Month – April 2014

Why Rave? or About Me

Once upon a time I disliked and distrusted soccer. I was one of those haters who hated for no reason that boring, effete, foreign game. Now I bleed Rave Green and rant and rave daily here on my own soccer blog.

I was raised a diehard Philadelphia Eagles and Phillies fan. My folks moved to Alaska, where I was born and raised, but took their Philly roots with them. My father told me stories of virtuous men in green as if they were the Arthurian legends. Without satellite TV and only the box scores in the back of the Anchorage Daily News’s sports page as my guide, I took his word for it. I noticed “we” rarely won, but understood that honor and effort was more important, that men like Reggie White, Randall Cunningham, and Keith Byars were the right men to cheer for.

Sports and writing have always been connected for me. One of my first writing accolades was for an essay about my experience in a sixth-grade soccer game. Don’t ever believe me if I tell you I was any good. I wasn’t fast, so always played defense and I had the coordination of a three-toed sloth. My last year playing soccer, eighth grade, we were tied in the first round of the CYSA (Chugiak Youth Sports Association) playoffs. Coach picked his first five shooters. Despite being one of the oldest boys on the team, I was not chosen. Tied again after that first round, Coach was scraping the bottom of the barrel. My pride was hurt. Sure, I never took a shot on goal, but I was 13! I deserved a chance. Coach acquiesced and put me second-to-last, where I could do the least damage.

Like most Americans, I played soccer as a kid before moving on to the real sports. That penalty kick (FYI, I iced it) was the end of my playing career, and nearly the end of my relationship with soccer. I used to travel to Germany frequently. I was in love with a girl from Dortmund, and she knew I was a diehard sports fan. In an attempt to be an awesome girlfriend, she offered to get tickets to a Borussia Dortmund game. She was trying to be welcoming of my idiosyncratic hobbies and passions, she had also taken me to Mexican restaurants in Cologne (love those plucky Germans, but that was an atrocious burrito).  I laughed, “a soccer game? That’s stupid.” She didn’t understand the cultural bias, hell, I didn’t understand the cultural bias. I had taken her to a Chugiak High School football game and she enjoyed it, but I refused to attend a world-class sporting event because it was… soccer.

I finally came around living in Portland during the 2006 World Cup. My good buddy Dave and I woke early, went to Kells pub downtown, and watched the USMNT’s ignoble run. Dave, raised in a military family, had lived in Germany and Turkey, and was not cursed with an American’s disdain for soccer. He enticed me with beer for breakfast, but this soccer thing was interesting. In New York, in 2008, I saw, “After 44 years, a nation of 44 million, Spain, are kings of Europe, again!” By the next World Cup, and living in Seattle, I was hooked. I was finally cheering for a team in the city I lived in. The Sounders had burst onto the scene, more bold men in green to give my heart to.

Clint Dempsey in Bloom

My newest post is up at Sounders Nation. “Uniting the State of American Soccer: Dempsey in Bloom” is a meaty little essay that explores America’s troubled relationship with our domestic soccer league.

Here is the link to my article.

Seattle Sounders Media Roundup

As Mike Gastineau said in his book about the rebirth of our franchise, Authentic Masterpiece, Seattle is a big league city. For that attendance suffered for the USL Sounders. In 2009, when we entered the upper echelons of soccer stateside, the fans came in droves. The phenomenon persists. Walking the streets of Seattle, you always see a track jacket or ball cap, Sounders insignias are everywhere.

The Sounders and soccer are enmeshed deep in the fabric of our region, and Puget Sounders can’t get enough team coverage. This is unique. Last year I travelled to other MLS cities, L.A., Salt Lake, D.C. and Philadelphia. I saw nary a local MLS logo. Today, I am providing a primer of all the media our region offers to feed your big league Sounders fix.

Beat Writers

The Seattle Times: Joshua Mayers does yeoman’s work keeping the team in the city’s paper, though I wish the Times would cover the Sounders as extensively as they do the Seahawks and Mariners.

