As the MLS season comes to a close, and the Portland Timbers edge closer and closer to making club history, it’s an ideal time to reflect on what none of the team’s fans really want to think about: loss. Letting in goals. Falling apart. It’s happened in the past and will happen again … over and over again. Is it perverse to dwell on this after the team has just won its most important derby? While the team beams from the first-place perch in the Western Conference? I don't think so. The thing is, the better you accept the permanent specter of defeat and disappointment, the better winning feels.
You can lose a soccer match a million different ways, through infinite circumstance, but the common denominator is always the same: the opposition has put the ball into the back of the net more times than you. All losses aren’t equal, though: some become the fuel of further defeat, while others become the catalyst for victory. Goals during an individual match are similar. They carry different weights, and mean different things depending on their context. They might get beget further goals, they might seal victory, they might provide false hope, they might mean nothing.
For example, a goal scored in the first minute of the game gives an immediate euphoric lift to the scoring team. A thrashing may be imminent! It only took 30 seconds to get so far! But after fifteen minutes the slimness of the advantage becomes apparent: there’s plenty of time to equalize, and the speed of the first goal begins to look freakish. A goal scored to go 1-0 ahead in the waning minutes of a game, however, will be interpreted as the fruit of long labor or strategy made good. There’s not much time left for reinterpretation or a new storyline. Often, the players on the losing side shut down.
Sometimes it seems like entire seasons play out like this, with results as goals, and the league table as the game. An unsteady start to a season can give way to stability and then a brilliant run, with the doom and gloom of the early games later dismissed or forgotten. A mauling at the end of the season can cast a shadow back on everything that preceded it. Just ask the Seattle Sounders. The Timbers, having endured an unconvincing midseason, have regrouped and are set upon making a statement, and while expectations haven't been as high as they've been on their rivals, the table tells the truth. The Timbers have been fighting to be accepted as legitimate playoff contenders, to be seen as a good team, and on these terms they're overachieving. The Sounders, on the other, have appeared to have had late-season delusions of grandeur and have stumbled badly.
Cadence matters. It’s often said that a team is particularly vulnerable just after having scored. While I’m not convinced this is more than a well-worn narrative device for pundits and announcers, sometimes there’s a bit of life in a cliché. Look at last week’s Portland Timbers/Vancouver Whitecaps game in which three goals were scored in the course of three minutes, one team cancelling the other out in dizzying succession. If it’s true that a team is soft right after scoring, it’s also true that this is a particularly painful point in a game to concede. I remember the feeling well as a player: the rush of going ahead is replaced instantaneously with a kind of grim nausea. All the work going up to your goal will now need to be repeated, and there is no longer time enough to do that work again. You’re going to have to do something new, and you’re tired and your opponents are excited. In a season, a bad loss can sometimes be overcome, as everyone expected with Seattle's loss to the Colorado Rapids, but two in a row make a cadence of their own.
Loss and let-in goals and the insufferable tug of unrealized victory … it often ends up seeming random. When our teams win, we see a design. When they lose, we see chaos. Most diehard American soccer fans tuned in to this week’s CONCACAF Hexagonal round of World Cup Qualifiers. In short, it was insane. The US snatched victory (meaningless, more or less, for them as they’d already qualified) from tiny Panama in the dying minutes of the game. Panama, who couldn’t believe they were winning. Panama, who were about to disqualify Mexico, the US’s most loathed rival. Panama, now disqualified from the upcoming World Cup.
The past few weeks have been tremendous for the Portland Timbers. A promising season full of attractive soccer has been topped with a succession of hard-fought results that have spoken to the desire, mental strength, and experience of the team. They’ve become steely, and that’s something true fans really love. There are two games left in the season. Anything might still happen.