Thursday April 14th, 2011

There's something that just seems right about the match between Portland, Ore., and soccer. You can see for yourself tonight when the Portland Timbers host their historic first MLS home game (ESPN2, 11 p.m. ET) against the Chicago Fire in what figures to be a festive cauldron in their refurbished downtown stadium.

What do I love about Portland's arrival in MLS? Maybe it's the Timbers Army, the boisterous supporters group that will keep the stands rocking tonight. Or Timber Joey, the chainsaw-wielding human mascot who saws off a slab of log for every Portland goal and stars in this excellent pre-game hype video. Or Portland's hilariously bitter rivalry with Seattle, which figures to hit a fever pitch in their first MLS game on May 14.

Whatever the reason, it's clear that the Rose City gets what this sport is all about. The off-field story of the season in MLS is the emerging mania for soccer in the Pacific Northwest, keyed by Seattle's league-leading crowds (regularly in excess of 36,000) and strengthened by the addition this season of teams in Portland and Vancouver. Reader Felix Santos of Chicago wonders if the Cascadia teams are setting the MLS supporter standard because all three existed in the NASL and have had built-in organic fan bases for the past 35 years or so, even at the minor-league level, and I'm inclined to agree.

After all, there's real history in Portland soccer. You can see it in the glorious old photographs of bearded, shaggy-haired Timbers players from the swinging 1970s NASL days. And you can hear it talking to Timber Jim, the team's original chainsaw-wielding human mascot, who'll be at the game tonight. But let's not forget to give some credit to the MLS-era owners in the Pacific Northwest who have embraced that organic history and taken it to a new level. I lived in Seattle from 2000 to '04, and I remember the minor-league Sounders rattling around in stadiums with crowds in the low four figures -- hardly the big-event atmosphere that surrounds every MLS game at Qwest Field these days.

U.S. soccer history is richer than even most American fans realize, but as you watch tonight's game in Portland, remember: This is history, too, and we're living in an exciting time for the sport here.

Beyond that, Portland desperately needs its first win, either tonight against Chicago or on Sunday at home against Dallas. The Timbers and Chivas are the only two of MLS's 18 teams that have yet to win a game this season, and the evening won't be complete for Portlanders without a W.

Opening this week's Mailbag:

MLS players are improving, but the refs don't seem to be up to par. Would you think having someone like Pierluigi Collina or a renowned ref from Europe to head up the training and the review for MLS refs would help?

-- Brian Russell

Well, MLS' most famous player certainly doesn't think the officiating is up to par. David Beckham went on a rant after L.A.'s scoreless tie at Toronto on Wednesday, telling reporters: "They [referees] are becoming the stars of the MLS, and that's obviously not what teams want. You want the players to be playing out there. You want it to be fair. I just don't think the consistency is there. I think there are bad calls, and we've had the majority of bad calls over the last few games. It's ruining games. It's ruining our preparation for games. I'll probably get in trouble, but it's gone on too long now. We want that consistency to be there, and we want to keep our players on the field."

Keep in mind, Beckham had earned his league-leading fifth yellow card in the season's first six games, which will cause him to be suspended for L.A.'s game against Chicago on Sunday. His diatribe sounded dubious for a guy who should have seen red instead of yellow for a scissor tackle on D.C. United's Josh Wolff last Saturday. Beckham has gotten off to a pretty good start this season from a passing perspective -- he has three assists and has looked more dangerous on free kicks -- but his complaints about consistency seem odd, considering five yellows in six games suggest a pattern that can't be tied to one referee or one bad call.

That said, Beckham is hardly the only elite player to come into MLS from Europe and note that MLS referees don't do a good job of communicating with players and managing games before resorting to the nuclear option of cards, many of them red. Claudio Reyna said the same thing. To compare leagues known for being physical and fast, the English Premier League has averaged 0.18 red cards per game this season, while MLS has averaged 0.45 in its first 38 games of '11. Granted, that's a small sample size, but it's also a remarkable difference. In the past week MLS has had two games with three red cards and another with two.

At the start of the season, MLS commissioner Don Garber announced that the league would do more to crack down on physical play this season (not a bad impulse, I might add), but my sense is that early on there has been an overreaction by referees. Remember, though, the USSF and CSA are responsible for game officials (not MLS), and we haven't seen a U.S. referee chosen to work in either of the last two World Cups. In other words, FIFA doesn't think American referees are up to par, either. What can be done and is being done? I'll look forward to addressing that topic in the weeks ahead.

Are you ready for four Barcelona-Real Madrid games in 18 days?

-- Joan, Barcelona, Spain

Cataclysmic. That's the word I'd use to describe what lies ahead for anyone who enjoys sports rivalries. I've thought about doing a coffee-table book someday on the world's greatest sports rivalries, regardless of sport, and you'd have to put Barça-Real Madrid right near the top of the list. Some people think four games in two-and-a-half weeks is too much, but I'm not one of them. The intensity --among the fans, the media and the teams -- won't ever get much higher than what we'll see in the quadri-Clásico.

