Can’t Lose for Losing
On a brilliant Saturday evening last week, in front of a sold-out Merlo Field in North Portland, 5,018 strong witnessed one of the most impressive collections of soccer talent ever assembled onto a local pitch. And not only because Manchester City brought — and started — many of their top players; Portland has also been playing strong soccer of late and the hometown team showed they were up to a world-class challenge.
The timing of Manchester City’s trip to Portland, part of the English side’s “2010 USA Pre Season Tour,” couldn’t have been better. Not only is Portland gearing up for the debut of MLS in 2011, but local fans are still buzzing from the World Cup and there’s a growing sense that professional soccer has the chance to become a major force in the everyday sporting lives of Americans. You see it on the soccer complexes around the city, whether it be the thousands upon thousands of youth players that swarm around Delta park every weekend or the scores of teams criss-crossing the Pacific Northwest to attend tournaments, camps and other training vehicles. If this year’s World Cup taught us anything about the state of US soccer, it’s that we have the talent and the population to genuinely compete, and with legions of hungry young players on the cusp, it’s now just the difficulty of instilling good strategy up and down the system that keeps us from a chance at winning the whole caboodle.
Getting back to the game at hand, I want to liken the feeling at Merlo Park to that of a graduation. And not only because the intimate (university) field is mostly comprised of simple metal bleachers that don’t offer one bad view among the five thousand (plus the sneaky few that found clever ways to watch for free: I saw a someone I know after the game who refused to shake my hand because his palms were covered in sap. He’d watched the whole game from the branches of a pine tree behind the north end); no, the graduation feeling had more to do with a palpable change: in expectation, in talent, in desire for the future. It’s like Portland is ready for the next step and we’re stuck in some senioritis of the late-stage 2010 season. (The Timbers mid-season performance as a kind of second semester dive?)
Some details to push the graduation analogy further: we had Gavin Wilkinson matching wits with Italian star manager Roberto Mancini, he of two Italian Cup championships and numerous other titles. There was our own Mamadou Danso and Co. going up against the relentless attack of Adebayor, Bellamy, and the fantastic young midfielder Adam Johnson. We had Portland favorite Ryan Pore trying to author something on the attack with his emerging strikers Bright Dike and George Josten against a strong Man City defense. And while the final line of 3 − 0 in favor of the Premier League side was telling, Portland emerged from the game proud of its team’s performance.
Postulate: Portland had zero chance of winning the game.
I think readers will agree with that statement, but let’s tease it out a little. What does that mean, exactly, to have a professional game in front of a sold-out crowd that had come to observe what was essentially a foregone conclusion? I don’t think it’s rocket science to come up with good reasons, but on the surface it’s illogical. We watch our favorite teams from the stands in the hopes that they will perform well enough to win. In the case of Timbers v. Manchester City, though, the stakes were different. We came out to watch superior players — players we generally only see on a screen — perform brilliantly in front of our very eyes. In a way, it would have been disappointing if the Timbers were to have won, if, of course, that had meant the world-class players on Man City had played below expectations. To me, the perfect score would have been something like 5 − 3 Man City, with three hard-fought goals by the Timbers (including the opening goal just to make the place go nuts), and five goals of different types for the visitors (a flying header like we saw from Adebayor, a bending strike off a free kick, a break-away goal, a long strike from just outside the box, and, for good measure, a bicycle).
As it was, we did witness a good game that could have easily turned out 5 − 3 or 6 − 2 or something in that neighborhood. Portland’s first twenty minutes, and what seemed to be their primary tactic in the first half, was to play tight man defense and feed the midfielders on the ground, who in turn unleashed long passes in the air toward Dike in the hopes that he’s break free for a one-on-one with Joe Hart. The strategy didn’t work out, but those were the most evenly matched minutes of the game, before City’s pace simply wore down the home side and lead to an increasing number of mistakes on the Timbers’ back line.
With the first half winding down and the score still tied, rising star Adam Johnson (well worth watching during the upcoming Premier League season) took over the midfield and created two goals for his Man City teammates. The first strike came in the 43rd minute with Johnson coming up the right side and confusing the Timbers’ defense on his approach. He pushed the ball toward the net and it appeared to glance off several players, including Stephen Ireland — the official goal-scorer — on its way in. But for all the first goal’s mediocracy, goal number two made spectacular amends. A minute after their first tally Johnson raced down the same side and created enough space against his defender (Ian Joy, I believe) to loft a curving pass toward the center of the pitch and the perfectly timed flight of Emmanuel Adebayor’s forehead. Even at full speed and without the benefit of instant replay, the exchange unfolded as if in slow motion. The brand of football everyone had paid for. So there we were at the 44th minute, now fully impressed by the Timbers’ pluck and play, but happy to see the visitors stretch things out a bit and catch a rhythm. The outcome, if it had ever been, was truly unimportant.
Of course, that rhythm was not to last. As predicted, both sides completely overturned personnel and unleashed what might be considered the second teams onto the field. For the Timbers that changeover took the length of the second half, but for Man City, which had a different objective, the change was instant. According to Assistant Manager Brian Kidd, who spoke highly of Portland and the Timbers players after the game, City wanted to test out a few different strategies in order to best understand what kind of players they have entering the Premier League season. With so much new money on the books and such a deep wealth of talent, you can’t blame the guys for testing the full roster (minus the real gems that are still catching their breath from the World Cup, including Carlos Tévez and David Silva) in game play.
While the second half wasn’t quite as entertaining, aside from some very close chances for the Timbers, we were able to witness the prodigious talents of young Brazilian striker Jo. He’s had an uneven career up to now, but it seems that his eye for the goal and his physical presence should make him at least a capable goal-scorer off the bench for the Blues this coming season. It was Jo who completed the game’s final line with a strong left foot in the 68th minute, establishing space at the edge of the box and working his way left before turning on the ball and powering it past the diving Cronin.
Despite my wish that the sun would come back up from the horizon and the two teams would agree to play another full game, ninety minutes finally did elapse and the game ended for what I can only assume was a completely satisfied Merlo Park. There wasn’t a whole lot to dislike about the entire proceeding. If Friday, July 17th was a graduation, I look forward to seeing what comes next.