7 Amazing Facts* from the MLS All-Star Game
* Well, not really “facts.” But definitely impressions from a week of football and frivolity in Soccer City, USA. Definitely impressions.
1. Portland has become American soccer’s flagship city, and it’s awesome when American soccer gets a chance to rule Portland. It was quite the week. Adidas took over Pioneer Square. Nike floated a crazy pirate-soccer barge on the Willamette for a nautical four-on-four tournament. On Sunday night, over 19,000 fans turned out to see the Portland Thorns—a National Women’s Soccer League record, and probably one of the best women’s club soccer crowds ever. (The Thorns responded with a 1-0 victory over the Houston Dash, a win critical to the defending NWSL champions' playoff hopes. Spanish international Vero Boquete put in her bid for cult status with the goal and a percolating midfield performance. Go see her during the Thorns’ last regular-season match, Aug 17 against the Seattle Reign. She’s worth it.)
The finale, of course, featured FC Bayern, a team stocked with about half the World Cup-winning German national team’s key players, flying Dutchman Arjen Robben, and bags full of trophies and medals in the world’s toughest competitions. The World Cup stars barely played, and the mixed bag of Major League Soccer stars won the “friendly,” which at times was anything but. But still: Bayern!
All told, it was a civic and cultural performance that confirmed Portland’s status as the nation’s preeminent soccer town. It would be fun to do it all in honor of an actual competitive match.
2. Pep Guardiola’s cosmic ennui is the deepest cosmic ennui. During the official press conference, Bayern’s legendary Spanish manager mostly looked like this:
Is Pep staring into the abyss, or is the abyss staring into him?
3. Being a first-class European football personality would be linguistically taxing. During that press conference, amid his unspoken existential angst, Guardiola fielded and answered questions in English, Spanish, and German. Bayern forward Robert Lewandowski, a Polish international, fielded questions in English and answered them in German. Franck Ribery, a Frenchman, fielded and answered questions in German. Julian Green, an American dual citizen born and raised in Germany, mostly just sat there looking like a teenager bored by two languages.
4. It’s kind of fun to hear tons of German spoken on the streets of Portland. And we didn’t even have to lose a war! Seriously, though: there are several reasons why the mayor of Sacramento and two competing groups from Minneapolis were here, scoping out MLS expansion possibilities. One factor is the opportunity, at least periodically, to lure hundreds of free-spending Bavarians to your humble American soccer stadium.
5. Timbers fans actually are the greatest. All-star games can be a little sterile: more corporate marketing exercise than expression of authentic sports culture. The Timbers Army contingent laced through Wednesday night’s crowd made sure this All-Star Game had at least a little soul, with thunderous versions of several signature Timbers chants and relentless support for the theoretically overmatched MLS squad. Yet after the final whistle, the stadium’s North End—the spiritual heart of all things Timbers—genuflected en masse to Bayern’s world-champion players. Because this is Portland, and we love good football, and that’s how we roll.6. Big-brand European clubs see summers in America as relaxing cash bonanzas, and get upset when soccer matches break out in the middle of their vacations. The first half of the match went according to plan for Bayern Munich. MLS had its name-brand players on the field—Clint Dempsey, Thierry Henry, a good chunk of the US national team—but the visiting club’s largely second-string team more or less had its way with them. Lewandowski scored one terrific goal and could have diced up a few more. He looked, in a word, comfortable: at one point, Lewa engaged in some blatantly showy dribbling in the MLS box.
In the second half, however, Porter changed out his whole side. (It’s an exhibition game; make as many subs as you want.) His new outfit bore a much gnarlier aspect. The Timbers’ pugnacious Canadian instigator, Will Johnson, paired with the Seattle Sounders’ Osvaldo Alonso, a shaven-skulled Cuban defector, to form a physically dangerous defensive midfield. Porter deployed three journeyman English mercenaries: Bradley Wright-Phillips (who cancelled out Lewandowski with a titanic goal from distance), Dom Dwyer, and Timbers defender Liam Ridgewell. It was a soccer collaboration between Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie. By match’s end, both Alonso and Johnson had yellow cards (in a “friendly). Johnson had smashed Bayern’s Bastian Schweinsteiger at midfield, leaving him with a sore ankle to remember his 10 minutes of participation by. Bayern’s players and coaches did not like. Not at all.
The 2-1 MLS victory (the decisive goal came via a beautifully timed pass from Timbers midfield maestro Diego Valeri to American soccer legend Landon Donovan) doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of the sport. Bayern’s players are still better; the German Bundesliga is still stronger than MLS. But as Tim Cahill, Australian and New York Red Bulls midfield hardcase, put it after the match:
“There’s no more of that [treating the All-Star Game as an exhibition]. The mentality has to change. We played Arsenal the other week and we played to win. The fans paid great money to be here so it’s an injustice if you don’t play to the best of your abilities.”
7. The legend of Caleb Porter just grew. Guardiola refused to shake Porter’s hand on the field after the match, creating an intense social media furor. The Timbers Army chanted the manager’s name. One post-match Twitter suggestion: Cancel the rest of the MLS season, and just have Porter and the All-Stars troll European teams for the rest of the summer. It’s not a bad idea.