Tacoma News Tribune: Don Ruiz is a fine writer and reporter and a must follow on Twitter.

TV Broadcast

Q13 Fox and JoeTV: At the beginning of the season, the Sounders announced a transition from KING 5/KONG TV to Q13 Fox and JoeTV. It seemed like a seamless transition for the first month’s slate of games. However, the last broadcast against FC Dallas was very poor. Many fans were atwitter about the kangaroo camera angles. In a very stressful first half when Dallas had our goal under siege, the wide-high, corner  camera angle was so unnatural and distracting. Noticing shoddy production, took me out of the game, something that never happened with KING/KONG.

Radio

Sounders FC Weekly: KIRO radio’s weekly Saturday morning broadcast is a favorite in my household. Matt Johnson hosts a great show and is often accompanied by Ross Fletcher and Wade Webber. 8:00 am Saturdays on ESPN Seattle 710 AM.

Nos Audietis: The official podcast accompaniment of Sounder at Heart. Jeremiah Oshan and Aaron Campeau run a helluva show. My wife and I never miss it.

Seattle Soccer Talk: Mike Gastineau hosts a brand new Tuesday night radio show on KJR 950 AM. If all shows are as good as last night’s, we have a new media gem.

Blogs

SoundersNation.com: A small blog made good. Brian Stern started this independent blog a few years ago and was rewarded with an invitation to Sports Illustrated’s Fansided blog network. The blog is growing and staffed by a stable of talented and hilarious writers. Full disclosure: I contribute here.

SounderAtHeart.com: The grand daddy of them all, you probably need no other context.

Greenandshale.com: A fine independent blog. The three writers update regularly and contribute in-depth and opinionated posts.

Ravinggreen.com: Thanks for reading fellow Ravers!

 

Mauro Rosales: Hustle and Flair

Saturday, Seattle Sounders FC face former captain Mauro Rosales and Chivas USA in Los Angeles.  When #7 in red takes the field, the Rave Green faithful will cheer. Sport rarely elicits complicated emotions, as the “us-versus-them” tribal reaction dominates. But Mauro Rosales, for his short tenure, was the Sounders.

The Seattle-Rosales love story is well known. Mauro embodied the classic American redemption narrative. Near the end of a prolific career, he arrived in Seattle unwanted and unheralded in the summer of 2011. He quickly displayed his quality and leadership, and was rewarded with a Designated Player contract after one season. He loved the team and the city, as he also worked hard off the pitch. Rosales was very involved with both community building and charity.

One of the great tragedies of American sport is when the culture-bearers of a team are moved for financial reasons. I wish Seattle had found cap space for Rosales, maybe an above-market, but reduced contract that allowed him to stay in the Emerald City. Of course this was wishful thinking, as the MLS salary cap is especially tight.

Rosale’s departure doesn’t affect Seattle much on the pitch. As a DP, he was no longer producing at his pay grade and he was too often injured. Talent-wise, the Sounders’s offseason reload was most significant with the trade of always goal-dangerous Eddie Johnson to D.C. United. The more emotional changes involved Steve Zakuani and Mauro Rosales. Zakuani to the Timbers hurt but during the epic 4-4 draw, I thought little of seeing Zak in the wrong color green.

Mauro Rosales meant more to this city. He was later to the party than culture-bearers Brad Evans or Ozzie Alonso, but his selflessness, class and talent embodied everything right about the Seattle Sounders. Rosales had a certain blue-collar class, or Hustle and Flair. Seattle is a dynamic franchise, playing attacking, attractive soccer, but a grinder ethos saturates this team. The city embraces players who exhibit this trait, the aforementioned Evans and Alonso, but also Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey. All are supremely talented, but not above the bump and hustle. Former Seattle greats EJ and Fredy Montero often fell on the wrong side of the fans’ appreciation because of the perception of loafing.

Mauro Rosales, in his prime, embodied that distinctly Seattle hustle and flair.

