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Timbers, Thorns made some memories

Portland got an entertainment overload this year
By Cliff Pfenning

In early May, Brian Fernandez arrived at Portland International Airport and was greeted by an anonymous person, who stood next to him, lit up with a big smile and had someone take a photo of them together. 

Fernandez, a 24-year-old Argentinian, had just been signed by the Portland Timbers from his team in Mexico’s Liga MX, wore a long-sleeve shirt, faded jeans, and hat and had a guarded look on his face as if to say, “who are you? And are with the team?” 

Then more people showed up for photos, and then more. As the photos progressed, Fernandez seemed to figure out these were fans and he just landed in a hotspot of soccer fandom - and his face lit up, too. Soon, Fernandez started showing up on social media with a beaming smile when anyone noticed him and asked for a selfie. And, why not? Portland loved him and he performed.

Fernandez had one of the all-time great introductions to a new team starting slightly more than a week later. Having arrived on May 6 after the team paid an estimated $10 million for his rights, he scored his first goal May 15 after being inserted late in the match at Houston. Then, he scored again - twice - in the next match, and again in the next match. Fernandez scored in this first five Major League Soccer matches, something that had not been done since the league began in 1996, and added scores in two US Open Cup matches giving him nine goals in his first seven appearances in a Timbers kit.

Portland vaulted from being just a team to a contender for another trip to a league final, something it did just last year. But, then all the optimism came crashing down. Fernandez stopped scoring in every game and ended the season in substance-abuse rehab. Emotional sideline outbursts lit up social media, as did rumors of contract negotiations. And, of course, there was the Iron Front, which led the Timbers Army into a national discussion of civil liberties. That was the Timbers.

The Thorns, the women’s side of the franchise, were equally dramatic starting with the Women’s World Cup. The team had four players on the winning US side, which vaulted into nation attention for its success and dispute with USA Soccer over equal pay with the much-less successful men’s team. 

Portland led the National Women’s Soccer League for much of the season and seemed headed for another trip to a final and third league title when suddenly it stopped scoring, and closed out its season with a half-hearted loss in the first round of the playoffs.

Both the Timbers and Thorns lost their first playoff match and had their seasons close out this past weekend. As the playoffs head toward crowning league champions, Portland fans will only be able to follow from afar. And yet, it was not a boring year. 

The 2019 season might have been the most memorable, at least in terms of story-telling, since the franchise initially arrived in 1975 and led fans to claim the monicker of “Soccer City, USA.” In fact, that 1975 team was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame in September.

If the goal of a sports team is entertainment, the 2019 season for the Timbers and Thorns might be the most entertaining for any team that’s not going to win a league title. Fernandez arrived, Diego Chara finally played in a league All-Star Game, Diego Valeri reached the 70-70 mark and Steve Clark played stellar in goal in a season that started with 12-straight road matches. And the Thorns had the thrill of the World Cup and an early-season rise to the top of the league in spite of all those road matches only to slide in a historic level.

And, there was the Iron Front.

It all started March 2 in Denver, where so much snow landed on the field the second half had to be stopped to dig out the lines so everyone could see where the field ended. The match started at 18 degrees - the coldest in league history. Portland led 3-2 and had a man advantage in extra time, but the Rapids scored to force a 3-3 draw leading Timbers fans to snap their fingers and think what could have been with just a little more defense. 

The Denver result was a huge missed opportunity because the team lost its next five matches and was at the bottom of the league with just one point after six weeks.

The switch to Clark in goal seemed to start a turnaround. Portland won its next three matches as rumors of the Fernandez deal swirled across the land. Then he landed and the franchise really took off and the team rose to as high as No. 5 in some weekly power rankings. And then they started playing at home after the $85 million expansion of Providence Park finally finished up. Fans in the Timbers Army began arriving at the stadium half a day ahead of matches to be allowed in an extra 30 minutes early, continuing the city’s love affair with the franchise. All those home matches, though - 17 of the remaining 22, led to a thought of the players becoming complacent. The Army wasn’t complacent.

