The beautiful game. It’s a simple, succinct, romantic way of describing football; a game with many dimensions and factors, demons and angles. The beautiful game is the sport at its best – something to live up to. It’s more than a style of play; it’s a state of mind.
It’s one thing to win. It’s another thing to win with tenor, the flowing vibe of pizzazz and skill rolling through a team like a perfectly-played piano concerto. At its best, the beautiful game is mesmerizing, inspiring, and awing.
It’s not easy to play pretty. In soccer, anyone can play kick-ball, anyone can battle, or scrap, or hoof, but it takes real talent to be able to connect passes, confidently string together attacks through fluid movement, accuracy, touch and instinct, resisting the urge to put a foot through the ball, instead caressing the ball, spreading it around the field like fine jam on a piece of toast.
Only the very best teams can play the very best football. There aren’t many sides in the world who can play the beautiful game, and there are even fewer sides that try. In MLS, the fusion of skill, coaching ability and team confidence that create a side willing to play pretty is a dime a dozen.
The Portland Timbers are trying to change that.
After the Timbers exhilarating 3-3 draw with the New York Red Bulls finished on opening day of the 2013 MLS season, many Timbers fans who watched the game were left breathless. Although Portland didn’t win, their play was unrecognizable from years past.
Gone was the kick-ball of the John Spencer era, and in its place was a Timbers team that was playing such good stuff offensively, they looked a threat to score every time they crossed the halfway line.
Even though the Timbers didn’t win, the game felt like one of the best in the club’s young MLS history, such was the high from watching Portland play.
For those teams and countries that play the beautiful game, that high often means more than winning games. In Brazil, winning isn’t enough. The national team has to win by playing fluid, attacking football. In 2002, the Brazilians won the World Cup under manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, but even after the triumph, Scolari was criticized for not playing pretty enough.
In the Netherlands, there was national horror after the 2010 World Cup Final, not so much because Holland, creators of Total Football, lost, but because of how they lost … in a boorish, ugly performance against Spain. Style has made the Barcelonans of the world revered.
Caleb Porter understands this. Porter, in his first year in professional soccer, is whip-smart and one cocky son of a gun. In seven years, Porter turned Akron into a college soccer superpower, never losing a conference game. Porter is a new-school kind of coach, using analytics, and of a breed of football minds that think technical football can triumph over powerful football.
In a single offseason, he has turned the Timbers style of play around. The signing of Diego Valeri as the point man in the Timbers attack makes sense. Valeri is a silky Argentine, slim and not a physical presence; rather, he’ll control the game with his passing and movement.
The Timbers new style of play makes it so important that they have players who are skilled and comfortable on the ball, Kalif Alhassan’s revitalization has become an important project, while Kris Boyd, a poacher, but not an especially talented forward, was never given a chance in Porter’s regime.
Diego Chara and Will Johnson can link passes as well, and Ryan Johnson is an important cog as a player who can hold the ball up at the top of the formation and set up attacks. Mikael Silvestre, as well, is an important player not just for his defensive leadership and nous, but his ball-playing ability.
As the Timbers are departing from Donovan Ricketts punting the ball away, now moving to a system where he throws the ball out to his backline, it’s important to have defenders who can play a little bit as well.
But Chara, Valeri, Alhassan, W. Johnson and R. Johnson aren’t Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro, Messi and David Villa. In MLS, a league widely known for its all-around physicality, the beautiful game isn’t well suited. That’s why we don’t see much of it in America and part of the reason the national team doesn’t play pretty – even though they are trying to move in that direction with Jurgen Klinnsman.
Porter will have to be resilient and stick to his guns if he wants his style to play in MLS. San Jose took the Timbers out of their style of play, ceding possession, but stifling space and passing lanes. You see, the beautiful game, even at its finest, can be beaten by sheer force of will and strength – Chelsea beat Barcelona in the Champions League last year.
Porter thinks he has his team playing the right way, but it won’t always be easy. Still, Porter is a guy who has abundant self-confidence and sticking with the beautiful game style of play has its benefits: Losing 3-2 is better than losing 1-0, and it’s noble to go down playing the right way.
The better the Timbers can play, the more supporters Porter will have. Things were rosy with Spencer when the team was playing well, but when the results soured, the Timbers style of play didn’t do the Scot any favors.
Porter is also offered some leeway by the strong Portland defense, which has the ability to keep the Timbers in every game this year.
Not only is the beautiful game fun to watch, it’s also fun to play. Everyone gets touches on the ball, everyone is a threat to score goals and usually, everyone is happy. There are so many reasons to play soccer the best way it can be played – the only reason to not play the beautiful game, it’s hard, shouldn’t stop Porter and the Portland Timbers.
Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports