received the call to start as the right fullback alongside center backs Julio Cascante and Bill Tuiloma, with Jorge Villafana manning the left side with Steve Clark again between the posts in goal once again. Savarese employed Diego Chara and Cristhian Paredes as the defensive midfielders, both having played some of their best soccer over the past few weeks, with the attacking trio of Marvin Loria, Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco manning the midfield attackers. Savarese chose to stay with Brian Fernandez as the lone striker despite his struggles against Atlanta, including a disallowed goal in the first half, but Gio could bring on Jeremy Ebobisse as another scoring option if needed. While the Timbers have enjoyed decent bouts of possession and chances over the past few matches, the ability to break down goal scoring opportunities has been the big issue; whether it's a lack of creativity, patience, composure or whatever, the Timbers simply haven't been able to make things very easy for themselves in the past couple of matches.
Special Olympics celebrated their Timbers & Sounders teams at the half.

Seattle, on the other hand, has been trying to figure out what kind of team they are as they've been consistently inconsistent for most of the season. It's probably hard to think that with the Sounders being in the top of the Western Conference, but outside of LAFC who has been taking victory laps around most of MLS this season, everybody else in the West either looks amazing one minute and horrible the next. Seattle hasn't been very good on the road either, but any team that has Raul Ruidiaz, Cristian Roldan, Nicolas Lodiero and Jordan Morris in their attacking arsenal can't be overlooked. The Sounders were also excited at the recent play of Xavier Arreaga at center back, especially with Roman Torres suspended for several months for a drug offense. Sounders FC goalkeeper Stefan Frei remains one of the best in the league in terms of saves and distribution, so the Timbers would have to find some true quality to score in this match. Savarese told his team this match was very important because of the stakes involved including the fate of the Cascadia Cup, but for Seattle Coach Brian Schmetzer, his goals were much simpler for his side - establish some consistency to gain some confidence going into the final weeks of the year. Seattle has just 7 matches left in 2019 while Portland has just 8 after this fixture, so there aren't many matches left in the year to establish anything solid before this year's new playoff format. The top seed avoids the play in round altogether, and each leg is just one match hosted by the higher seeded team, so being in the top 4 guarantees at least one home date.

As important as the match was for the teams playing, the event took on even more significance because of escalating tensions between the Timbers and their staunch supporters, the Timbers Army. Since the introduction of certain language in the MLS Fan Code of Conduct prohibiting political actions back in March, there have been rising actions between the team and the Timbers Army  surrounding the use of the Iron Front symbol. Actions have escalated since the Vancouver match with supporters boycotting stadium purchases and creating several displays and clothing with the Iron Front logo, but as we covered in our last entry, the team took extraordinary measures to post a press release doubling down on the policy and indicating the Iron Front logo would be prohibited on any large displays. It could, however, be used on clothing and small individual banners. Knowing this match would be on national television with a large viewing audience, the TA made a decision to protest the team's action once again. They would not put forth a pre-match display or sing the National Anthem, while they would also remain silent for the first 33 minutes of the match in solidarity. Where this action took on a different track was that the Sounders' visiting supporters from the Emerald City Supporters and Gorilla FC agreed to the same terms as well, so both groups would go silent for the majority of the first half. The history between the groups has experienced several bumpy chapters over the years, but the fact that these groups of supporters all agreed to this action shows the seriousness and conviction behind this approach. The Seattle supporters haven't experienced anything as serious in actions taken by the Sounders organization that I could find, but the fact that they were willing to go all in with the Timbers Army was enough to show me that they considered the league actions objectionable.

Diego Chara was his very active self for all of the match per usual
I have to admit that I was slightly concerned when 30 minutes before the kickoff, the Sounders end was in full voice with drums and flags making a wall of noise, while the Timbers Army were just settling into their seats getting ready for the match. But after a very quiet anthem and no display to speak of, when Center Official Jair Marrufo blew the whistle, the Sounders end went quiet to match the Timbers section of supporters. For those that might be familiar with the crowds at a Portland Beavers baseball game or other events at the park, the noise level was definitely similar to that. For 33 minutes, people heard the voices of the players and coaches, a few one off attempts at a cheer for their side, and some good natured applause. Timbers matches are known for the raucous atmosphere and vibrant displays, but the entire North End went silent, and I'm sure the ESPN crowd wasn't sure what they had tuned into. Much like Atlanta, Portland put some pressure on early as Paredes tested Frei in the 10th minute from distance that he blocked, but it fell to Loria. Marvin put a shot on target, but Frei pushed it over the bar to earn a corner kick that generated a chance for the Timbers, but  Tuiloma rushed a header in the 11th minute just wide. The Sounders seemed content to let the Timbers run about until the 22nd minute when Morris sprinted down the left side with Valentin providing the mark. Unfortunately, Zarek committed the cardinal sin of defending in reaching his foot out to stop Morris, and the Seattle forward easily out maneuvered him to then get clear and put a cross from left to right. With Ruidiaz and Roldan near the goal relatively unmarked, the ball fell to Ruidiaz, but his shot was deflected away by Clark momentarily. However, Roldan was able to find the rebound and tap it into an open goal to give the Sounders a 1 to 0. However, the celebration was very subdued outside of a few claps and the near quiet returned to the crowd seconds later.

