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.

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