Seattle Sounders at FC Dallas Recap: Swagger

Seattle Sounders FC exorcised a lingering demon from last season’s late swoon, beating FC Dallas 3-2 in another high-scoring affair.

Halloween came early in October 2013 for a humbled Sounders team. After climbing atop the Supporter’s Shield race, Seattle had lost three straight on an aggregate 10-2 score line, but were travelling to Frisco, Texas to face a losing and listless FC Dallas. Dallas, winless in their last five games, looked the team to cure what ailed the Sounders. Instead the Hoops played a stellar game and sank Seattle two-nil.

Seattle has had a choppy beginning to 2014, while Dallas has had their best start yet at 4-0-1. Proven coach Oscar Pareja was back in Big D, and Dallas was looking to beat the mighty Sounders to prove their mettle. Captain America had other plans.

Windy and chippy, the first half Saturday was ugly. Dallas threw wave after wave of attack, and again, Seattle’s defensive shape was wanting. Seattle was frustrated, as multiple players picked up pointless yellow cards, and Dallas took a goal advantage into the break.

Seattle fans were left squirming in their seats for the second week in a row.  Despite taking commanding possession of the game in the second half, Seattle had nothing to show for it. I was afraid we’d leave Frisco pointless, as the 2013 Sounders were famous for too-little-too-late end game flurries. However this year is different and this team gets results. It takes grit and swagger to not let the scoreboard distract you. The Sounders played the second half with the confidence and quality to both equalize and eventually score the winner.

*****

Okay, I’ll stop playing around in sportswriter voice (though that was fun).

In earnestness, winning ugly is an important characteristic of champions. Seattle again did not have things in hand until late, but got the job done. It is way too early to be talking about “champions,” as Clint Dempsey’s post-game interviews will prove. But the Sounders are a healthy 1.65 points-per-game clip, and are playing like a top-quality team.

I want to say the defense played great. The hop over Frei was a freak, freak moment, and only the PK was on the defense. Dallas had us under so much pressure that we cracked. You put a team to siege and even if you don’t nail the goal from the run of play, you’ll either force an own goal or a penalty. However Dallas coulda, shoulda, woulda finished many opportunities, as miscommunications between Seattle’s midfield and backline persisted. Jermain Defoe or Robbie Keane are much more ruthless and efficient finishers than Fabian Castillo or David Texeira.  Like I discussed Friday on Sounders Nation, Seattle needs to eliminate sloppy and superfluous backpasses, and reconsider the defensive shape when transitioning.

Offensively we were brilliant. Clint Dempsey is a man on fire and he’s igniting Obafemi Martins, Marco Pappa, and Chad Barrett. Seattle has a roster of goal dangerous players, men who can score and believe they will. That swagger was the biggest difference between our last two games in Texas. Oh what a difference a year a makes.

Seattle Sounders at Portland Timbers: Breaking Down the Breakdowns

Like the Jeffersons, your humble Raving Writer is moving on up. I have signed on with Sounders Nation as a staff writer. Have no fear, your favorite Sounders blog isn’t going anywhere. However, I will be posting to Sounders Nation a few times a month.

Today’s post “Breaking Down the Breakdowns,” explores just what went wrong with our defense against Portland.

Here is the link to my article.

Post PDX PMP

Last week I tweaked our season-long statistical study from mere Plus/Minus to PMP (plus, minus, points). This is a good thing. According to Plus/Minus, Lamar Neagle is our best player, Michael Azira the worst, and Clint Dempsey is a non-factor. Under this paradigm, Deuce equals Cam Weaver and pales to Chad Barrett and Dylan Remick. Yeppers, not an entirely useful statistic.