The teams traded back and forth runs for the next several minutes to no avail as the defenses were able to cover the threats, but the complexion of the match changed dramatically in the 34th minute when as agreed upon, the supporters groups' both broke into song and displays at the agreed upon time of 33:01 on the clock. The song Bella Ciao was an Italian anti-fascist song originated in 1933 at the height of World War II, and it bellowed through the entire park as flags, signs, streamers, banners and noise returned to the stadium. Several Iron Front flags were flying about within both sections, and it appeared that both teams fed off the renewed energy from the supporters. Valeri had a blocked shot in the 38th minute while Fernandez pushed a shot just off frame in first half stoppage as the score held to the 1 to 0 mark. Although Loria was having a decent match in terms of getting wide and creating chances, Savarese decided to sacrifice him at the half to bring on Ebobisse to give the Timbers a two forward attack with Ebo playing out wide while Fernandez would concentrate within the central area of the box. The change nearly paid dividends in the early moments of the half when Blanco found Ebobisse in the box on the right clear, but Frei was able to push the shot away at the last minute. Considering this was seconds into the second half, it appeared that the Timbers might be in good shape to make the match interesting.
Julio Cascante left the match due to injury

The optimism took a shot in the arm in the 47th minute when Morris beat Valentin in the 47th minute on a run very similar to his 22nd minute effort that yielded a goal. This time, Ruidiaz was the benefactor and he converted the cross to a goal as Cascante was late to cover him off the cross while Valentin again missed keeping Morris away from attacking with slow reactions. Suddenly, a one goal deficit was doubled, and the Timbers faithful were starting to see a familiar pattern. Unlike the Atlanta match, however, the Timbers were able to make it interested when Ebobisse was fouled just outside the box in the 53rd minute by Sounders midfielder Jordy Delem. Off the free kick, Valeri decided to put the effort on frame going to the right, but his shot hit Ruidiaz on the wall, and deflected the ball to the left of the goal. Frei was already heading to the right, and he was unable to adjust back to catch the shot before it struck the next, and just like that, Portland was able to pull back within a goal at 2 to 1. Two minutes later, the Timbers thought they might have the equalizer when Valeri challenged Frei from 20 yards out with a shot from distance, but Frei pushed it away to the left. Ebobisse found the rebound, and put a chip shot into the box where Paredes was able to put a shot on goal with a header but he pushed the shot wide.

Savarese continued to tinker in adding Tomas Conechny for Paredes to give more attacking options, but he added more fuel in the 79th minute when Cascante went down awkwardly trying to make a play and had to leave the match due to injury. Saverese chose to go with three defenders in the back and bring on Andy Polo to effectively put all of the Timbers' attackers out there to get a leveling goal, but the Cascante situation bears some concern here as it's another center back injury to the Timbers in an already thin area. Tuiloma is just coming back from injury while Mabiala is still recovering from his injury; with Modou Jadama out with a leg injury, the Timbers are effectively with 2 functioning center backs on the roster with Tuiloma and Claude Dielna. Portland thought they had leveled in the 81st minute when Valeri put a cross from right to left for Fernandez, and he easily slotted the ball past Frei to set off a crazed celebration in the North End, but replays show that Fernandez was slightly ahead of Seattle defender Saad Abdul-Salaam, but it was really, really, really close. Marrufo did consult with VAR official Edvin Jurisevic about the play, but the call on the pitch stood. While Blanco just missed on a header in the depths of stoppage time by mere inches and Polo put a wicked shot on Frei that caused some concern, the Timbers weren't able to get the equalizer when the final whistle blew.

Brian Fernandez thought he had pulled the Timbers even in the 81st minute.
The Sounders players fell to the turf in exhaustion and elation while their supporters gathered in the southwest corner with the Cascadia Cup in celebration that they would be keepers of the cup for another season. The Sounders had been conceding goals like crazy coming into this match, but their defense held together enough to yield just one goal on the night, and the points give them some much needed momentum. The Timbers, on the other hand, were left to sort through the wreckage of another home loss. There certainly are those heaping blame on the result on Marrufo and his crew, who missed a handball in the box in the 40th minute off Delem from a cross that Marrufo ruled his leg, but the replays show the ball struck the hand then the leg, and the decision on Fernandez was a really close call. The defense could certainly get some scrutiny as Valentin lost track of Morris on both goals in trying to mark, and Morris appeared to be struggling with a leg injury on and off for most of the evening, yet he was able to beat Zarek on multiple occasions. Cascante also was left exposed on a few runs, forcing Tuiloma to have to adjust and he wasn't able to make a few plays either, whether this was due to unfamiliarity with each other or just pressure from the Sounders. But for me, the biggest issue on the night was the Timbers' impatience on the offensive end. Saverese lamented the team wasn't very composed for most of the night on offense, especially considering the wealth of chances the team enjoyed, and I agree with the coach.

