Thursday, October 26, 2017

Sometimes Worlds Collide. Or Why The Blog Has Been Quiet Lately.

I would have enjoyed watching Darlington play in the World Cup. Seriously.
There are points where my world seems very large if you believe the power of social media. People can track events worldwide from the comfort of their enabled device in seconds, allowing data to then inform or bombard them at any given notice. Sometimes however, there are subsequent times when we realize that as huge as the planet might actually be, it's actually incredibly small and more connected than we might realize. Maybe the dentist's chair wasn't the place to have this revelation, but what else was I going to do for 2 hours while a professional was busy rotating my teeth. Or putting extra clear coat on them. I can't seem to remember what was all done, but that could be from the liquid diet I've been on since the procedure. But I digress...

After the big win over D.C. United that was preceded by a huge win for the Thorns to win another shiny object, I was rather excited about soccer in Portland and in general. While I had lost track of time and space in the preceding days to do predictions and my cats decided to clam up from predictions, I thought it would be an easy makeup for the final week of the MLS season to put out thoughts just before the huge Cascadia Clash between the Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecaps to finish the 2017 MLS Regular Season. Rivalry matches usually don't need additional stakes for the competing sides, but in this case, the result had serious ramifications for both sides. A Portland victory would not only advance the Timbers to the top spot in the Western Conference for playoff seeding, but it would bring the Cascadia Cup back to the Rose City for the first time since 2012. If Vancouver was able to prevail or earn a draw, they would not only keep the top space but depending on the results at CLUNK between the Flounders and Colorado Rapids, the Cascadia Cup could end up going to Canada or to the Emerald City. For many Timbers fans with long memories, they might remember 2016 and the final weekend of the season when Portland ventured to B.C. Place needing a win to secure a playoff berth and the Cascadia Cup, but the wheels literally fell off in a most dramatic way. Not only did the Timbers fail to make the postseason to defend their MLS Cup title from the preceding year, but the Whitecaps blitzed the Timbers so badly that the Cascadia Cup stayed in Canada despite Portland having the various tiebreaking advantages.
Diego Valeri has been huge in 2017 for Portland, but he's not alone.

The result left a bad taste with everyone associated with the Timbers and the organization promised changes in personnel. What we saw in 2017 was a dramatically different attack still keyed by Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi, but better supporting pieces in Dairon Asprilla and Sebastian Blanco. David Guzman gave the midfield some extra organization and bite, and the defense would have to do just enough to keep the side competitive. Injuries to various defenders presented various challenges to that philosophy, but once Liam Ridgewell finally returned to health and Jeff Attinella effective took over the starting keeper's job, the defense has actually been very good during September and October. Based on current standings going into the postseason among playoff sides from the East and West, only San Jose has conceded more goals in the regular season than the Timbers but Portland has scored more goals than anybody in the West and they are fourth overall in goal scored within MLS at 60 goals. It basically outlines a theme for the Timbers in 2017 - when they have been good, they've been very good and when they've been bad, they've been rather awful.

2017 was littered with several dismantlings on the road, but Portland actually improved their road record to 4 wins, 4 draws and 9 losses overall. The difference in this was huge considering that Portland earned just 6 road points in 2016, but in 2017, they earned 16. The Timbers ended up with near identical records at home between 2016 (12 wins and 2 draws in 17 matches for 38 points) and 2017 (11 wins and 4 draws in 17 matches for 37 points), but the improved results away from Providence Park were enough to push them into the postseason. Granted, there were several other factors that helped Portland secure the top spot in the West, but finding better success on the road would be near the first entry on the list. In a league where parity often reigns supreme - just 3 sides were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs going into the final 2 weeks of the season - the margin between success and failure can be incredibly slim. Many experts give the Timbers a better than average chance of doing well in the playoffs, especially since the Timbers have a guaranteed home match in any playoff series in the West up to MLS Cup. While the East seems to stacked up for Toronto to fulfill their destiny or implode spectacularly after a dominant season, the West is a relative crap shoot depending on the day.

