Correlation or causation? Will Johnson’s near a lot of recent trouble

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Fans were talking about it after Sunday’s Osvaldo Alonso incident, so it’s probably worth a few words here: Where Will Johnson goes, trouble seems to follow. The question is whether the Portland Timbers’ captain is doing anything to bring out the worst in people. And if so, what?

If we narrow the scope to the 12 months, our trio of incidents starts last November, back when the Canadian international was still playing for Real Salt Lake.  That’s when he was the target of a homophobic slur from Seattle defender Marc Burch, who was subsequently suspended by Major League Soccer.

Earlier this season at JELD-WEN, Johnson was the target of that same slur from San Jose Earthquakes’ forward Alan Gordon, in response to which Johnson held up three fingers. Having been through this before, the veteran midfielder knew how many games Gordon would get when punishment came down from the league office.

On Sunday, video shows Johnson saying something to Osvaldo Alonso before the Seattle destroyer threw the elbow that saw him dismissed, though Johnson couldn’t remember what.

“I don’t know,” Johnson said, when asked about what he said to Alonso to draw the red card-worthy elbow. “We were just going at it. Both guys just saying things. Then it happened.”

That “it” saw Alonso dismissed in the 76th minute, but only after a brief period of chaos in Portland. We’re still waiting for final word from New York, but odds are Alonso will miss more than the obligatory game.

Asked for his thoughts after the match, Sigi Schmid didn’t forgive Alonso’s lack of control. (“He’s a veteran player. He needs to do better.”) He also didn’t hesitate to point the finger.

“All I can tell you is whenever things happen, Will Johnson always seems to be at the other end of things,” Schmid told the assembled media after Sunday’s game. “I don’t know what he says, what he does to instigate things, but obviously Ossie has to control his behavior.”

Before we can undertake any discussion of Johnson, that last part needs to be reiterated. Alonso, Gordon, and Burch were all in the wrong. In all likelihood, Johnson is doing something to get under their skin, but as professional athletes, they owe it to themselves and their teams not to get baited into such things. They can’t make it so easy for an opponent to do this.

But it’s becoming less and less likely that Johnson’s just some innocent party here. If Schmid’s intimation is correct, he may actually be an accessory – a Bill Laimbeer-esque presence, willing to do what it takes to draw the worst out of his opponent.

This isn’t quite Steven Lenhart land, but there is something strange going on. But since none of Burch, Gordon, or Alonso have provided details, it’s impossible to tell. Perhaps Johnson’s provocations have been so innocent that details would make the offenders’ actions even less explicable. Or, maybe Johnson’s benefitting from a type of “what happens on the field” agreement others don’t feel like violating. Or, maybe Johnson is perfectly innocent and this is just coincidence. We should keep that option open.

Regardless, after Sunday’s incident, Johnson was given a chance to provide his view. What, I asked, does he say to people who look at the Burch, Gordon, and Alonso incidents and want to see a pattern?

“I’ve got an army behind me,” Johnson said, referring to the Timbers’ fans. “I don’t need to say anything.”

Perhaps not, but that won’t answer any questions as to what’s drawing these responses out of Johnson’s opponents.

Sent off: Oh Osvaldo Alonso, what have you done? (video)

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Seattle losing 1-0 in the second half at Portland was bad enough, but an incident that could cost their best midfielder the rest of the regular season? That’s made things so much worse for the Sounders, especially considering Osvaldo Alonso has nobody to blame but himself.

Around the 70th minute at JELD-WEN, after a half where referee Hilario Grajeda’s reluctance to blow his whistle saw the game’s physicality slowly escalate, Alonso swung an elbow into Portland midfielder Will Johnson’s face, possibly assuming his off-the-ball action would go unnoticed. But one of Grajeda’s assistants immediately ran onto the field during a moment when a John Kennedy Hurtado foul had sorted the teams into a number of small shoving matches. When the dust cleared, Alonso had a straight red card, leaving Seattle to chase an equalizer with 10 men.