Some talk has been made that an easy adjustment could be to move Fernandez out to the wing, his more natural position, and move Ebobisse to the center to be more of the focal and distribution point. Fernandez was a huge success early as the lone striker in poaching for goals, but over the last few matches, he's struggled to find space to work in the middle and his best creativity from what we've seen in his previous stops was movement wide. That would put a ton of pressure on Ebobisse to be the true distributor and threat in the middle, but considering he's a taller, more physical forward, I'm actually thinking this is a needed adjustment. This should then allow Blanco and Valeri to do what they do best in wandering about on the pitch with the support of another winger if needed or just work within the four of them. Savarese will certainly have a lot of ponder before the team's next match when they host Real Salt Lake on August 31st in what could likely be RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando's last appearance in Portland, as he announced his retirement before the start of the 2019 season. Like Seattle, RSL has been lurking in the middle of the table in the West and while they don't have many of the dynamic options we've seen from them in previous seasons, they are not a team to overlook.

Portland wants this place as a fortress, but it's been tough this year.
The one group that I wouldn't think to blame for the results would be the supporters, who brought tons of energy and noise after their initial protest. Some didn't feel that way and voiced their frustration at the Timbers Army's decision to stay silent for a good portion of an extremely important  match with tons of implications. Many outlets have been covering the protest for several months, but the supporters' actions and subsequent response has given this story even more attention and it's being discussed in many social circles. If you followed the situation on Twitter, most folks on the #RCTID hashtag supported the protest and voiced approval, but on Facebook, the reaction was far more negative, as many fans wondered why the Army would do this during in a Cascadia Cup match. It doesn't take an ad wizard to know that putting a vocal protest against a rule or situation works much better with a wider audience, and what bigger stage could the supporters get than a national audience on ESPN in the only MLS match going at that broadcast window? The actions forced people to talk about the Iron Front symbol, the actions taken by the league and the teams, and what the supporters are protesting about. Even the players got into the situation with Valentin wearing an Iron Front symbol shirt before the match and afterwards during the team's media time, while Ebobisse had a Colin Kaepernick jersey on. The Sounders were also engaged as Frei saluted the Timbers Army after the match and gave an impassioned interview afterwards about his thoughts.

Perhaps the more disturbing angle of the negative comments though came from several who indicated how frustrated they were at the lack of atmosphere within the park, and it's expected for the stadium to be loud and boisterous for our team. Maybe those comments came from Russian bots, or the commenters don't realize that the capos leading songs and the drummers are volunteer positions; they pay for a game ticket just like everyone else and give their time freely to help organize the displays and songs. As a group, they all agreed to the protest action because as has been stated, the actions of the league go against everything the Iron Front symbol stands for. The three arrows are a response to messages of hatred in any form, and banning this symbol as political speech is incorrect. I'm not sure what will happen over the coming weeks, but with neither side seeming to want to budge, it seems the drama surrounding the Timbers will be ratcheted up as the calendar moves closer to the opening days of Fall. As I stated in my last post, I have always hoped the sides could find some common ground, but instead it appears there is some bunkering down on their respective positions. For me, the Timbers Army are doing the right thing and I applaud them for standing up against hate in any form.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The 2019 Season Ride For The Portland Timbers Just Got A Whole Lot Bumpier

This is not a political statement. 
This is probably the most difficult post I've ever done in the years of covering the Portland Timbers. In the nearly 12 seasons in the media covering the club and in my 15th season of being a season ticket holder, I've never witnessed anything like I have over the past few days in news surrounding the club. This comes at a rather difficult time for the team in terms of fixtures; while Portland is currently in the midst of a 10 match homestand at Providence Park with Chicago and Atlanta representing the second and third match of the sequence, it's also their third and forth matches of a total of five in 15 days going into the month of August. The back to back against Minnesota to start the month represented the most emotionally challenging match sequence of 2019 in my opinion after dealing with controversial hand ball decisions that went against the team, but the Timbers seemed to have righted the ship somewhat in a dominant home win over Vancouver to take control of the 2019 Cascadia Cup and exorcise several demons. Unfortunately, Portland slept walked through most of the Fire match and held on for the result in the final moments, while Atlanta simply came in and stepped on the Timbers' throats figuratively in a similar fashion to the 2018 MLS Cup match where Atlanta defeated Portland to win their first ever MLS title.

Considering the team is trying to sort out their identity in a rather difficult stretch has added some intensity and scrutiny with a huge match on the calendar forthcoming. It's somewhat ironic that the Seattle Sounders, the team's longest standing rival whose fixtures seem to appear at pivotal times in the calendar, is lurking for Friday, August 23 as part of the league's Rivalry Week. The stakes for the coming weekend are huge for many reasons - the Sounders currently hold the Cascadia Cup and the only way they will keep it is to beat the Timbers on their home pitch. Seattle is dealing with several key injuries within their team as they try to remain within the playoff picture, while Portland is trying to sort out their offensive dynamic. The Timbers are one of the best counter attacking teams within the league, especially in adding striker Brian Fernandez to an already vaunted attack, but the team has struggled in situations where their opponents bunker back with extra defenders. The Timbers have the ability to attack in the open pitch against anybody, but when they are forced to slow it down and find space in tight places on the pitch, the team has been incredibly inconsistent in that aspect. Combine this with an injury to their best defender, Larrys Mabiala, and you could see why supporters are concerned with the stretch coming up. But that isn't the only swirl surrounding the Timbers at this point in the year either.
There are tensions at the park, but for very good reason.

