Cliff Pfenning's blog

Timbers have high expectations

Fri, 02/26/2016 - 5:04am
Cliff Pfenning
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Is there anything close to a dynasty brewing for the Portland Timbers?

That’s one of the things fans of the team can dream about after the franchise won the Major League Soccer title in only its fifth year of play.

And, it’s brought the teams’ fans bragging rights throughout the Northwest in regards to league results. Neither Seattle or Vancouver, their Cascadia Cup rivals, have even played in the league championship since it began in 1996.

When the 2016 season begins, not only will defending the title be among dreams of fans, but winning more than just one will as well.

Looking at the history of the league, three franchises: D.C. United, Houston and the Los Angeles Galaxy have won back-to-back titles, but none has won three straight. That will be among the thoughts of fans when the team begins play March 6 with its season opener at Providence Park against the Columbus Crew, its opponent in the league finale.

When is the MLS Cup again?

Wed, 11/11/2015 - 5:41pm
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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.


Is Michigan a roadmap for Oregon football?

Tue, 10/06/2015 - 4:05pm
Cliff Pfenning
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Imagine if the Oregon football team went unbeaten the rest of the season, and beat unbeaten Utah in the Pac-12 Conference title game. Would that be enough for the Ducks to reach the College Football Playoffs?

Even though Oregon would have two losses at the time, while there may likely be more than four other teams with just one loss.

That's a subject for Sportsland, Oregon 2015 - Episode 27. Will there be a two-loss team among the four teams that reach the playoffs.

And, is that even something the Ducks should be focused on at all? Once upon a time, the Rose Bowl was a big deal - remember?

The NFL's crazy season as well gets some time, as does the upcoming Major League Baseball playoffs. Sure the American League has some prime contenders, but will anyone watch the Toronto Blue Jays play the Kansas City Royals if they win their division series? And, just who's on the Yankees these days other than A-Rod?

Fortunately, there's five outstandings options for the World Series on the National League side, so an audience for that series seems assured.

The Timbers get a few moments, too, as do the Oregon football uniforms for this week.

All recorded Monday at Pour Sports Restaurant in Southeast Portland.

College football should realize playoff pressure

Tue, 09/22/2015 - 3:08pm
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Three weeks into the college football season, the race to predict the four teams headed to the national championship semifinals is in full swing.

Ohio State is No. 1, but barely beat a Northern Illinois team that's not a gimme to win its own conference, the Mid-American. Mississippi played its way up to No. with a resounding win at Alabama Saturday. TCU continues to remain the pride of the Big 12 and a prime contender for one of the four spots. And Notre Dame is No. 6 with its legitimate hope of getting in with an unbeaten record. If the Buckeyes, Rebels, Horned Frogs and Irish all win out, then there's no problem picking the playoff semifinalists.

Trouble is when those teams start to lose, even once. Then, the decision to name the four teams turns to persons who aren't involved in the action on the field, which is a problem that the game can actually resolve fairly easily. College football needs a conference ranking system, not a team ranking. The conference schedule then becomes the integral part of the playoff system, as it should be.

Michigan State and Oregon are in key positions to illustrate this argument especially if Oregon should happen to win the Pac-12, but lose another game. The Spartans have a win over then No. 7 Oregon - a thrilling game that featured playoff pressure. But, it wasn't a playoff game because the teams are in different conferences so the outcome only affected people's opinions. And opinions don't win games, teams do.

The big potential challenge could very well happen November 21 when OSU plays host to MSU. If both teams win out until then, they should be No. 1 and 2. Should OSU win, and then win the Big 10 title the following week, they're in the semifinals. Easy.

Michigan State's 31-28 win over Oregon in the second week of the season gives Spartans fans that feeling of confidence that even if they lose to OSU and Oregon wins the Pac-12, they should be one of the four semifinalists ahead of Oregon because of the head-to-head win. That conundrum gets better, though, if Oregon should lose to USC when the teams meet November 21, but then return to beat the Trojans in the Pac-12 final two weeks later ending the season at 11-2 and with its conference title. 

Unbeaten Mississippi beats unbeaten Florida for the SEC title and earns its spot.

Notre Dame loses twice: to USC and Stanford, and is out.

TCU has a loss to Baylor, which also has a loss - to eventual 7-5 Nebraska, and those two schools finish as the only two ranked teams from the Big 12 (which actually only has 10 schools). Baylor is ranked as the conference champion.

Clemson goes unbeaten through the season, but loses in the ACC title game to 10-2 Duke, which has losses to Northwestern and Georgia Tech. Duke is 11-2, while Clemson is 12-1.

How does a two-loss Oregon team get into the semifinals over teams that have one loss? Same for Duke, which also has a conference title.

Easy, the Ducks and Blue Devils would be two of four conference champions, having won the games that mattered most - those that got them to their conference title games, and then that game, too.

With five Power Conferences, the only rankings the playoff committee would need to make is the one that ranks the five conferences - with No. 5 getting left out of the playoff. That was TCU and the Big 12 last year.

MSU has only one loss and a win over Oregon. But, that was a non-conference win. The Spartans' key game is Ohio State, assuming they beat their other four division rivals. That takes on the pressure of a playoff game, with the game's loser being dropped from the playoffs.

The five conference champions might very well be ranked this way: Ohio State, Mississippi, Baylor, Oregon and Duke.

Duke gets left out. Florida, Clemson, Michigan State, TCU - all one-loss teams, scream to be ahead of Oregon, but none have a conference title.

That Michigan State loss is out there for the college football world to salivate over at the right time because of insider opinions, but it shouldn't be, even if the Ducks lose another game. Oregon has five division games, which lead to a conference title game, and that's the playoff system that every other team has, too - the Big 12 has more conference games, so that's its argument to overcome the lack of a conference title game.

The Power 5 conferences will each have a champion, and those are the only five teams that should be considered for the four semifinal spots, regardless of their records. That's how a playoff system works - the better team doesn't always win because which team is better is from an opinion based on stats and records. The actual better team wins on the field, and every team in the Power 5 (plus Notre Dame) has its shot at winning the games that matter.



Adams, Oregon show off well

Sat, 09/12/2015 - 9:22pm
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The University of Oregon football program got a pretty good idea of who Vernon Adams, Jr., is as a quarterback under duress Saturday night, and he performed at an uneven level. But, you also got a good idea of his inner drive, and he showed off he's got the will to win.

He certainly didn't perform at the level the UO world may have thought he was going to when he announced his intention to transfer from Eastern Washington in spring, but at the end of Saturday's thrilling game with Michigan State, the Ducks were in position to win. With a couple fewer yards on a lofty pass down the left sideline, Adams may very well have led the No. 7 Ducks past the No. 5 Spartans.

Overall, it was a gritty performance by a veteran playing on the national stage for the first time with the final a frustrating 31-28 on the scoreboard.

Frustrating in that Oregon fans can easily look at the game as that the Ducks didn't win, not so much as the Spartans beat them. Michigan State survived, although that's all that's needed.

Adams showed he's a gamer, able to overcome his shortcomings and keep his team in contention to win.

Oregon's defense did that, too, inspite of giving up 31 points. Oregon's offense should have topped that total in the game, and might have with some better play calling.

Scott Frost's game as offensive coordinator might be the biggest issue from the game in that the plan seemed to go away from what was working in terms of getting passes outside and letting what might easily be the best trio of receivers in the nation make excitement happen. Just simple screen passes. That opened up the middle for running back Royce Freeman, which carried the team to a score on its first possession and seemed like a pathway to many other scores.

But, as much as Adams is working his way into the Oregon playbook, Frost seems to be working his way into understanding Adams in the playbook. That's what a severe lack of preparation will do to a top-flight program like Oregon.

And, inspite of those issues, the Ducks were in position to win a game that might have moved them up to as far as No. 3 or 4 in the nation.

Still, it showed they're a team worthy of consideration of mention as playing its way back to the title game.

That's an easy road with just a dominating performance in Pac-12 play, which they seem capable of doing if Saturday's game is an indication.


Reliability is Oregon's question mark

Wed, 08/26/2015 - 8:13am
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What a difference 12 months has made for the University of Oregon football team and its loyal fanbase.

Last year, Oregon prepped for a run at the national championship fueled by the steady, reliable play of Marcus Mariota, who eventually led the team to the title game and won the Heisman Trophy. That led to him being selected second in the NFL Draft.

A year later, the Ducks feature a free-agent quarterback who already has fans worried about his reliability due to … college classwork (imagine that). Vernon Adams.

What a thrill ride Oregon fans are basically set up for this season.

Maybe we all need that, too.

Oregon football has become somewhat tame, leading to the program signing payday games – for their opponent – in two of the three non-conference slots annually. This week Oregon announced it would play North Dakota State of the second-tier FCS in 2020 at Autzen Stadium. Awesome.

Wouldn't a game against, say, Iowa State be better? North Dakota State beat Iowa State last season, but what really matters there is ISU is from the Big 12. Why does Oregon play teams like North Dakota State, Georgia State, UC Davis, and beyond? To win big and pad stats for its players.