With politics sweeping the nation ahead of the 2020 Election, the league’s ban on political signage hit the Army due to its support of a symbol from 1930s Germany. The Iron Front, three arrows pointing downward diagonally, represented a group that opposed facist Nazis until 1933. The symbol, being waved on flags across the North end of the stadium, drew the league’s ire, especially after politicians in Washington starting deeming anti-facists as terrorists because of the violence that often erupted when they showed up to events organized by White Nationalists.  

With the team, somewhat incredibly, banning fans from matches, all manners of protests were tossed about on social media, from just not showing up, to walking out, to not purchasing concessions. Eventually, it turned into a silent protest for the first 33 minutes of the Aug. 23 match with rival Seattle, which included Seattle fans. Being televised by FOX, the stadium had never been as quiet. 

A month later, the league relented and eased its policy on fan support to allow for the Iron Front.

The protest received national attention, but it also received on-field attention as the team lost 2-1 and social media lit up because owner Merritt Paulson apparently cussed the fans out - linking the protest to the loss. 

The Timbers were potentially headed for as high as second place in the Western Conference, but a late-season collapse halted that dream. Portland finished the season with one win and three draws in its last six matches - just six points of a possible 18, and missed second place by just seven points, falling all the way to six instead.

A 2-1 loss at Real Salt Lake ended the season, Oct. 19.

Still, Chara, perhaps the team’s most revered player, played in his first All-Star Game in his ninth season in the league.

Valeri, the league’s MVP just two seasons ago, reached the level of 70 goals and 70 assists, becoming only the ninth player in league history to accomplish that feat. 

And, Clark, who started the season as the back-up to Jeff Attinella, had two entries on the online Save of the Year ballot - the lone keeper to have two entries.

The original Timbers, the 1975 squad of 17 primarily British players that reached the NASL final in its inaugural season, received a spot in the Hall, Sept. 24. The five members on hand for the ceremony at the Multnomah Athletic Club, noted the season was highly memorable for the fan support - two playoff crowds topped 30,000 fans, and the length of the season - 10 weeks by their memories. The regular season actually lasted 14 weeks, May 2 through August 9 for a 22-match schedule. To save money, the team’s East Coast road swing lasted nine days: four matches in nine days, including matches in Hartford, Conn., and Boston on consecutive days (played before crowds of 2,582 and 1,518, respectively).

The Thorns set an attendance record for their 2019 campaign, closing with an average of 20,098 fans per game - better than more than half of MLS teams. The World Cup buzz might have had something to do with that as four of the team’s starters: Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, Emily Sonnet and Adrianna Franch, helping the US win the Cup, closing with a 2-0 win over The Netherlands, July 7. 

The Thorns had five other players in the tournament as well, including team captain Christine Sinclair.

Portland opened the season with its bevy of international players and scored eight goals in its first three matches before the World Cup called for talent at the start of May. The Thorns had three wins, a pair of draws and just one loss in the six road matches it played before opening at home, June 2, with a 3-0 win over Chicago. With 11 of its remaining 17 matches at home, the team was on fire.

When the US starters returned for a July 24 home match with Houston, magic erupted in a 5-0 victory before 22,329 fans. The Thorns closed out August with a 3-0 home win over Chicago and had 10 wins, six draws and only three losses for the season. Then, the goals ended. 

Over the remaining six weeks, the Thorns scored just one goal and managed to rack up only four points in the standings from a potential 15. Meanwhile, North Carolina, the defending league champion, won eight of its final nine matches, a stretch that included a 6-0 win over Portland, and finished first in the league standings for the third consecutive year.

With a 1-0 loss at Chicago, Sunday, the season came to a halt, leading into much-needed discussion of the future of the women’s game. In the NWSL, that includes league sponsors (Budweiser became the official beer sponsor), media rights and expansion franchises, one of which is due for Louisville, Ky., in 2021. And, the US women’s team salaries.

Put altogether, FC Portland had a truly memorable year, without winning a title.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

US ready for playoff revision

MLS needs to finish Americanization of global football
Nov. 11, 2015 / By Cliff Pfenning, Oregonsports Journal

Does anyone remember the Miracle at Providence Park? It was just two weeks ago, but the MLS Playoffs have essentially buried the excitement of the Portland Timbers' shootout victory over Kansas City in the first round of the league playoffs.