If anything, this Sunday's league game in Madrid has the lowest stakes of the four: Barcelona has essentially already won La Liga. But the Copa del Rey final and the two Champions League semifinal encounters will have trophies on the line, and the possibilities are limitless. Will José Mourinho erase the bitter taste of November's 5-0 defeat and re-establish his rep as a Barça killer, or could he be on the way out if Real Madrid loses all four games? Could Barcelona make a case for being the greatest club team of all time, or will it fail to deliver when the stakes are highest? That's what the next three weeks comes down to: the best in the sport playing in a rare circumstance where the pressure is cranked up to 11. I can't wait.

What do you think of Real Salt Lake's 34-game home undefeated streak in all competitions?

-- Jon-Claud Nix, Washington, D.C.

In a league that's designed to maintain parity, Salt Lake's home streak is all the more impressive, and it's now approaching two years in length. (RSL's last home loss was a 2-0 defeat to Kansas City on May 16, 2009.) MLS' only perfect team in 2011 wasn't at its best on Wednesday, but an offside-aided goal by Fabián Espíndola in injury time sank defending MLS Cup champion Colorado 1-0, brought Salt Lake to 4-0 in the league and added a new chapter to the team's stunning home streak.

In fact, it's possible that Salt Lake's 34-game home unbeaten run in all competitions is the longest such streak in the world right now after Shakhtar Donetsk saw its 55-game streak end last weekend. Please let me know if you have found any longer current streaks. Manchester United's current home unbeaten streak is 28 (six behind Salt Lake). And while Porto has only a four-game unbeaten streak at home in all competitions (thanks to a 1-0 Europa League loss to Sevilla on February 23), manager André Villas-Boas's outfit is 24-0-2 overall in this season's Portuguese league and boasts current undefeated streaks of 35 league games (home and away) and 40 home league games.

MLS isn't as strong as the Portuguese league, and I know who I'd pick in a home-and-home between Porto and Salt Lake, but that's not the point. Both teams are excelling in their own highly competitive worlds despite their own sets of financial constraints. (It's worth noting, too, that Villas-Boas is just 33, while Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis is only 38.) Salt Lake's 34-game home run will get a huge challenge, of course, in the return leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final vs. Monterrey on April 27. (The opening leg is at Rayados this Wednesday.)

For perhaps the ultimate comparison, Real Madrid had an undefeated streak of 121 home league games from 1957 to '65, according to Infostrada Sports.

• The Colombian invasion of MLS continues with Portland's signing of 25-year-old midfielder Diego Chará from Deportes Tolima as a designated player. When I asked Colombians on Twitter yesterday, they described Chará as a talented midfielder who covers a lot of space, drives the offense and can finish as well. Chará is the second young Colombian DP signing in recent weeks after Dallas landed 18-year-old forward Fabián Castillo from Deportivo Cali. MLS' other Colombians include reigning MVP David Ferreira, Juan Pablo Ángel, Fredy Montero, Jámison Olave, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Jair Benítez and Milton Rodríguez.

• The exact spot where Diego Maradona scored his famous World Cup '94 goal -- and then screamed maniacally into a video camera -- is now a hotel. In place of the old Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts is now a Renaissance Hotel, where I stayed last week while working on a story. If you ever go to Gillette Stadium for a game, the hotel is an ideal place to stay. Unfortunately, it's already sold-out for the June 4 game there between the U.S. and Spain.

• Fernando Torres has been catching all kinds of heat for his inability to score yet since joining Chelsea, and his streak now stands at 718 minutes on the field for the Blues without a goal. But he's not the only goal scorer having troubles these days. Closer to home, Seattle's Montero has spent his last 1,052 minutes on the field in MLS without scoring, while L.A.'s Landon Donovan has gone his last 994 minutes and New York's Thierry Henry his last 603 without scoring. Granted, Donovan isn't a striker like those other three, but Donovan was able to score three goals in four games at the World Cup playing in a similar position.

• This week's movie rec: The Secret In Their Eyes. I finally saw this 2009 Argentine instant classic, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Not only is it a memorable film, but it includes a terrific soccer scene featuring Racing of Avellaneda. I'm told it was shot in the stadium of Huracán, but that shouldn't take away from a memorable set piece for film and fútbol fans alike.

• In other soccer pop culture news, I knew I heard the song Sweet Caroline being played in the background of ESPN2's broadcast at Anfield on Monday. Turns out the Neil Diamond song, which plays in the middle of the eighth inning of Boston Red Sox games at Fenway Park, has recently started being played at Anfield as well for two reasons: 1) It's a nod to Liverpool's new owner, John W. Henry, who also owns the Red Sox, and 2) You're supposed to sing "Sweet-Carroll-Nine," in honor of new signing Andy Carroll, who wears No. 9. What do you think? Impressed or horrified?

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