This one decided my lap was the place to watch the Timbers - Caps match.
That is why the result of the finale was so important, and while I couldn't be there in person, I was able to watch the festivities at home with my wife and cats. It was important for the Timbers to actually fulfill some of the promise and take advantage of their situation. While the Whitecaps were playing reasonably solid soccer for the weeks coming up to the season finale, there were enough cracks and questions down the stretch to give Portland a chance to overtake them in the final week. With Portland nearly fully healthy on their roster - Fanendo Adi has been training, but he hasn't appeared for the club in several weeks since injuring his hamstring in a win over the Los Angeles Galaxy back in August - it was effectively time to either put up or shut up. While many of the players from the 2017 club don't remember the match in question to end 2016, the coaches and fans can hearken back to that October day and recall what happened. As I had mentioned before, rivalries already have built in stakes simply by being a true derby affair - teams know when they are playing true rivals - but this one took the stakes to a whole other level.

Timbers Coach Caleb Porter decided to go along with the same group that dismantled D.C. United to start - Attinella in goal; Vytas, Ridgewell, Larrys Mabiala and Alvas Powell on the backline; Guzman and Diego Chara as defensive midfielders; Valeri, Blanco and Darlington Nagbe as attacking midfielders, Darren Mattocks as the lone striker - and rolled the dice they could pull off the result. While the group started out reasonably well tempo wise with great passing, it was the Caps who took the early lead when defensive stalwart and emotional timebomb Kendall Waston outflanked Mabiala on a set piece in the box, and Waston curled a header into the corner of goal in the 29th minute. I know this moment because my wife was upset at one of the cats hovering about while she was eating and I was in full "Timbers mode" tweeting the match and not paying attention. While my mother in law came to rescue the day, I did get a casual reminder of being too focused at the task at hand and my black cat, Moya, decided that she wanted my attention and curled up on my lap for attention. It was near that moment when the Timbers equalized when Ridgewell tapped a deflected Nagbe shot past Caps goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic in the 32nd minute and the score went level. My laptop had been acting up anyway, so it was evident at this point based upon the universe that I needed to watch the match with cat in tow.
Alvas Powell has been a revelation late in 2017. Hope it continues.

The goal was huge in the sense that it disrupted what the Caps wanted to do - frustrate the Timbers with pressure, take advantage of a counter or set piece to secure a lead, then ramp up the pressure. Ridgy's goal didn't allow the Caps to fall onto that plan, and when Blanco missed two point blank chances between the 41st minute and stoppage time, it appeared that Vancouver might get away lucky. That didn't last when Mattocks slammed a Vytas pass that he received off a deft feed from Blanco, and with Marinovic in no man's land, the Timbers finally had their lead and the Caps were forced to press more. Attinella made some huge saves down the stretch, the defense rallied with huge tackles and blocks, and the offense did provide some pressure to keep Vancouver honest, but otherwise, the Timbers were able to hold off the rush and secure a valiant 2 to 1 win. The result gave them the 2017 Cascadia Cup on their home pitch while also securing the top spot in the Western Conference playoffs and home pitch advantage within their bracket up through MLS Cup. Normally, the Timbers would also be qualified for the 2019 CONCACAF Champions League tournament, but due to a restructuring of the event, the only way to qualify for this version is to win an MLS Cup or U.S. Open Cup trophy in 2017 or 2018 (the 2018 field is already set and due to start play next year under a different format from what has been used in previous years and what will be adopted for 2019). Mostly, the new format eliminates the group qualifying stage matches and goes straight into a 16 team, single elimination tournament with home and away legs in each round.

Portland can now turn their attention to learning their opponent in the conference semifinals, which will either be the Houston Dynamo or Sporting Kansas City who play on October 26 in Houston. Vancouver recovered from the defeat to the Timbers to thrash San Jose in the play-in round and they will get a date with the Seattle Sounders in the semis. As noted on Twitter, this is the 6th consecutive season where a Cascadia team will be in the Western Conference finals (either SEA or PDX have advanced) since 2012. The Timbers will play leg 1 in Houston on October 30 if the Dynamo win OR in Kansas City on October 31 if Sporting advances, but we know that Portland hosts leg 2 at Providence Park on November 5th. The winners of each series will resume play on November 21 for the conference finals in a 2 match series to hopefully advance to MLS Cup on December 9. While Portland indeed won the West, they would only host MLS Cup here if they advanced all the way and the New York Red Bulls won the East based on points. Considering what the Red Bulls did to the Chicago Fire in their first match - and many thought the Fire would be a team to reckon with in the postseason - it could indeed happen. I don't expect the Timbers to overlook anybody, much less be over confident about any situation; it's more about playing well in the here and now and dealing with the challenges immediately at hand. Obviously, however, their chances of doing well are there.