I appreciate Timbers' Coach Gio Savarese's candor during his post match press conferences, and his comments after the Timbers' 3 to 2 win over the Chicago Fire were indeed compelling. Savarese was pleased with the result giving the Timbers 6 points in their homestand so far courtesy of wins over Vancouver and the Fire, and the fact that the Timbers played one of their most dominant efforts over the first 30 minutes of the match against an outmatched Fire team that wasn't playing many of their regulars. The passing and movement was probably some of the best we've seen from the Timbers in quite some time - likely due to the reinsertion of Fernandez into the starting eleven - and this group responded by producing 2 early goals off defensive breakdowns and lucky bounces. It appeared the Timbers were in for a relatively easy evening in establishing the big lead, and the play occurred that changed the complexion of the match. While Portland did get a late goal from Fernandez that eventually ended up being the game winner, Chicago did literally everything to try and steal points on the road and they came very close to doing just that despite being a man down for nearly 60 minutes. The complexion of the match changed in one defining moment with the Timbers already up 2 to 0 behind goals from defender Jorge Moreira off a lovely chip shot and Fernandez spinning in a deflected pass into an open goal. Portland was grooving, taking some of the energy and passion established from the big win over Vancouver, and then, the roof caved in on them.

Timbers midfielder Marvin Loria was chasing down Fire defender Jonathan Bornstein at midpitch and executed a wicked slide tackle to stop the Fire offense. Portland was openly frustrated at the Fire continuing play as defender Julio Cascante was rolling about on the pitch after interacting with Fire midfielder Aleksandar Katai instead of putting the ball out; while this action isn't required, teams often do this in a sporting gesture, but the Fire wasn't having any of it. During the break in play, Center Silviu Petrescu was contacted by his VAR, Jon Freemon, to review the play between Katai and Cascante after giving Loria a caution for his tackle. Upon review of the play, Katai had thrown an elbow to Cascante's face and Petrescu ejected Katai from the proceedings. Already being up 2 to 0, this should have been a positive development for the Timbers to build up some confidence. Instead, the Fire seemed galvanized by the situation and held firm. Portland generated several chances, but couldn't extend their lead, and when Nikolic finally broke through in the 74th minute, a comfortable match just got excruciating. Fernandez was able to tally a brace in the 88th minute to restore the two goal lead, but when Fire substitute C.J. Sapong headed in a cross from Fire midfielder Przemyslaw Frankowski past Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark in second half stoppage, Chicago crept closer to stealing points. Chicago didn't make it very easy - and Savarese was upset at how casual the Timbers were after going up a man. He wanted the team to show some fire and take control of the match, which didn't happen in a situation where it should have occurred.

The Timbers Army has a history of pushing barriers in supporting their club.
Perhaps nothing reinforced that point more than the Timbers' subsequent match hosting Atlanta United. The story lines all centered about former Timbers midfielder Darlington Nagbe returning to his former grounds with his new team, but it was also a battle between two clubs trying to establish a foundation going into the postseason. Atlanta is a very good team at home in 2019, but on the road, they've been abjectly terrible white Portland is still acclimating to their stadium after playing most of their season so far away from home. The troubles that centered around Portland's offense continued with Portland struggling to find the final pass to challenge Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan, but Atlanta's defensive trio was also very adept at making a solid challenge or deflection to just throw off a run ever so slightly. Atlanta defender Leandro Gonzalez Perez deflected in a rebound save that Clark had made off a Josef Martinez missile to give Atlanta a 1 to 0 lead early, but Portland had a goal by Fernandez disallowed in the 22nd minute when it was judged that Brian was offside ever so slightly. The Timbers defense also did their best to keep the deficit at one with defender Bill Tuiloma executing a superb slide tackle to stop Atlanta striker Pity Martinez on a breakaway, and when the break happened, Portland could feel pretty good only being down by one. Until Josef struck right after the second half start with a goal that nobody could have stopped. Atlanta took control of the match emphatically and literally, and while Portland still had a half to try and make a game of it, the Timbers offered little resistance outside of a few shots right to Guzan in losing by a 2 to 0 scoreline.

It is somewhat ironic that Savarese mentioned the desire for his team to exert control over a match to then witness a Timbers' opponent execute that very lesson the following match. While it's very true that Atlanta has exceptional talent within their roster with a few of their players (Guzan, Nagbe) being considered among the elite at their positions, the Timbers have arguably a similar roster of talent. One of the ways that teams have tried to keep the Timbers at bay this year has been to bunker back with extra numbers to force Portland to try and break a team down from the outside, which is extremely difficult to execute. Atlanta, however, tried a very different tactic by following the Timbers' method of absorbing pressure to then spring the counter when the situation favors them. Considering that Josef and Pity are two of the best in the world in the open pitch to exploit space, and Atlanta has strength in the midfield and on defense, it's a great strategy as long as it works. Now, Portland faces another slew of questions before their home date with the Sounders in an effort to find some consistency and confidence within their attack. Let's be honest that Diego Valeri, Diego Chara and Sebastian Blanco have been very good this season for Portland, but when a team is able to bottle them up and neutralize their strengths, the Timbers haven't been able to find a consistent alternative to challenge defenses. Fernandez has been as good as advertised, but he has also had bouts of inconsistency.
Larrys Mabiala was injured during the Chicago match but hopes to be back soon.

Within the backdrop of all of this, however, has been a lingering situation between the Timbers, MLS and the Timbers supporters' that completely imploded the day after the Atlanta loss. Before the 2019 season, MLS had announced a new fan code of conduct that explicitly banned political language within the stadium. The specified target of this new language was the use of the Iron Front logo by many supporters groups, including the Timbers Army, in their designated section. The 107ist issued a formal statement asking for clarification on several points the day after the code was released, but it wasn't until days before the June 1 home opener that the 107ist shared information from the team clarifying that the Iron Front symbol was banned for use in any signage at Providence Park. The policy was later clarified to allow small two-stick banners and wearing the symbol were allowed, but in subsequent home matches, there were various reports on social media of supporters being barred entry into the stadium or being asked to remove the symbols before being allowed to enter. The situation has been escalating over the weeks as the 107ist and several other supporters' groups have issued statements against the ban, while visiting supporters from Vancouver and Chicago have had banners confiscated and personal details captured by stadium security and local police recently. Even other local media outlets have picked up on the situation and have started to report on the escalating actions.

Seattle supporters have experienced similar actions at their home park, and as such, the rival supporters groups issued a statement through the Independent Supporters Council asking MLS to rescind the actions back on August 1. The specific ask was to remove the word political from the fan conduct and allow the Iron Front logo to be displayed at any match. The specific ban implemented in Portland has actually been applied to any team that plays there, so the Thorns and Timbers 2, who play in different leagues that have not issued any formal statements, and any fans going to those matches are subject to the same rules. The Chicago supporters in particular had 4 different banners taken on 2 separate occasions, displaying one right after the start of the second half of the match and 3 others displayed right before stoppage time. In reviewing social medial, the message #AUnitedFront has been appearing in MLS stadiums throughout the nation where supporters have been showing support of lifting the ban and removing the political verbiage. The major complaint against the inclusion of political language in the code of conduct is the relative subjectivity of what constitutes political speech, thus making it extremely difficult to consistently enforce across all markets.

When these two teams meet, fireworks happen. This match will be lit.
As the attention to the issue grew, the Timbers issued a clarifying statement on August 19 to clear the air about various misconceptions. They pointed out the organization is absolutely against fascism and has been a champion of various inclusive causes, the Iron Front ban is different and must still be enforced because it is inherently political. While the Timbers didn't write the policy themselves, they support it because many people are unaware of the origins of the Iron Front, and the symbol has been co-opted by antifa. There is a ton to unpack with it, but when I first read the notice, I could hardly believe what I was reading. Instead of taking a measured, reasonable approach and looking at the situation very logically, the team inexplicably decided to double down on the policy. The 107ist put forth a well reasoned response again disputing the action and asking for the team to reconsider, even using some verbiage that I really appreciated: we also disagree with what it represents at a basic level: the ability to arbitrarily, unilaterally, and subjectively interpret symbols and ideas as “political,” something we've already seen happening across the league in recent weeks.  Local media has again weighed in on the issue, but you know this is a big deal when Fox Soccer pundit and semi-regular soccer "troll" Alexi Lalas put forth his thought supporting the ban.

While I can see where the 107ist is making a statement that they aren't seeing much support for the ban, one just has to look at the Timbers Facebook page where the Timbers posted the notice. Several comments supporting the decision as reasonable, measured, acceptable and the right thing to do are littered within the comments, showing that not everybody is seeing this issue the same way. Many of the Facebook comments indicate a simple desire to keep politics out of soccer, and why can't fans just sit back, relax and watch a game without any issues? It's that line of entitled thinking that has rankled me in a way I didn't expect. Granted, I'm a white male and I understand the inherent advantages that I enjoy simply for being the way I was born. The attitude of "can't we just enjoy soccer" is one taken by individuals who don't fear for intimidating actions or words from others, and one that I cannot support. I want to enjoy the Portland Timbers more than most things, but it bothers me greatly if any of my fellow supporters are feeling threatened by the mere presence of an individual or group who  believes an ideal that discriminates against anybody for any reason. We need to make safe environments for people to sit back and enjoy soccer in any capacity.

I am really curious to see what display we will see this coming Friday.
Does this ban accomplish this? Not in my opinion, because the Iron Front symbol doesn't represent a political concept. The three arrows became associated as a response to fascist activities in Germany back in the 1930's, and it's become a worldwide symbol to show resistance to any fascist activities or beliefs. The Timbers Army has flow this symbol for many years in solidarity with other groups to indicate that the section is a safe place for everyone, where discrimination, misogamy, fascism and other hatred is not welcome. Flying this isn't a political statement, and while some individuals have co-opted the logo and used it during violent activities, this isn't the correct usage of it. Much like white supremacists have co-opted the OK hand signal as a sign of white power, this is a situation where a symbol of peace has been corrupted for nefarious purposes. I used to play the Circle Game in a rather playful manner for years, but obviously, that can't happen anymore. Any logo can be linked in an unflattering manner, but where I'm also disappointed is that this situation could have been an amazing platform for the Timbers to educate all of their supporters on what the Iron Front symbol represents, and why it's important. The fact that this is even mentioned in their statement is baffling, because a powerful tool to stamp out hate is education.

