Monday, September 15, 2008

Decompressing From the Weekend

I know it's a great weekend when I'm ready to go back to work to rest up from my weekend plans. It might be a different way of thinking, but I like to think about it like this. If I'm so busy doing things and being with friends or family and I look at work like a nice break from living, the drudgery won't seem nearly as bad. So far, it's worked pretty well, but I'm also new to my new job and I'm figuring out all of the quirks of my team. So far, they know me as the new guy from Portland that loves soccer and got married this year, but that's about it. It's a bit hard when over half of your team resides in the Midwest and you only talk to them by phone. I can say that it can be done to make strong friendships by simply chatting over the phone, because I made a lot during my last job. So to say leaving there for my new position was hard would be an understatement, but I needed a new challenge, and so I'm trying something different. Which brings me back to my starting point, in a roundabout way.

The Timbers' season is almost officially over after this weekend, as Minnesota decided to score 4 goals versus Charleston and didn't allow them to score any, so we've been officially eliminated from the post season. We have a final game left this coming Saturday, and then it's the long off season. For some of us, we turn our attention to other teams, such as the Trail Blazers, while others turn their thoughts toward other soccer leagues in the world, like the EPL and Serie A. Girl and I love West Ham, and will watch them very closely during their season, but we'll also follow some sports closer to home as well. We love our Timbers, but it's nice to be distracted by other stuff once in a while as well. Plus, in reading today's paper, the Nielsen survey is actually now rating Fox Soccer Channel this month, so they will be able to put ratings to the various games that most of us get up way early to watch. So now we'll be able to point at a true number of soccer fans that are insane for getting up early on the weekends or the enemies of soccer will have proof that TV ratings for soccer rank somewhere between public access and CSPAN. I can't find the link, but know it's out there somewhere, trust me.

EDIT - I found the link and noted it above. It's actually a very fascinating article that also mentions some potential changes in broadcasting when contracts come up soon.

What the Timbers' season showed me is that sometimes you have to put things in some perspective, and being a fan of team it's hard to remain objective in looking at the bigger picture sometimes. This team had enough talent to make the playoffs, but didn't. You could blame a lot of things for why that didn't happen, such as injuries, suspensions, bad calls, travel schedule, player performances and being outcoached, and I bet anyone could find numerous examples of these things happening and then point to those as the reasons why the Timbers are spending September close to home. Whether that's the right approach or not, well, that's something to debate actually.

Today's topic on the Bald Faced Truth was talking about the Oregon Ducks football team, and their big win in Purdue on Saturday. The team showed a lot of poise to win a game that they could have easily given away, as they fell behind 20 to 3. But they kept their heads and won, something that had befallen previous Duck teams. Last year, the Ducks were threatening the BCS championship world, then Dennis Dixon blows out his knee, the Ducks lose three games in a row and end up playing in the Sun Bowl. The excuses made for this were all pointed to one player getting injured that led to the downfall of the team. And I think the point made during the show was this - if your team is able to persevere and overcome adversity, that's a better set up than having amazing amounts of talent on a team that folds up like a lawn chair when things get tough.

The Timbers exemplified this trait all this year, folding up when things got tough and not delivering. It's certainly not because of talent, because the team was loaded, and injuries and suspensions happen to all teams, so the winners either let this bother them or they adapt to the situation and move on. The team tried to adapt to player changes, a tough travel schedule, and other things, and there were points where you didn't know which team was going to show up - the rough and tumble Timbers that won their first three games impressively OR the incredibly passive Timbers that gave away points at home with losses to Miami, Vancouver and others at a place where we've had a history of not losing. So where do you look to explain this?

Everything in the Ducks world pointed at the coaches, who were quick to blame players, officials, situations, injuries, or whatever they could to explain the losses. Simply put, Mike Belotti has never publicly taken accountability for any loss put on his team, saying that it's one thing or another. While this may be the truth, you simply can't just point a finger at a player or situation and then throw them under the bus to explain losses. Even up to the coaching level, you win as a team and lose as a team, and playing the blame game in the press is a great way to lose the focus and trust of your team. Yet, coaches play this all the time, hoping a player will hear things in the news and then gain inspiration for it. The coaches never actually say names, but simply point out plays or situations where they would hope players would do better, hoping that public embarrassment will work wonders. I'd love to see a coach stand up and take responsibility for something that did or didn't happen, but out of fear of losing a job, it's a lot easier for coaches to distance themselves from situations like this and avoid any blame they can.

If you read the Timbers' coaching comments this year, it's a laundry list of comments pointedly said to deflect blame to anywhere besides on the coaches. In my opinion, coaches accept responsibility for losses, even if it's a mistake or injury. While players are professional and should be able to accept blame for not playing well, part of a coach's job is to inspire confidence while providing feedback on performance. Nothing undermines confidence like a vague comment made in a paper about somebody not playing up to their potential or blaming the travel for a bad game.

With this important off season here for the Timbers, there's lots to pay attention to as we learn about our MLS fate, we have a friendly exhibition in October supposedly, and we have all winter to speculate about signings and players. What we also need is an organization that inspires confidence in the product on the pitch, and deals with the ups and downs during a long season. While Gavin Wilkinson is a great former Timber and had a great season coaching last year, I hope he can look at 2008 as a rebuilding year not only for the team, but for the style of play and tactics in the press. We have creative players, but we need a more creative offensive style and something that can generate goals, not play defensively for draws. Also, the tactics within the press of throwing players under the bus don't inspire players to play better, if anything, they play scared to not make mistakes and we know how well someone performs when they're scared of being benched. Seriously, we should be competing at the top of the USL table every year, and only scoring 26 goals in 29 games just isn't going to win a league, this despite seeing growing attendance the past few years.

I'm not ready to call for a coaching change just yet, but a change in perspective is very due. And if that can't be done, perhaps it's time for the newest challenger to step up to the pitch. At least it won't be a boring off season....

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