Different paths bring us all here to support our team. The journey is important.

If you have made it to this part, you are probably wondering why the dentists fits into this rambling mess. Suffice to say, I've not taken very good care of my teeth over the years despite brushing with regularity, and it's been a source of embarrassment. Thankfully, my wife has been going to a wonderful dentist in Gresham that happily accepted me as a patient despite my various challenges of cracked and misaligned teeth. After putting on various caps and bridges, the last piece of the puzzle was gum surgery to help repair some gums that had severely recessed. Upon referral, I ended up at Eastside Periodontics where my doctor is a massive soccer fan and former player. We bonded over stories of recreational soccer and the Timbers in my first appointment, and after the recent events in the game, I was prepared for quite the discussion before my procedure on October 18. Between the United States men's team flaming out of World Cup qualifying days earlier to the news of a move for the Columbus Crew to Texas, there was plenty of soccer news flying about to talk through. And I managed to get in my thoughts before my mouth was full of dental tools, gauze, sutures, and a small water jet.

My doctor was very upset at the arrogance of the USMNT and wondered how they couldn't just secure a draw, which was all that they needed in Trinidad to make the WC 2018 field in Russia. They took qualifying for granted, and I'm prone to agree. While the Americans certainly have a domestic league that is improving and bringing in talent to compete on the world stage and considerable other advantages, we should never look at World Cup qualifying as a guarantee even being in the CONCACAF region. Weird things often happen, and in the case of the USMNT, results earlier in qualifying put them in a near must win situation. After firing Jurgen Klinsmann in 2016 after questionable results, the U.S. Soccer Federation brought Bruce Arena back to the fold with the goal of qualifying. The team put up good results on some cases, but a loss to Costa Rica at home in September 2017 put them in dire straights. While a win versus Panama in Orlando put them on the cusp of qualifying, it required them to get at least a draw in Trinidad to automatically qualify or risk being bounced out due to other results. Sure enough, the results didn't go their way and now the USMNT will be watching the World Cup on TV like most of the rest of us. Under intense scrutiny, Arena resigned as coach but the rest of the USSF structure remains intact for now. This could change when the USSF elections happen in 2018 where Sunil Gulati is expected to face several challengers who want to shake things up.
My teeth were terrible, but they are getting better. I might smile more now.

Columbus is an MLS original franchise from the inaugural MLS season in 1996, owned originally by Lamar Hunt, a longtime NFL owner and original MLS investor. The team was owned by the Hunts until 2014 when Anthony Precourt bought the team and promised to keep them in Ohio. The Crew were the first MLS franchise with a soccer specific stadium that had become home to several USMNT matches and business appeared to be good until the announcement on October 17 that unless a new stadium was built, his team would be moving to Austin, Texas. Over the days following, it was learned that Precourt's deal had an opt-out clause allowing the move despite promising to keep the Crew in Ohio for 20 years, and that several discussions had already occurred between the team and various groups in both locations. Fans felt betrayed by the actions, and while the Crew are still talking to officials in Columbus, there's been plenty of vitriol thrown about by plenty. Plenty of outlets have published various articles about deposits for season tickets for 2018 not being refunded to now being refunded to sponsorship issues to increasing revenue streams, but essentially it boils down to the owner wants a better stadium and he's willing to pursue leverage from another city to get it.