So, maybe Vernon Adams is this season's path to adventure. He gets a game against his former school – Eastern Washington - in his first game at Autzen. Then, off to Michigan State, which is just jonesing for retribution for its loss at Oregon last season, a loss that unhinged its national title hopes.

Adams and the Ducks play at Arizona State and host USC of the Pac-12 South this season as well, so the conference schedule has some sauce.

Adams is a big unknown as the season starts, primarily because he didn't take care of school business as had been promoted in spring. Only in August did he get clearance to actually suit up for the football team after passing a math test.

But, again, that might be good for Oregon fans. The Ducks are rarely an underdog, but Adams has made the season scary by just being an outsider from the Oregon culture. A free-agent. That's becoming quite a thing in college athletics, especially basketball. Now, it is likely to spread to football, potentially keeping programs like North Dakota State from becoming dynasties because their top players might move to programs like Iowa State to improve them and show off their skills to NFL teams.

So, buckle up Oregon fans. It's going to be a … fun season of not relying on reliability that's been established from previous seasons. That didn't actually have such a downside for Ohio State last season, which played the final month with a freshman quarterback who started the season No. 3 on the depth chart. Maybe Oregon will play its way to a national title with a free-agent quarterback who had everyone in the state wondering about his reliability right up until he needed to show off his skills in the classroom and on the field.



Chambers Bay plays its role

Fri, 06/19/2015 - 9:25am
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If you were fortunate enough to have access to coverage of  the U.S. Open Thursday, you got one spectacular view of professional golf, and the range of emotions that engage the sport. After watching much of the first round of the Open, it hit me that more than one player would leave the course and talk to the media with some disgust about Chambers Bay with a quote something like "I hate this course, and I shot even par."

"But it sure made the game fun."

All those swales, the funky-colored greens, guys hitting the ball onto "backstops" way past the hole to have it roll back and narrowly miss going in - it was fun to watch. And, despite the challenges, the first round was one of the better scoring rounds in Open history with 29 players breaking par and a whole stack shooting par at 70.

There were 11 eagles on the par-4 12th hole, which virtually every player was able to reach with a driver.

And, still, there was the complaint, by Sergio Garcia about the course - at least the greens tweeting the Open “deserves better quality green surfaces than we have this week but maybe I’m wrong!”

And he shot 70.

If anyone could have been complaining about the greens, it would have been Tiger Woods. He was perhaps three combined inches away from making enough putts that he might have been at 70 instead of 80. But, he had so many other issues during his round, he could hardly single out the putting surface. And he played in one of the best/worst pairings of the day. Golden Boy Rickie Fowler was right there just waiting to make Woods look really old with a simple round of 70. But he shot, wow, 81. And the third player in the group, Louis Oosthuizen - getting a chance he may never get again to be in front of a large television audience, outdueled his partners with a 77.

A combined 28 over par. Chambers Bay kicked their butt, although no one looked at the course as causing their troubles. They just played terribly - Woods lost the grip on his club during one swing from long grass.

With the pairings swapping tee times from morning to afternoon and vice versa, the view of the course is likely to change for each player. Let's see what Sergio has to say after playing in the afternoon, where only 11 players broke par as opposed to 18 in the morning round.

Go get'em Chambers Bay!



Give those Ducks and Beavers a hand

Wed, 05/27/2015 - 9:42am
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In spite of being one of the last teams to get into the NCAA baseball tournament Monday morning, there might not be a hotter team in America than the University of Oregon based on its play from the past month, including a weekend series win over UCLA.

That's the NCAA talking, too.

Oregon beat UCLA in extra innings on both Saturday and Sunday, which didn't stop the Bruins from moving up in the national rankings. So, if Oregon can beat the top-ranked team in the nation, what's stoping them from winning a national title.

That's a topic Sportsland, Oregon co-hosts Cliff and Derek take on in the 14th Episode this week.

Oregon State, a team with a lengthy history of postseason success, is also among the tournament picks.

There's more action on the diamond from the state as the Ducks are headed to the College Softball World Series this week in Oklahoma City.

The NBA gets some time, as does a rough weekend of soccer for Portland. Derek provides some insight on attending the upcoming U.S. Open, and there's plenty of discussion about the growing popularity of ... roofball.

It's all recorded at Blitz Pearl in Northwest Portland.


Here's to a slow start for Marcus

Fri, 05/01/2015 - 4:58am
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When the Tennessee Titans drafted Marcus Mariota Thursday night, fans of the University of Oregon football program could finally take a big, deep breath with finally knowing where its most famous, recent, player was headed.

Now, he just has to wind up there, and represent the school for future Heisman-level quarterbacks. That’s something that’s been a tough sell at Oregon over the past two decades.