The action is idiotic – the small mistake we’ve seen over and over from players who momentarily ignore the repercussions. Behind the play, Johnson came up behind Alonso and put his chest into the Sounder’s left shoulder, appearing to say something into his face. Alonso threw is left elbow, barely making contact with the Portland captain, sending Johnson to his knees. Minutes later, after order had started to be restored, Alonso ejected from the game.

Alonso’s damage wasn’t done. On his way to the locker room, Alonso had to be restrained from going after Corey Rockwell, the AR who reported Alonso’s foul. He then had words with the fourth official, Ricardo Salazar, before teammates managed to direct him toward the locker room. Suffice to say, Alonso did not leave the field in a timely manner, leaving all to speculate how long the all-important destroyer will be sidelined for the Sounders.

He’ll automatically miss time for the red card. Whether more time is tacked on because of the post-card outburst is up to the league’s Disciplinary Committee.

For some reason, this kind of trouble controversy seems to follow Will Johnson, who has also at the center of incidents involving Marc Burch and Alan Gordon in the last year. Regardless, Alonso’s been around long enough to know throwing an elbow into an opponent’s face will bring out a red card. He can’t let Johnson draw a dismissal from him.

Unfortunately, that decision will likely cost him the rest of the regular season.

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Playoff preview? Stakes create a slippery slope for Seattle in Portland

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Seattle’s in free fall. We know that. We talked about that here. But if they can’t stop that free fall before the final whistle Sunday at JELD-WEN Field, they may feel the edge of Sunday’s double-edged sword.

That’s because in addition to losing the Cascadia Cup (Vancouver claims it with a Portland result), a loss in Portland makes a playoff match with the Timbers far more likely. Be that by creating more two-versus-three scenarios in the West or paving Portland’s path to the top seed (while bringing fourth into play for themselves), a loss tomorrow makes it more likely Sunday’s game at JELD-WEN won’t be Seattle’s last this season.

[MORE: Seattle routed as Manneh posts first career hat trick.]

Currently one point behind Real Salt Lake, Seattle’s been holding out hope that once they make up their games in hand (as they have over the past couple of months) the Supporters’ Shield will be theirs. But if they lose at JELD-WEN, their games in hand will be gone, and they’ll have fallen to fifth in the Supporter’s Shield race. They’ll be two behind New York and Portland, one behind Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City.

They’ll also be within reach of Los Angeles, currently three points behind Seattle. Come Monday morning, LA will have a game in hand on the Sounders with the teams scheduled to end their regular seasons against each other at CenturyLink. That match could be the difference between playing in the four-five game and going straight into the conference semifinals.

That’s Seattle’s slippery slope, one that could see a team positioned for the Shield playing in the four-five game in a couple of weeks, and while that scenario does involve a lot of ifs aligning, the hypotheticals gain traction in the face of two huge losses and a schedule that includes Portland and Los Angeles. If Seattle can get a result tomorrow, they staunch the bleeding and continue their Supporters’ Shield push. If they can’t, this run goes from bad to worse oh my God what’s going on, we so needed to get a result-bad.

(Incidentally, even a draw would see Seattle lose control of their Supporters’ Shield destiny, as well as their path to the West’s No. 1 seed.)

So where does the “far more likely” to meet the Timbers comes into play? Consider the Timbers’ half of the equation, though stay with me. This is where the ifs really start flying around:

source: Getty Images
Caleb Porter’s Portland Timbers would vault to second in the Supporters’ Shield chase with a Sunday win over rival Seattle. (Photo: Getty Images.)
  • With a Portland win, they go top of the West with 53 points but still have a game with Real Salt Lake, who have two wins and a draw from their three 2013 meetings with the Timbers this year. All-time, Portland’s won one of eight meetings with RSL. With Jason Kreis’s team capable of out-Portering Caleb Porter, Portland could find themselves back in second before their season-ender with Chivas USA, making a two-three playoff meeting with Seattle more likely.
  • And if Portland beats both Seattle and Real Salt Lake? Then only Seattle can keep them from first in the West, though that would involve the free-falling Sounders to reverse a three-game losing streak and beat both Dallas and Los Angeles. With that momentum, though, Seattle may be headed toward the four-five game.
  • If Seattle and Portland draw, the teams remain second and third in the West, and while RSL and LA will have a lot to say about whether that order stays the same, sharing points will make a conference semifinal meeting more likely.

