“This is a game of moments. You lose a moment, you lose a game. You get punished. It’s cruel.”- Caleb Porter, after the Portland Timbers’ 1-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders last weekend.
In front of a record crowd of nearly 70,000, playing away against a team energized by Clint Dempsey’s celebrity signing, there were plenty of moments which Portland should have taken better advantage of. The Timbers counterattacked at pace and delivered the ball into dangerous positions, but it was one of those games where the forwards just didn’t make it happen. A British announcer would say that “the final ball was lacking.” This was equally true of Seattle but for the aforementioned moment when they scored from a set piece.
So it goes, and as Porter said, such games have a touch of cruelty to them: a loss can boil down to the slightest misstep or the most temporary and singular lapse of concentration. Of course, one of the joys of the sport is how it illustrates moments stacking upon one another and the luck and personality involved in each. Sometimes a single player wields outsized influence in the sequence of moments; certainly that’s what the Sounders must hope for in Dempsey. He hustled in his first home game, but didn’t put any authoritative stamp on it. Dempsey and Timbers’ center back Pa Modou Kah scuffled with one another throughout the game, as happens between scrappy marauders and big, hard-tackling defenders. No love was lost. Afterward, Kah had this to say:
"He's the best player in MLS? If he's the best … I've seen much, much better in Europe … If he was so good, he would still be with Tottenham.”
It’s not worth looking too deeply into athletes’ post game trash talk, but this struck a chord and the quote was reported on in several Northwest papers. There are several themes at work, and it’s all a bit confused. What immediately rings out, and rings a bit true, is the dig against his departure from Tottenham, which had to be bittersweet.
It’s not clear from the original report if Kah was asked point-blank if Dempsey was the best player in the MLS, or if it was a rhetorical question he posed himself. If it was a question, or assertion, there’s a pretty easy answer: Dempsey is not the best player in the MLS, just one of the two famous American players. Thierry Henry is still playing, and Dempsey is several light years away from winning a Ballon d’Or. But this is maybe a trivial point, because who knows, maybe in a few months’ time, Dempsey will have imposed himself on the league and have claim to being among the best. It’s just too early to say.
Kah bungles his insult a bit by bringing up superior players in Europe. Wouldn’t it have been better to simply say that there were lots of better players in the MLS? Like, perhaps, Kah’s teammate Diego Valeri? But Kah is perhaps puffing himself up a bit with this, saying, “Hey, I played in Europe, too”… but if that’s how he feels, then he seems to be in a similar position as Dempsey. If Kah was so good, why isn’t he still playing in the Eredivisie?
This undercurrent of reflexive inferiority (the European leagues are better, stars in decline join the MLS to retire) isn’t as immediately apparent as it used to be in American soccer. The league is growing, fans are only getting more passionate, milestones are whizzing by. When the old distrust and (dare I say?) self-loathing come in, it’s a reminder that we’re not that far from the early days, and that the early days of professional soccer in the US were rough going. It’ll be a relief when this misgiving, which is still central to the sport’s culture here, dissipates completely. It would be wonderful if it could just rise up and disappear like a mist, but that’s not going to happen. It’s a process, an evolution. It’ll take the league getting better. It’ll take more advertising money and all the banal machinations of big business. It’ll happen, but by the time it finally does, these old misgivings will be the territory of old men.