And, fast starts may have accounted for that.

The Titans have already expressed expectations that Mariota will be their starter on opening day, when the team plays the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who drafted Jameis Winston with the top pick, one ahead of Mariota. There’s a bevy of media experts who promoted getting Mariota into the starting line-up that fast, or even in his first season, was a career mistake for him and his team.

Mariota did a fabulous job moving directly into the starting line-up at Oregon as a freshman, but the pro ranks are entirely different in their style and the opponents, none of whom have to attend class or have a limit on their seasons. Mariota will face harden pro defensive players from his first snap, and even the most dedicated student of the game will need game experience to handle that. Four preseason games isn’t going to help that a ton.

Mariota handled the experience well Thursday.

“For me, I’m going to do my best to transiton to everything,” Mariota said in a conference call with Titans reporters Thursday.

“I’ll continue to be the player I’ve always been, and do whatever’s asked of me. Coach Whisenhunt’s going to have his offense and the complexities of his system, and I’m going to do my best to execute it.”

And No. 2, the only player from Oregon ever selected higher was quarterback George Shaw, the top overall pick in 1955.

Shaw was a classic Oregon pro - he started as a rookie with the Baltimore Colts, but got hurt his second year and finished his eight-year career primarily as a back-up with the Colts and New York Giants.

Other notable Oregon quarterbacks who just never took off were Akili Smith, drafted in the first round in 1998, and Joey Harrington, who was the third overall pick in 2002. Smith was selected third overall by Cincinnati in 1999, but only played in 22 games with the team, and finished his career with the Canadian Football League's Calgary Stampeders. Harrington was promoted extensively by the Ducks, and Nike as an Oregon senior, but lasted just six years in the NFL. He started 12 games as a rookie.

If the Titans have a long-term desire to keep Mariota on their roster, starting, or even playing early in his career with the team is a big mistake. Look at Tom Brady’s career. Drafted in the sixth round out of Michigan in 2000, he threw only three passes as a rookie, but has started almost every game since - outside of missing the 2008 season due to injury. Having a year to prep for the game is huge.

But, when you’re selected second, and not in the sixth round, you have expectations that don’t allow for time to grow into the job. People expect performance right away, whether you’re ready for it or not. Mariota was ready for it on Day 1 in Eugene. Oregon fans can only predict, and hope, he’ll produce the same in Memphis when the pro game gets going in Summer.

Let's go change NBA!

Wed, 04/29/2015 - 7:12am
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If you're a fan of the NBA, then you've got to say some kind words under your breath for the Los Angeles Clippers because everyone wants to see them playing the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals.

James Harden against Chris Paul? Blake Griffin taking on Kawhi Leonard?

Portland's own Terrence Jones getting to meet Clips owner Steve Balmer after throwing down a dunk?

But, the real joy of that series is going to be fouls. Hack-a-Howard vs. Hack-a-Jordan.

When they are behind in the second half, the Clippers will just foul Dwight Howard on every possession until he proves he can make two free throws in a row. And, the Rockets will do the same with DeAndre Jordan. The basketball world wants to see that.

The Blazers took advantage of that last year in the first game of its first-round playoff series with the Rockets, and it paid off by helping them rally from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter to win on the road. They didn't use it to any significant degree the remainder of the playoffs, but that option always existed.

Tuesday, the San Antonio Spurs basically shut down the game for 15 minutes by fouling Jordan on every possession in the third quarter even though the game was tied. They managed to take a slim lead, but then the Clippers rallied and produced an exciting finish ... which the Spurs won 111-107 to take a 3-2 series lead.

What the NBA needs to see from a game to alter the hack-a-bad-free-throw-shooter strategy is a game in which both teams do it at the same time. And, they'll look into changing the rule because of who it bothers most - television viewers.

No one wants to see a parade of free throws. An intentional foul away from the ball should be considered a mild version of a flagrant foul, which results in free throws and the ball back. Foul away when a player has the ball, but at least there's a legit reason for going at him. Simply stopping the game and making it longer goes against the challenge of the day these days - make events shorter. Baseball has done that in requiring batters to keep at least one foot in the batter's box during plate appearances.

It's certainly easy to argue there's no need for a rule change - if Howard and Jordan were better free-throw shooters, then this wouldn't be a problem. But, there's likely to always be a very poor shooter in the league, and it'll always be someone who's a frontline player such as a center. That's an exciting player fans want to see, but not at the free-throw line for being fouled intentionally.

And, the way to bring that front-and-center for the league's managers is to have Houston play the Los Angeles Clippers in the playoffs.




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