But let’s not forget one very important, very possible if: If, Seattle wins, they go first in the West, and although that increases the chance Portland will fall to fourth (and potentially meet Seattle in the semifinals’ one-four match), the Timbers’ game with Chivas and Seattle’s finale with LA could still leave Portland third, meaning the Cascadia rivals wouldn’t meet until the conference finals (if at all).

And if that meeting happens, Seattle’s confidence will be better for having won at JELD-WEN. Their run-in’s been littered with enough doubts already. Might as well not cede any advantage (mental or otherwise) to their rivals.

Basically, given the nature of the West, anything’s still possible, but if Seattle loses, a lot of these once-remote scenarios come much closer to fruition. Hence the importance of a result tomorrow.

MLS’s 2014 All-Star Game is going to be in Portland

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PORTLAND, Ore. – One day after JELD-WEN Field saw the U.S. Men’s National Team open their 2013 Gold Cup, Major League Soccer announced the league’s 2014 All-Star Game will take place in Portland, a surprisingly early confirmation of a host city.

This year’s host, Kansas City, wasn’t revealed until six months before late July’s game against AS Roma. This time, however, the league is not even waiting for suspense to build. Out of nowhere, the league’s committed 12 months ahead of time, with next year’s game set to take place in “late July or early August, 2014.”

“The Portland Timbers and their passionate fans have certainly earned the honor of hosting the 2014 AT&T MLS All-Star Game,” said MLS commissioner Don Garber said at a Wednesday press conference, also attended by Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson and Portland mayor Charlie Hales. “This match will showcase to an international audience the incredible devotion to the game in the Pacific Northwest that serves as one of the most important stories for our league.”

Alluding to Portland as “Soccer City, USA,” Paulson called the event “the first major All-Star Game of any sport ever in Portland.”

“Portland is a soccer town, pure and simple,” according to the mayor. “We are honored that our city has been chosen to host the [game].”

The timing of the announcement was the focus yesterday, when Major League Soccer revealed a Wednesday press conference would be held in Portland. With the city’s mayor set to join Paulson and Garber, it didn’t take James Moriarty to figure out the All-Star Game was coming to Cascadia. Why, however, was it being announced so early?

In the past, getting a team to commit to the All-Star Game meant the franchise would eliminate a date for a potentially lucrative summer friendly, something many teams are unwilling to do so far in advance. Portland, however, has not drawn the likes of Manchester United, Barcelona, and Real Madrid to JELD-WEN. And with a capacity of just over 20,000, it’s becomes cost-prohibitive to do so. The Timbers don’t have to make the same trade offs.

Another issue the Timbers have in luring potential friendly competition to Portland — their fine-but-let’s-act-like-we’re-in-1972 turf — could be a factor in recruiting an opponent to JELD-WEN. While the capacity issue becomes less of a concern when Soccer United Marketing’s willing to absorb the cost in the name of one of the league’s two marquee events, a European club’s willingness play on turf may ultimately reflect our antiquated attitudes. Will MLS and SUM face a “temporary grass or no” ultimatum from a Barcelona-esque club?

(MORE: Steve takes another run at the turf debate in the wake of a complaint-less day at the Gold Cup.)

With today’s announcement coming one year before the game, expect those issues to be put on the back burner. For now, all we know about the 2014 game is that one of the most renown atmosphere is Major League Soccer will host next year’s showcase.

In the wake of Seattle, is it too soon to rekindle The FieldTurf Conversation?