PMP is the way to go but as Friar Tuck commented, it only selects for offensive-minded players. Players like Marshall and Traore will never be big PMP’ing. This stat also seems to select for high-scoring draws, as players get lots of points, but the plus/minus doesn’t change. Maybe we’ve just stumbled upon a statistic for quantifying entertaining television, but that’s being far to dismissive of our study. These numbers told of Kenny Cooper’s contributions long before he started putting balls in the back of the net. The PMP numbers for this week:

PMP w5

Plus/Minus MVP Cooper took a hit after the Portland draw. He scored a goal, but he was on the field for two shipped, so he lost a PMP point. Along with Cooper, the other noticeable changes: Azira fell hard, Dempsey, of course, soared, but so did Neagle and Pappa. The changes to PMP from Week 4 to Week 5:

delta2

Aside from Neagle and Deuce, Marco Pappa surprises most. He was a real difference maker after getting his feet under him and surged up +2. I championed the “Marco Pappa Outta Here” cause earlier this season. Maybe first impressions can be too damning. After the energy and quality displayed on Saturday, I hope to see Pappa contribute much more in the future.

Sigi Schmidt and the Seattle Sounders: Eschewing the Dream of a Perfect Machine

Yesterday I ranted about Caleb Porter and his deficiencies. For the sake of karmic balance, today I’m practicing gratitude. Seattle is lucky to have Sigi Schmid, a superlative and original coach. Unlike Caleb Porter, Schmidt preaches a bold approach to soccer. The man has no system.

As recently as late last year, I was firmly in the #sigiout camp. The well-worn knocks on Sigi: the game has passed him by, he’s too static, too “my way or the highway.” Many promising players, Mario Martinez for example, were shipped out because they wouldn’t cop to Sigi. And game after game he trotted out either an unoriginal 4-4-2, or squished that shape to a 4-2-3-1.

Good coaches both teach and lead. Most trend one way or the other, but you need both chief attributes. Sigi appears to be a fine teacher, but his leadership was questioned in 2013. Sigi was not in control of the ship last year, and that is damning. The locker room needs an “oh captain, my captain.” The trade for Moffat during the troubles was telling. The front office brought in a “Sigi guy” to repair the fraying bonds of chemistry. It failed, or rather, Sigi’s influence failed. He lost the locker room, seemed out-coached and failed in the quarterfinals for the fourth time in five years.

I consider myself a loyal and grateful supporter, but I wanted Sigi fired. Full disclosure: I’m a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan and I never wanted Andy Reid fired. After all he had done for the franchise, I never understood the thankless barbarians at the gates clamoring for the Birds to can Big Red. As I cut my teeth on the Eagles, my relationship to them has informed my relationship to the Sounders. But at the ignoble end of last season, the tailspin down the table and Timbers playoff series, I became a barbarian hunting Sigi’s job.

In only five games this season, Seattle has shown more shapes than the last five years. Sigi is overthrowing himself completely and proving to be everything we expected back in 2009. Sigi is a man without a system. He has his hallmarks: attack wide, stay stout on D, lob crosses from the flanks, but he doesn’t have a “blueprint.” Sigi is a throwback. He builds his teams from the inside out, like a solar system. He builds his teams around the strengths of his players, whether its Fredy, Nkufo, Eddie or Dempsey.  He identifies the players with most gravity and shapes a team to revolve around them. Never is this more apparent than this season.

Give Sigi any eleven guys and he’ll build a fine soccer team because he’s never pouring players into a prescribed mold. Of course there are problems to this approach. Build a team around Dempsey and suffer when he’s suspended, injured, or called-up. But on balance, I feel the benefits far outweigh the negatives. Our team is unpredictable and plural. An opponent can never attack the Sounders the same way twice. And when we shape-shift, teams become reactive to our will. We switched from the 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 late on Saturday and strangled Portland.

In sharp contrast to Sigi, Caleb Porter has system. He runs it well, tweaks it at times, but is married to it. RSL is the best example of a system team. Like Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, RSL know their game plan, you know their game plan, and they dare you to stop them executing. The theory being that once your system is firing, no one should be able to stop you. More often they not, RSL are firing. Portland wants to be this type of team.