Fans owe that to the global soccer version of playoffs, which allows for each team to play a home game.

It's used across the world, and in the U.S. At least for part of the playoffs. It's time for the U.S. to complete its revamping of the world's playoff structure and ditch the home-home system.

Just play of game each round, and get to the championship game, which could be played Sunday if the league wanted.

That's a U.S. playoff system - one game with the winner moving on. U.S. football uses it, and MLS does to, at least for the first round, and then the final. The conference semis and finals are the problem, with each team getting a home game in each round. All it truly does is extend the playoffs and make them less exciting.

Get to the championship game - that's the point of the playoffs, especially with all the inter-league and national team matches going on.

If the Timbers eventually do reach the MLS Cup, it'll be nearly six weeks after the win over Kansas City because of the home-home series, and a week off for national team play. From the start of the season til the Cup, the Timbers will have played nine months starting March 7. Not even baseball, which has a 162-game regular season, plays that long.

MLS already has a U.S. version of regular season play, which separates the league into two conferences rather than one full table. And, there's no relegation/promotion with the next level league. So, it's a U.S. version of soccer. The playoffs are the final step to Americanizing the global game, which the league needs to do to capture the excitement of games like Portland's win at Providence Park, Oct. 29, 2015.

 

 

Timbers score win in NYC

Asprilla nets his first goal as the difference in the game
April 19, 2015 / Associated Press

NEW YORK – Dairon Asprilla’s 79th-minute strike, his first career Major League Soccer goal, lifted the Portland Timbers to a 1-0 win over New York City FC Sunday night at Yankee Stadium.

Darlington Nagbe started the sequence with a penetrating run through midfield. NYCFC were unable to clear at the top of the box and the ball fell to Asprilla, whose shot took a deflection off defender Kwame Watson-Siriboe and in.

Rookie Khiry Shelton had two terrific opportunities to equalize in the 88th minute, but his shot from 16 yards was right at goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey. Seconds later, Shelton was played in by Pablo Alvarez, but Kwarasey came off his line to make a heroic save.

After a scoreless first half, Portland (2-2-3) had a golden chance two minutes into the second half when miscommunication between Chris Wingert and Josh Saunders resulted in a deliberate back pass and an indirect free kick from the edge of the box.

Nagbe’s attempt, though, deflected off defender Watson-Siriboe at the end of the wall for a Portland corner.

In the 58th minute, Patrick Mullins forced Kwarasey to dive to his left to save his low shot before Liam Ridgewell cleared.

Saunders came up big for NYCFC (1-3-3) in the 69th minute when he came off his line to challenge Ishmael Yartey, who was played in behind on a clever Nagbe chip. The rebound popped to Fanendo Adi, but Jeb Brovsky slid in to avert the danger.

Nagbe again turned provider in the 75th minute, slotting to an open Adi on the left, but the Nigerian Designated Player had his low shot blocked by Watson-Siriboe for a corner.

Three minutes later, Mullins had an open header on the other end after latching onto a Brovsky cross, but the forward headed over the bar.

The game’s first quality scoring chance went to NYCFC in the 16th minute when Shelton fed Mullins, who took a touch inside the box and lashed a shot from 17 yards out on frame. But Kwarasey parried it away for a corner.

In the 31st minute, Mehdi Ballouchy nearly notched his second goal in as many games when a deflected Portland clearance fell at his feet. But the Moroccan midfielder’s shot from 14 yards was blocked by Nat Borchers, resulting in another corner.

Kreis, who was already missing regular starters David Villa (hamstring), Mix Diskerud (ankle), Jason Hernandez (calf) and Josh Williams (adductor strain), was forced to make his first change in the 35th minute when Sebastian Velasquez replaced Tony Taylor, who was stretchered off with an apparent knee injury.

New York City FC will look to snap a five-game winless streak when they head to Chicago to take on the Fire Friday (8 pm ET, Univision Deportes), while the

The Timbers return to action Sunday at Seattle, with the Cascadia Cup match set for 6:30 p.m.

New York City is scheduled to play at Chicago Friday.

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