Where I think this situation has troubled me the most is that I remember my first days in the North End back in 2005 when I barely knew anybody. The section quickly became very welcoming as I learned the songs and the traditions, and the people standing around me became like my family. Many of them were present in 2008 when I married my wife, who I met in the section as well, as the entire ceremony was done up Timbers Army style. We had tensions and disagreements, but in most cases, they worked themselves out by talking through it and coming to an understanding. Even the Timbers Army and the team had several huge blowups, like in 2005 when the Army left the section for a match due to complaints of language but stormed the section later in the match. There was another disagreement after the Timbers introduced their first MLS logo at Director Park, but the sides were able to find a workable situation that produced what is now their current primary logo. Not all families agree on everything all the time, but it's up to the groups to find some common ground to work from. There isn't any common ground, however, when it comes to hate and making groups feel uncomfortable. And in reading about the steps within MLS that have occurred to get us to this point - NYCFC has known Nazis join them in their supporters group, the group asks for help from the team and league, but the team doesn't see any problem and the league indicates they don't want to profile fans. This leads to actions banning certain speech and symbols that potentially goes against a fascist message, and suddenly, here we are.

I still want the Timbers to try this defensive formation sometime.
I'm not trying to oversimplify this, and honestly, I have written more about this that I thought, but it's important to get this out in the open. Plenty of people have shared their thoughts and comments already, and it took me a while to get to this point. As angry as I am about what the Timbers stated, it's still my team and I love them regardless. That doesn't excuse taking a short sighted action to restrict something that isn't political that also designates hate and fascism isn't welcome. I know the team isn't fascist either, and they've done some incredible actions to help past causes in need, but they are on the wrong side in this case. I don't want the Timbers Army or the 107ist to compromise in this situation, as it's important that the word political be struck from the fan code of conduct, the policy document be reworked to protect and support all supporters with input from the teams, the league, supporters and human rights experts, and that the ban on flying the Iron Front symbol be lifted. The stakes coming up on August 23 were already important, but this whole situation has just taken on a new importance with Seattle in town and both team's supporters groups in current conflict with their respective front offices. I just hope that we get to a point where the biggest concerns for the Timbers and their supporters is who they are playing next week very soon, and the relationship between the supporters and the team is more like a family and less than a business transaction.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Timbers Youngsters Propel Portland To Resounding Home Win Over Whitecaps

Very Evil Dead Style Here
The Timbers Army always brings their tifo game when doing displays. 
It's weird to be at this point in the 2019 season and think that the Portland Timbers had only played 6 total home matches within their schedule heading into August, but construction plans and stadium expansion will do that. But the Timbers have also dealt with one of their more trying weeks of the season heading into the most important stretch of fixtures for this year - a 10 match homestand that will even out the impacts from their road heavy early months. After the 12 matches on the road to start the year, the Timbers still had road dates mixed in June and July with the first chances to play at the newly remodeled Providence Park, so it was important for the team to be in good shape within the table before they spend August and most of September here, and to that end, they sat just outside the top 7 to qualify for the postseason. Starting their long home stand was their Cascadian Canadian rivals, the Vancouver Whitecaps, a team that has struggled to find any sort of identity under new coach Marc Dos Santos, but the Caps were able to secure a win against Portland back in May by a 1 to 0 score when longtime Portland nemesis Fredy Montero logged the only goal for the home side. After losing two emotionally draining matches in Minnesota for different purposes - a 1 to 0 loss in league play behind a dubious handball decision in the closing minutes and a 2 to 1 loss in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals that featured another close handball decision - against Minnesota United FC, the Timbers needed a rebound match. Behind the efforts from several youngsters on the roster, the Timbers did just that in posting a resounding 3 to 1 win over the Whitecaps to right the ship and take control in the 2019 Cascadia Cup standings.

The losses in Minnesota featured most of the Timbers' regular starting eleven, and Portland faces a difficult sequence of matches to start the home standing in hosting Vancouver (August 10), Chicago (August 14), Atlanta (August 17) and Seattle (August 21) within 11 days before the schedule mellows for a bit. Not only was the Timbers schedule weighted towards road dates for the first part of the year, but the Timbers remain towards the bottom of the league in terms of fixtures played, so there are plenty of midweek matches for the team in the coming weeks. With forward Brian Fernandez experiencing some thigh tightness suffered in practice on Friday, Timbers Coach Gio Savarese had to make some tough decisions for his lineup. With several players logging huge minutes in the back to back with Minnesota United and the Chicago/Atlanta matches coming next week, Savarese had to make some difficult decisions relating to who to start versus the Whitecaps. With Dos Santos employing the typical physical style that has been a hallmark of the Caps, it would be important to use players that could challenge this approach yet also keep their head and wits about them to not be drawn into physical confrontations. Some decisions for Savarese were pretty easy - Steve Clark once again started in goal as he has for the past 7 league matches and the USOC semifinal - but others came with some added risk.
Leading scorer was unavailable for this match due to injury
Brian Fernandez wasn't available due to a slight thigh injury. He'll be fine.