I used to want a system. But systems are theories, ideals that live in coaches’ minds and grease boards. They fail without the right players fulfilling their roles. How effective would RSL’s diamond be without Morales and Beckerman? Andy Reid had his famous binder of plays, the tome of his lovely system. But during his time with the Philadelphia Eagles, he was forever on a casting call. He scoured the nation for players to fulfill his dream of a perfect machine. Reid failed repeatedly in the playoffs until he found the big play receiver his machine needed. After TO left, the team suffered. DeSean Jackson finally replaced TO, but then McNabb was traded. In theory Reid should’ve won many championships, but in reality he never found the right players.

I’m starting to fall for Sigi’s agile concept of team building. Every season we may take a while to find ourselves, as Sigi uses the first two months to tinker and craft. I used to feel this was a weakness, but it is a strength. We are built organically and grow stronger as we bond. We eschew the dream of a perfect machine because we win with men.

The Hate Song of J. Caleb Porter

I hate and love. And if you should ask how I can do both, I couldn’t say; but I feel it, and it shivers me.

-Catullus, Poem 85

There was a lot to love in Saturday’s game: Deuce’s hat trick, Oba’s assists, Yedlin and Neagle’s hustle. There was a lot to hate: Anibaba’s defensive lapses, Azira’s turnovers and the Timbers in general. Portland’s whole ethos is pitiable and annoying, but I’m saving that post for later. Today I want to talk about Caleb Porter.

I hate Caleb Porter. Hate him. He’s the evil coach in Mighty Ducks, a cocky, intense bully. When things go well for PTFC he strolls the sidelines, hands in oversized topcoat sneering and fist pumping. He pontificates about macho crap like “brass balls,” but when the Timbers lose he whines and makes excuses.

Porter has been griping about fouls and officiating. Sigi’s upset me in the past for clowning the refs and making excuses, but I’ve never seen him complain about calls two weeks late. Refs make bad calls, teams complain, and everyone moves on. Not Porter. It takes some real narcissistic solipsism to think poor officiating or human error is new and only affects your squad.

Sigi and Porter are polar opposites and make for a fascinating dichotomy in archetypes. It is too easy to fixate on Sigi’s girth and project him as Falstaff or the Ghost of Christmas Present. In truth, he is more like Gandalf: though disarming and pleasant, you immediately respect his experience and breadth of knowledge. Sigi, like Gandalf, can be very fallible, and even silly, at times, but he is singularly powerful and a formidable opponent. Porter is Boba Fett: appearing intense and fearsome at first, but actually a dime a dozen. When in control both Porter and Fett are daunting, but both whine like a child when facing adversity. To finish the nerd-out, I think of the Golden Compass. Every coach has a player/daemon, a totem, familiar or spirit animal. Sigi has often said Brad Evans is “my guy”. Peter Vermes has Aurelien Collin. Porter has Will Johnson. Yes, Will Johnson, arguably the most hated player in the entire league (with Lenhart). Porter projects a gaming, snarking, cheap shot artist to capture the ethos and soul of the Timbers. It says a lot.

In a weird way, Porter matches the shallowest of Seattle stereotypes. He is slick and corporate, and could be at home in the city of Starbucks and Amazon. Portland prides itself on being the current capitol of funky cool, calling Seattle just another faceless big city. Too bad their soccer team has a faceless corporate-clone coach.

We struggled against the Timbers last year. At times they looked absolutely stellar, and Porter appeared the coach Portland dreamed of, innovative and clutch. But whispers of Porter’s failures simmered in the background. Though heavily favored, his team crashed out of U-23 Olympic Qualifying in 2012. Is 2014, the year he crashes out of MLS? Maybe his Argentine love affair is getting the best of him. Maybe he’s too obsessed with his system, and not the flow of the game. Maybe he is a Nick Saban or Bobby Petrino, only successful at a lower level.

The Cascadia rivalry is better when the teams do battle. But if Porter is revealed to be a loser and the Timbers go into a death spiral, I’d love it. So let’s step on their whiny throats next time. We weathered the storm. Now build a bonfire.