MLS has been notoriously stringent in franchise allotment. Only 3 franchises haven been contracted - Miami and Tampa back in 2001 when the league was struggling and Chivas USA in 2014 due to ownership issues. The league has used expansion to fuel growth from when Chicago and Miami joined in 1998, with several additions since 2005 when Real Salt Lake started the new wave of expansion. With Miami finally sorting out its stadium issues for now and LAFC joining the fray next year, the league will finally sit at 24 teams. Commissioner Don Garber has indicated he wanted to announce 4 more teams later this year to push the league to 28 total by the year 2020. 12 cities had applied for those teams and the vetting process has begun in earnest, but Austin was not among the 12 noted applications. MLS has had just 1 team move: San Jose moved to Houston for the 2006 season when their ownership couldn't find a suitable stadium, but the Earthquakes were resurrected in 2008 when a new group came forward to secure a team and find a long term stadium deal eventually. Otherwise, the league has been relatively stable and growing using a very strict financial model - some might call it very restrictive, others frugal, but it's been working in most markets.

I hate to think of this stadium not being good enough. Ever.
The calls to keep the Crew in Ohio have come from far and wide, and the main complaints have been centered around one basic but significant question - if it could happen in Columbus, could it happen elsewhere? Many Timbers fans - and league wide fans as well - firmly believe in the sanctity of the city-club bond, and few things would break that situation until you factor in the business angle. The study of business metrics has become a part of MLS and at the end of the day, soccer and sports franchises are businesses and they must succeed at most levels to stay open. Today, it is the Crew, but tomorrow could it be the Rapids? or Real Salt Lake? Or even the Timbers in their venerable stadium and rabid support? The fact that not had the team been exploring this for months without many knowing what was going on and the league knew about it and supported the endeavor is troubling, because it essentially means that any franchise could end up in this situation at any point. Nobody can truly say never say never, and that strikes at the core of the relationship between club and supporters. As someone who followed Portland through the dark days of the USL era between 2001 and 2010, there were several years where we were concerned about having a team or a league; until Merritt Paulson bought the club in 2007, the Timbers were actually owned by the Pacific Coast Baseball League on 2 separate occasions. The Timbers nearly didn't have a 2010 USL season due to league instability before jumping to MLS, and the USL First Division routinely had franchise problems each season before the league finally folded.

I get it - businessmen need to make money to survive and the Timbers have certainly flourished after their jump to MLS. Some can be attributed to the exceptional MLS to PDX deal to renovate Providence Park, and a lot has been due to improving the soccer infrastructure since joining MLS by adding academy sides, Timbers 2 and investing in the Portland Thorns. Portland is a huge soccer market, and the fans have fully bought in to fill the park regularly to the point that Providence Park will get another expansion over the next 2 years to add another 4,000 to 5,000 seats on the stadium's east side. It's a testament to patience as well and believing in people, too, but there has been some luck and good fortune. The combined organization can now point to 2 NWSL Cups and 1 MLS Cup secured since 2011, and several other accolades over the years thrown in as well. But a huge component of what also worked with the Timbers was the relationship between the team and supporters. The Timbers Army was paramount during the MLS to PDX process to rally for various causes and canvas their communities, and the relationship has now grown as the 107ist Independent Supporters Trust has taken on the organization side of the TA. Portland Timbers soccer works because of the organization, but there is also a significant contribution from the community as a whole that contributed. Without that, who knows where we might be at this point?

Prediction thread will be back for playoffs. This guy is excited.
The relationship has had several ups and downs, but what interaction doesn't? It's the true investment of team - town - supporters that surrounds and binds them completely. While Precourt might think he's doing the best for his club, his actions have effectively alienated many supporters to the point where they might not support the Crew in 2018. The USSF has a plan that they think will bring the men's team back to success for future World Cups, but right now, there are many fans who aren't convinced it will work. Personal belief can be truly powerful, especially to have the true confidence that you know what you are doing, but when it crosses the bounds to arrogance and closing off channels, the chances of success can dwindle significantly. I thought I was handling my tooth health well, but I had to admit my fear and belief that it was okay to finally see the dentist and now things are better once you build that relationship. While my mouth is still going through transition, it's much better than if I had continued to ignore the problem. My hope is that American soccer can look at the various cases going on now and realize that inclusion and communication is a better tactic in the long run, but in the world of business, you never can be too sure or overconfident. I also promise to write more often so I don't have to go off on long discussion like this either. :)

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