By Ridge Mahoney
Many of the evil forces that have plagued MLS since its inception converged on Thursday night, but for once the harbingers of doom didn't have their way.
There was a time when a Thursday night MLS game that produced a 0-0 tie would trigger a torrent of criticism about the league and its problems, but the angst coming forth after the hometown Timbers sent a typically raucous crowd home disappointed stemmed from a failure to beat the New England Revolution. Nothing more.
The Timbers Army, undeterred by scheduling conflicts and logistical issues, packed Jeld-Wen Field and lustily roared for their heroes, and though no goals were scored both teams put enough energy and ideas into their play to keep the prospect of a goal bubbling from start to finish.
The Revs defended stoutly, yet attacked with menace and nearly stole a win when a Saer Sene shot forced a great save from Timbers keeper Donovan Ricketts. Portland pressed hard but didn’t get the right bounce or the crisp finish it needed to down a determined opponent.
The Portland Experiment has been such an unbridled success it’s easy to forget just how grim such encounters could be just a few years ago. Too many markets still struggle to hit good attendances figures midweek, but that’s not an issue in the Northwest cities and a few other places.
Traditionally, Thursdays haven’t been good to MLS. A much-ballyhooed series of ESPN2 telecasts on Thursdays in the early years burdened the league with lousy TV ratings and poor crowds. It abandoned the time slot and has tried Sunday nights and other windows to varying success.
Thankfully, the league has matured to the point where in a few markets, at least, a midweek game isn’t the kiss of death at the gate, and ties are accepted for what they are. How soon we forget.
Though it seems a century ago, MLS used a shootout to determine the winner of tied games in its first four seasons. Maybe the rationale was that an exciting, if artificial finish, could eradicate an otherwise drab encounter. It seldom did. And the league seemed to be cursed by more than a few bad games on Thursday nights.
Former league commissioner Doug Logan said of a dreary 0-0 tie between Florida rivals Tampa Bay and Miami when they first met in 1998, “I think we set the sport back in this country about 20 years.” (For the record, Tampa Bay won the shootout). On a frigid April night the following year at the Rose Bowl, the Galaxy and Crew played a 1-1 snoozer watched by maybe 1,000 fans. (The Crew won the tiebreaker that night.)
Serious fans know that a 0-0 tie can be an entertaining game, and the Timbers-Revs match was certainly that. For different reasons, so was the USA’s 0-0 tie in Mexico City in late March, no so much for the action itself, but rather what was at stake in this Hexagonal matchup of the region’s heavyweights. The soccer crowd knows this, and other people are getting the message.
What is slowly happening in this country is that awareness and appreciation of soccer’s unique nuances are seeping into the general sports consciousness, and the future existence of MLS is no longer questioned. When the word “friendly” pops us on sports talk radio show that hardly ever mentions soccer, and no explanation is needed, the world truly has changed. No longer are coaches and players and team executives and Commissioner Don Garber badgered by questions about what happens when (not if) the league fails. A 0-0 result is a tied game, not symptomatic of why pro soccer in America cannot succeed.
Which brings us back to Jeld-Wen Field and a midweek game played with five more months of the season still to be played. The stakes were certainly nothing like those on the line at Azteca five weeks ago, yet the passionate, throbbing environment gave a regular-season MLS match in early May a backdrop of importance, a bedrock of weight, and it made for compelling theater.
A truer barometer of where the league stands regarding midweek matches comes on Wednesday, when six games will be played. The numbers probably won’t be encouraging, since the Revs don’t draw well, D.C. United is really struggling, and New York is hit-or-miss midweek, as is FC Dallas. The small capacity at Buck Shaw Stadium takes San Jose off the board and well-supported Sporting Kansas City should easily top the Wednesday attendances.
Portland, of course, is unique. It generates good crowds for Open Cup matches and friendlies, reserve games, and its women’s team, Thorns FC. Yet it’s still a sign of progress that a Thursday night game can end scoreless and leave a good impression.