Bill Tuiloma hadn't appeared for the Timbers first team since suffering an injury in the home opener with LAFC back on June 1, but after a few appearances with Timbers 2 over the past few weeks and successful rehab, he was back in the starting eleven alongside Julio Cascante; the young duo were quite effective in several appearances earlier in the 2019 season. With Jorge Moreira playing so well lately but racking up a ton of recent minutes, he was shuttered to the bench for this match in lieu of Zarek Valentin with Jorge Villafana manning the left side of the defense. The Timbers don't defeat the Los Angeles Galaxy back on July 27 with Cristhian Paredes' brace, but after 156 minutes of soccer in Minnesota, he was given the night off and replaced by Renzo Zambrano alongside Diego Chara, who continues his long iron man streak of playing that was only interrupted by his suspension for accumulation that kept him from playing in the aforementioned Galaxy match. Savarese gave his attacking force some different looks by starting Marvin Loria and Jeremy Ebobisse as the right wing and solitary forward alongside stalwarts Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco, who are both influencin matches positively at their age despite racking up a serious amount of minutes recently. Moreira and Paredes would highlight a strong bench of substitute options along with forwards Tomas Conechy and Dairon Asprilla, defender Larrys Mabiala, midfielder Andres Flores and goalkeeper Kendall McIntosh.

Reeling would be a good description for the Whitecaps over the past few seasons, but it probably doesn't even begin to explain how far this franchise has fallen in terms of being competitive in MLS. After firing their entire coaching staff from last year, the team jettisoned several players in a move to clean house while bringing in Dos Santos, a very successful coach in lower division soccer and an assistant with LAFC during the 2018 season. While many of the issues with the side weren't directly attributable to former coach Carl Robinson, the team hasn't found anything that works in Vancouver with any consistency. The team still has Montero, the long time MLS striker who can score goals and earn fouls by falling down with the best of them, and the team is hopeful that midfielder Hwang Inbeom and defender Ali Adnan are solid building blocks to form a foundation, but striker Joaquin Ardiaz hasn't panned out as a complimentary striker to Montero, the midfield has generally been a mess, and the defense has abandoned goalkeepers Maxime Crepeau and Zac MacMath on most match nights. It's going to take a while for Vancouver to find their way, but Ardaiz and fellow striker Theo Bair are just 19, Hwang is in his early 20's and the Caps have several other young players littered within the roster. I hope the organization gives Dos Santos the time needed to rebuild the roster and give the Caps' supporters hope, but for now, this team is really going as far as Montero and midfielder Yordy Reyna can carry them.

His first half goal was ridiculously impressive
Sebastian Blanco's first half goal was simply astonishing
In a match featuring two Cascadian sides, it was somewhat appropriate that the skies opened up and let a steady drizzle launch on the crowd about 30 minutes before kickoff time, and by the time the anthems were done and the Timbers put forth their "Evil Dead" inspired display in spectacular fashion, the heavens were dumping liquid sunshine all over the pitch. It seemed that both teams had initial trouble adjusting to the conditions, which appeared to slow the ball down on the Timbers' Field Turf Revolution surface. Outside of two early misses for Blanco and Loria, it wasn't until the 20th minute when Villafana uncorked a shot sliding for goal that Crepeau was able to get a hand to, but the deflection fell towards the feet of Valeri with time and space on the right, but Adnan was able to block Diego's shot attempt with his face seconds later to concede a corner kick. Portland continued to dominate the early possession, allowing just a blocked shot to Montero in the 23rd until Blanco decided to take a seemingly innocuous pass from Valeri midpitch, dribble about and uncork a shot from distance that Crepeau couldn't keep out of the goal. While the Caps keeper did get a hand to it, much like he did for a shot Blanco had taken three minutes earlier from roughly the same spot to keep it out, he wasn't able to keep it out of the net as the Timbers took the early lead at 1 to 0.

Adnan suffered a thigh injury minutes later that led to his substitution, but the Caps' offense found some life and hope off a 38th minute corner kick. Montero took the effort from the left corner and pushed it to the far post where Villafana had headed it clear, but Bair shook his mark and tracked down the clearance to then turn and shoot quickly before Zambrano could close him down. Clark and the Timbers' defense had no time to react as the ball trickled inside the left corner of goal and just like that the match was level. The teams traded a few late chances, but the half ended in a cloud of controversy off a deflected clearance in the Caps' box that hit midfielder Andy Rose in the head, and the deflection struck his fist while he was jumping to head the ball. The Timbers were crying for a handball call, even surrounding Center Official Ted Unkel at the break, but Unkel chose not to make the call. In post match comments to the media, Unkel said the action was a natural motion and the arm action was not deliberate enough to warrant the handball decision, but you could understand the frustration of the Timbers' players who had 2 very similar calls go against them in Minnesota in back to back matches. Neither play by Mabiala or Dielna appeared to deliberate, but in both instances, the officials felt the arm action was enough to warrant the penalty.

