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On Friendlies: Storylines, not Scorelines

Last night was about much more than just "4-2, Chelsea"  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Last night was about much more than just "4-2, Chelsea" (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
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As I was leaving the game last night, I passed by a woman on the street who gave me an interested look. I smiled back. She asked me, "Who won?" I was, to be honest, a bit dumbfounded.

Who won? I honestly did not know.

It took me a few seconds to realize she was talking about the scoreline--as if a friendly like this could be boiled down to a mere goals for and goals against. As if "4-2, Chelsea" was all she really needed to know about a midseason friendly with the reigning European Champions, the only team to steal a major title from Spain in the past three years or so. As if "the Sounders lost" was an adequate description of what transpired in front of 53,000 fans. No, not just fans. There were plenty of those, but many in attendance were supporters.

How do you tell a random interested person on the street about the storylines that converged last night in 20 seconds? How can you convey the meaningfulness of Roger Levesque? How can you transfer the delight of watching two of Europe's most exciting young players (Belgian players Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard, combined age: 40) against your hometown team? How can you express the elation of cheering on Steve Zakuani as he returns to the pitch as if it is no big deal? How can you share the joy of watching Fredy Montero score a brace against his hopeful future competition (especially when a certain gentleman in front of you is wearing his "Trade Fredy" t-shirt)?

And that, there, is really the rub. You can't.

Scorelines don't tell storylines. They can certainly be part of it--last year's 7-0 pasting was a storyline. But to really understand the storyline you had to realize that the starters v. semi-starters first half of that game was 0-1; it was the second half of subs v. semi-starters that was 0-6. That's a problem with these friendlies--they never really give you a good gauge of where the teams are, even comparatively. And yet, there are those who would draw conclusions from them anyway.

Did Parke or Meredith have good games? No, clearly they did not. But who expected them to anyway? I was much more concerned when we gave up 4 to Montreal and 2 to Portland, and then relieved when we shut out San Jose and Real Salt Lake. The fact that the Sounders gave up 4 goals in 45 minutes is about as meaningful as the fact that they gave up 0 in a different 45. This game was never about the Sounders proving they can go toe-to-toe with the European champions. It was always sold as a celebration of soccer, and should be treated and judged as such.
So what was there to celebrate? Plenty. Fredy showed that he has the skill to perform at the next level. His goals showed that he has the striker's mentality: "I need to score tonight so I am going to." Even though the goals were more about his future than his team, his post-game comments showed that Fredy knows this was merely a small step towards Europe and that he is still very much team-oriented in the meantime.

Roger Levesque was celebrated, and he showed exactly why he was deserving of that celebration. He was initially brought on as a forward, likely to get him in the best goal-scoring position, but then almost immediately shifted first to Right Mid then Left Mid as the Sounders' tactical needs required. And, fittingly, he stayed far into the night signing autographs. He is a player the fans will miss for his contributions on and off the pitch.

Steve Zakuani played. He was quite involved in a few plays, but didn't really make a big impact on the match. That's okay. That's progress. None of the substitutes were really that impactful--the second half felt dull compared to the fireworks of the first--but when your goal is just to get back in the flow of things, Zakuani's playing time was a success. His return wasn't a focus of the night, but it was a nice storyline to add on top of the richness of the others.

A rather sour storyline that could emerge from last night was Brad Evans's injury. He tweeted that it was fine, but that could be the only result from last night that really matters in the long run.

And how about those Chelsea players? They're not bad, huh?

A few other storylines: grass on turf plays poorly (we knew this already), 53,000 as respectable attendance but not the best, Fredy claiming he is ready for Europe, ECS's tifo a fitting tribute on short notice, and maybe the crowd lacking energy? (a few around me wanted to sit during the second half--their wishes were denied)

Much of this same stuff could be said about any game anywhere. A 24-21 win in football might be the product of dominance by one team, where the other only scored two touchdowns in the waning minutes to make the scoreline look better, or it might have been won on a clock-eating drive by a team who came back from being down 14-21 in the last quarter of the game. The scoreline rarely, if ever, tells the whole story. But it never tells the story less than it does in a mid-season friendly against the European champions. The final score is, really, quite irrelevant.

I didn't tell any of this to the woman who asked me "Who won?" on the street. I shrugged, and gave her the answer she wanted: "4-2, Chelsea." I blithely added, "it happens," hoping to convey the message that the scoreline wasn't really what mattered. I'm not sure my intent came across very clearly.

After a bit more time to process my thoughts, I ran into a different woman who asked me nearly the same thing, but more directly: "The game just ended? What was the score?" "Chelsea won, 4-2, but it was a very entertaining game." "Oh yeah? That's good." "Yeah, Fredy scored two goals and Roger Levesque retired, so it was fun giving him a send-off." I don't know if she had any idea where Chelsea was from, or who Fredy or Roger were, but I'm glad she at least got some of the storylines, not just the scoreline.

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