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SEATTLE — At some point, we’re going to have this debate. Why not now? Because if we don’t talk it out now, we’ll just put it off. Again. And then next time a Pacific Northwest match is suggested, everybody will forget the lessons of Seattle, fall back on the old arguments, and we’ll either have another game on an unacceptable surface or another 36-year gap between Seattle qualifiers.

The main lesson from this process: Temporary grass is terrible. If this was 1994 and groundskeepers had months to cultivate the grass and were able to lay it weeks ahead of time, this would be a different discussion. That’s the process that can’t happen in the middle of a qualifying cycle, nor it is worth it. If you want to play on grass in Seattle, you’re going to have to sacrifice field quality.

I know, last night everybody was saying the right things, giving the Seattle ground crew the respect they deserved. Whomever worked on that field over the last week took if from “oh my God, why” to “well, this could work.” It was the grounds keeping equivalent to reconstructive surgery, and the operation was successful.

But you saw the players slipping around, whether it was Geoff Cameron flopping onto his hip in the middle of the field or Carlos Rodriguez falling face-first near the byline after sprinting past Brad Evans. And if you saw Saturday’s Sounders-Whitecaps game, a match where neither team had a chance to train on the newly laid surface, you witnessed two teams who couldn’t come into the match for 10 to 15 minutes, after which both sides compensated for the uneven surface.

In both games, not only did the quality suffer, but the players had to adjust to the self-inflicted circumstances. For a team that complained mightily about the cricket ground conditions in Antigua and Barbuda, it was surprising to see such deleterious compromises were deemed acceptable.

Late last night, the same doctors who performed the field’s reconstructive surgery wasted no time ruining their work. As stadium staff were restoring the CenturyLink stands, the groundskeepers doing the same to field, with the process of bringing the normal surface forward hitting its stride today. As you can see in the image above (via Twitter user @bartwiley), Seattle was more than ready to trade that TempSod for their FieldTurf.

It all seems so useless. Seattle paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring in a maligned field when they had a perfectly good surface underneath, all at the behest of U.S. Soccer. They didn’t want to do it, but as a tradeoff to get a World Cup Qualifier, they were willing to bring in the sod, reduce the quality of play, all because of some dated idea of what turf is or is not.

When most people think turf, they still think of the early MLS, rug over concrete, career-breaking carpets that were too prevalent back in the day. Even now, at BC Place and when Toronto and Montreal play in their alternate homes, poor fields see time in Major League Soccer, instances that muddy the discussions surrounding Seattle and Portland. The first step in having a real discussion about the tradeoffs of turf is recognizing not all turf is created equal.

Seattle and Portland are perfectly fine. For those who have played there, covered games there, or even watched games on television, you can see the difference in play between the roll forever rug in Vancouver and the games further south.

Does CenturyLink, JELD-WEN have perfect conditions? Are they well-maintained grass surfaces? Of course not. But players — from Major League Soccer professionals down to youth players throughout the country — constantly play on those surfaces. They’re different, but they’re fine. Even David Beckham and Thierry Henry have played games in Portland, and while the common refrain ‘players don’t like turf’ still gets thrown out, a more constructive statement is ‘players prefer grass.’ No player in Seattle or Portland speaks ill of their surfaces. Nobody’s going to turn their back on those clubs because of field issues.

And with young players all over the country playing on these new, improved surfaces, it’s possible this is just a generational issue. The new players coming up won’t have the same biases. They won’t have the scars of knee operations brought on by artificial turf. They won’t have that innate reticence to go stay up for fear of bring on turf burn. They’ll have a completely different concept of turf, ideas that should will likely permeate through the soccer masses, making games on good turf surfaces more acceptable.

The real question, acknowledging that well-kept grass surfaces are the ideal, is whether the trade-off of Seattle’s atmosphere, undoubtedly replicated (if in a different way) in Portland, is worth the compromise. But how can everybody that’s been so effusive about Tuesday’s display say it’s not worth the small sacrifice – playing on Seattle, Portland’s turf in exchange for that kind of support?