There is no comparison
Diego Chara has been playing a lot of soccer lately. Very well as always, too.
The Timbers' exasperation appeared to translate into a very focused start to the second half when the teams changed sides as the rain continued to cascade down. Valeri appeared to be dialing in his shot with 3 near misses in the early minutes, but it was Loria who would end up getting the eventual game winner in the 55th minute. Marvin had tested Crepeau in the 44th minute from distance and the Caps goalkeeper made a spectacular late reaction save to push it away, but after Blanco collected a ball in traffic and dropped to to Loria on the right, the youngster dribbled past his mark, uncorked a shot from about 30 yards out and tucked the ball inside the left corner of goal to set off a frenzied celebration in the North End. However, the Caps made it interesting again when Montero put a ball to Reyna off a counter play in the 57th between Cascante and Tuiloma, and while Yordy was able to put the ball over a charging Clark to briefly level the score at 2, the assistant referee's flag went up for offside and the goal was disallowed, thereby muting the celebration of the visiting supporters. Portland spent the next 20 minutes or so circling about as Blanco, Valeri, Lori and Zambrano all had solid chances to add to the score, but Crepeau and the Caps defense was able to keep the deficit at 1 heading into the final minutes.

The Caps turned up the pressure with Reyna and Montero both forcing saves from Clark and deflections from the Timbers defense late, but the Timbers were able to achieve some final breathing room in the 90th minute off a deflection that fell to Valeri midpitch. Diego timed his pass to the left well for substitute Tomas Conecchny, who had replaced Blanco in the 87th minute, and Tomas put a superbly weighted pass in the path of Ebobisse, who had beaten the Caps defenders with just Crepeau back to defend. Jeremy took a well timed shot over Crepeau that hit the left corner to extend the lead to 3 to 1, and it was celebration time in the North End. After the final whistle, the Timbers could finally revel in the accomplishments of the night: righting the ship after two emotionally draining losses, notching their 10th win of the 2019 season, and taking control of the 2019 Cascadia Cup standings. Portland now leads the table with 6 points on 2 wins and a loss in 3 matches played, while Vancouver finishes with 4 points in 4 matches with a win, a draw and 2 losses. The final Cascadia Cup match is August 21 at Providence Park with the Sounders being the current cup holders. Seattle must win the match in order to retain the cup at 7 points (Seattle is at 4 points with a win, draw and loss), while a draw or Timbers win means the Cup stays in Portland for the 2020 season. But the Timbers have 2 important fixtures before then to help them rekindle their home dominance.

He is still the creative force that moves this team
Diego Valeri is getting older, but he's still the engine of this team.
In my opinion, the players of the match were Loria, Zambrano and Tuiloma. Bill had been very solid all year in the backline before the injury back in June, and his presence really inspired a solid defensive effort, while Zambrano was effortless in patrolling and helping control the midfield alongside Chara. Loria's energy and pace, was a huge lift to an offense that has struggled with creativity at points outside of Fernandez's relentlessness, and it was great to see Loria stretch the Caps defense at will. With Valeri and Blanco likely earning some time off in the rotation, Loria has certainly staked his claim for more playing time. While this match certainly turned on the effort of the veterans with Blanco getting a goal and Valeri getting 2 assists, it was really the energy of the younger players that I felt really carried the result for Portland.

It was also great to feel the energy of the Providence Park crowd, as the grounds seemed to be very wired and full of passion. While a rivalry match will certainly do that, I felt much of the spirit of the park was buoyed by the various supporter displays against fascism that appeared all over the park. It's hard to ignore the nearly constant back and forth discussion that has been going on since the league banned supporters groups from displaying the Iron Front logo on the grounds, and this has led to a series of escalating events. While many Timbers Army members entered with home made signs and shirts in support of lifting the ban, several social media reports indicated that others were turned away. In yesterday's Atlanta - NYCFC match, several supporters were ejected and now face 1 year bans from matches for displaying messages to end gun violence. Much of this is in direct frustration at the new MLS Fan Conduct standards, which bar political messages at the matches and was the impetus of the Iron Front ban. For many fans and myself included, the Iron Front logo isn't political - it's a message that this group will not discriminate against anybody except for one key reason - hate of another group based on their religion, gender, sexual orientation, race or other factor. Targeting that while also displaying messages about welcoming Soccer For All is very disingenuous, especially when this issue hits home for many.

I'll admit that I spent many years being in the category of keeping sports and politics away from each other, especially as advocacy and disagreements have fractured the country in various pockets. There are things bigger than that, and I've come to realize that sports gives a huge platform for important messages of inclusion and support for everybody, and banning the Iron Front logo goes against those foundational concepts. I hope the league will revisit the Fan Code of Conduct to provide a way to promote anti-discrimination and inclusion for everyone while removing references to political language as a reason for stadium sanctions. As a society, it's obvious that there are groups that may never fully agree on certain beliefs, but we all must agree to the sanctity of life and supporting everyone by destroying bigotry, racism, misogamy, fascism and any other beliefs fueled by hate of others. There should never be a safe place for hate, but there should always be safe places for inclusion.