Seattle Sounders Beat Portland Timbers 4-4!

Sounders Win! Sounders Win!

Box score certainties aside, Saturday felt victorious. The game was a testament to the grit and heart of the All-New All-Different Sounders. You’ve gotta feel good about this team. Despite five shapes in five games dictated by injuries and suspensions, Team Rave Green gets it done. They may be finding an identity for a while, but their fight cannot be questioned. When games matter, these Sounders will be juggernauts.

We stole two points from Portland and started our road trip with a result. In another reality, the game finished 4-2 Timbers, and Scott Bakula is ambling about righting wrongs. I was already imagining this post and dreading it. The Timbers would have won four straight with an aggregate score of 10-5. After last season’s playoff massacre, the balance of power in Cascadia was tilting precariously. From the Urruti goal until the 70th minute, Portland was toying with us. It was disgusting. Timbers unquestioned Kings of Cascadia. But our boys run through walls. Wave after wave of Sounders came crashing at the Timbers. Dempsey and Oba put the team on their backs.

Yesterday’s game was a rare treat, one of the reasons you dedicate a slice of your heart to a team. Fandom is an active sacrament, but life and all its realities threaten to take you away from your team. Many times I’ve needed to go out of my way to catch a significant game. Whether watching a bootleg stream on my laptop in a Starbucks in Belfair, or staring at a silent screen tucked a corner of the Red Lion in Spokane, I kept vigil.

My wife and I had driven up Chuckanut and were spending the weekend in Bellingham. We knew we weren’t missing Sounders-Portland. Even during our honeymoon, we hadn’t missed the Cascadia Clash (a deflating away draw that featured a helluva strike by Montero). We caught the game at the Copper Hog, a gastropub and THE place to watch the Sounders in B-Ham. We broke bread with lots of folks and met Hooligan Ron. The tension was tight and things got giddy when Deuce pulled us within one. Glasses broke, chants of “two more goals” rang out and a girl in a Portland shirt left crying (okay, that’s a lie. She toughed it out.).

Game thoughts:

Deuce is a stud. Portland fans are bitter, whining about our $8 million man who wills victory. Tough. That’s a perk of big city life. We can afford to pay world-class talent, though it feels weird bragging about it.

Do not give Diego Chara space.

Yedlin is a proud son of the 206. But Nagbe owned him early. Yedlin has lots of talent. Lots. He is, however, still developing. His speed masks many of his deficiencies, but matched against Nagbe, the speed doesn’t favor him and he’s exposed. Maybe the 4-3-3 ask too much of Yedlin, putting him on an island against Nagbe. When Nagbe came off, Yedlin finally came alive and was able to assert his will. He worried less about his defensive responsibilities, and could attack, attack. His positioning and play was frustrating early, but his hustle and heart (and face) pulled us through at the end.

Reportedly, Yedlin and Porter have exchanged bitter words the last two games at Portland. Is there some beef between the two going back to Akron? Could be hearsay, could be a Richard Sherman/John Harbaugh thing. All I know is, Yedlin plays for keeps against TPFC.

My PMP MVP Kenny Cooper just keeps delivering. Love it.

Ozzie MUST be injured. He was not himself in the midfield. He wore that chunky hammy wrap the last few games, but ditched it on Saturday. Is he not recovered from his injury? I hope he doesn’t need a game off, because…

Ugh. Michael Azira may very well be a fine player one day. But I do not want him starting again any time soon. Sigi went with the shape that’d been working the last couple of games, the 4-3-3. This put Azira on the pitch at the expense of Neagle. Never again. Play people not shapes Sigi. Neagle tore this game open, and his place in the 11 is sacrosanct.

Caleb Porter is an ass. I love seeing him get all sad face.

Jalil Anibaba fouled up a few times, sure. Let’s not dub him the new whipping boy. With him and Leo in the lineup, the backline had two new players. Growing pains, that’s all.

Deuce. ‘Nuff Said.

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