By Paul Gardner
So here come the playoffs, the climax of the MLS season, when we can expect to see MLS soccer at its best. Well, maybe. Because this is when we hear a lot of that "to hell with pretty soccer, we just have to grind out a win" talk.
It’s only a few weeks since coach Hans Backe, the most amiable of men, announced that his team, the Red Bulls, would from then on “play a bit dirty” -- at least on the road.
Possibly they did -- they’ve had two road games, and they did out-foul their opponents 24 to 16, but that foul total is not a particularly high one.
Even if the Bulls were playing it “a bit dirty” -- and I can’t see the evidence that they were -- then the tactic has been a disaster, for they’re now scrambling to sneak in as the last team to make the playoffs.
One thing: you can be certain that if the Red Bulls had suddenly surged to the top of the Eastern Conference, the success would have been quickly hailed as a triumph for the new “dirty” play. You can be equally certain that when the team screws up, as it has done, no one will be blaming it for playing “a bit dirty.”
It seems doubtful that MLS teams pay much attention to this sort of talk from their rivals anyway. For sure, they don’t up in Portland. There, playoff excitement is growing -- and why not? This is an expansion team. The Red Bulls’ failure to make dirty soccer pay off has not been noted by the Timbers, where the struggle to make the playoffs is conjuring up macho visions of fights and battles and scraps and mayhem and maybe all-out war.
Here’s a nice concentrated dose of this hogwash from one of the Timbers’ players: “We do need to become a little more physical, a little tougher, a little grittier. You step onto the battlefield ... you've got to become that nasty person, that mean person.”
Grrrr! And the same player goes on “We need to say, if [our game plan] is not going to work, then we're just going to throw the gloves off and we'll go bare knuckles to bare knuckles and fight this out.”
Pretty embarrassing stuff to read, but it turns merely laughable when you realize that the speaker is Troy Perkins ... the goalkeeper! Right on, Troy, you throw off those huge keeper gloves and get in there swinging.
One of the problems of talking tough like this, is the implication that the team -- your own team -- has up till now been playing like a bunch of wimps. So Perkins makes it clear that only a slight change in attitude is necessary to bring on the he-man Timbers. Look at that sentence -- “We do need to become a little more physical, a little tougher, a little grittier” -- just a little of this and a little of that, then.
Midfielder Mike Chabala, all 6-feet and 175 pounds of him, is all for the physical approach: “If we can roll up our sleeves and fight a little bit ... I think if we come out there with a little chip on our shoulder ...” How odd that these tough guys should use the word “little” so much.
All this Rambo stuff follows a home defeat to Houston, in which it seems that the Timbers, or some of them, allowed themselves to be out muscled and shoved around by the Dynamo. Coach John Spencer has had his say: “We need to stand up to the physical battle.” But Spencer doesn’t belabor the point, and pays attention to what really matters -- the soccer: “It's up to us to play well and get a good result ...”
Spencer was looking ahead to the Timbers’ game at D.C. United last night -- indeed all this talk had that game in mind. And, really, is it all just talk, simply a way of making themselves feel brave? Let’s see ...
* * *
… There will now be a 2-hour pause while I watch D.C.United and Timbers slug it out . . .
* * *
I’m back from the wars, and it wasn’t at all bad. Nothing hair-raising or blood-curdling. A tense game that got better as it went along. Kenny Cooper scored early for Portland, and for a long time that one goal looked as though it would be enough to win the game, for D.C. United lacked intensity. Dwayne De Rosario, as you would expect, was their danger man, the only one really, and he it was who tied the game in the 73rd minute.
Which was the signal for the start of a totally different game, a frantic end-to-end see-saw of a game. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we got 21 minutes of non-stop thrills, a rip-roaring finish to what had been a rather tame affair.
Suddenly DC was vibrantly alive, flooding forward, with DeRo looking likely to score almost every time he got the ball. DC did get the ball in the net, but Blake Brettschneider was offside. And each time that DC’s attacks broke down, there was Portland, breaking at speed, getting off their shots at the other end. They came closest when Brian Umony slammed the ball against the crossbar -- it rebounded down to the ground, but outside the goal, and was cleared. DeRo had a goal-bound shot blocked by Eric Brunner. Then DeRo got himself loose on the right and rolled a perfect ball across the goalmouth to Joseph Ngwenya, but his attempt to steer the ball in was weak, and saved by Perkins.
John Spencer got his wish -- his team did play well, they were the better team for most of the game, yet were lucky to survive the final frantic wave of DC’s kamikaze attacking.
Over 20 minutes of hectic, goal-threatening activity, yet no score. Referee Jair Marrufo did a terrific job keeping up with the mad dashes from one penalty area to the other and getting the calls right. Except for one, in the 82nd minute, when Mamadou Danso ran clumsily into the back of De Rosario and brought him down -- DC had a strong case for a penalty kick.
So DC United is out, victims of their own moodiness, it seems -- a team that in its previous game had played well enough to take a 1-0 lead against the Chicago Fire, and then totally collapsed to give up two quick goals in added time. And a team that, in this game, had taken 70 minutes to wake up ... in fact it only woke up when desperation set in, when caution had to be abandoned, when tactics and game plans were jettisoned in search of a vital goal.
No “playing a bit dirty” was necessary, no “nasty persons” were evident on either team -- I noted only one violent foul, by DC’s Austin Da Luz, who promptly got a yellow card.
Two teams totally committed to all-out attack -- that was all that was needed for a memorable game -- or a memorable 20 minutes.
And when the grand climax of a game is as good as that, who’s going to remember those first rather ordinary 70 minutes?