Writing In A Timbers Wonderland

Caleb Porter shares the MLS Cup with Timberlandia. Credit: Portland Timbers

Caleb Porter shares the MLS Cup with Timberlandia. Credit: Portland Timbers

As you can see from the date of my last post, writing regularly this season was not my top priority, but the question was asked all season long, can the Timbers contend for trophies in 2015? That answer was provided in emphatic fashion Sunday evening in Ohio.

Why has it taken me so long to write about it? See below.

After four years of pouring out page after page via keyboard, it was time for a break. Keeping down a day job and making time for a passion for writing and soccer, maintaining relationships, and fathering and coaching two young boys required a serious overhaul of the time allotted to writing about the Portland Timbers.

After that first year of punditry from the proverbial stands (this blog filling up with usually sobered down post-match rants, er, posts), I was ‘called up’ to the press box and spent three campaigns staying abreast of every move the Timbers made.

Opining can only take you so far, and the responsibilities of building and managing a team of writers and photographers came along as friends Kelly McLain and Steve Clare offered me opportunities to more formally hone my craft as a proper journalist with Timbers Insider and Prost Amerika.

While editing and cat herding come naturally to me, there was only so much time in a day and I needed to find balance. Not only for my loved ones and gainful employers, but for my love of the Portland Timbers.

As a longtime season ticket holder who also enjoyed the access of press credentials, I was always torn between giving away or selling my seats to sit with the media instead. I know this is a personal quandary not many would pity me for, and it’s not lost on me that we are in Portland where scant empathy exists in a soccer stadium.

While the trade-off of sitting in the catbird’s seat at midfield with free regional cuisine was no hardship, leaving my mates and family in the North End leaves one longing for the energy you can only feel from the crowd’s perspective, standing up for ninety plus minutes while trying not to spill your beer (but not caring if it’s due to a home goal).

While there were many highs afforded me from wearing a media pass around my neck, straddling the line between supporter and having a backstage pass can be tricky. No wearing team gear or colors? Blasphemy.

This stadium is my church, who are you to tell me to leave my Timbers Army scarf at the door? Oh, you’re serving salmon as a sign of effigy to Seattle? OK, I suppose that sacrifice will suffice my loyalty as I tuck my colors in my bag to maintain my ‘professionalism’.

As the team at Prost Portland grew, I was able to find like-minded people who held a common love of the game, the Timbers, writing, and the imagery evoked on the pitch and in the stands. This shared experience was my new family up top, and allowed me to reconnect with my family down low.

While the view from above offers the great view one gets from their TV set, the distance from the field changes the experience. The camera angle for pre-match tifo is ideal, but the separation is distinctly disconnected, you are a witness, an observer, not a participant in one of the great rituals of the club and its followers.

It is that disconnected feeling that saw me back in the stands this season rather than a seat, and it rekindled my passion for the team, watching most home matches alongside my two young lads and recalling the nostalgic NASL matches of my youth.

While in the Fourth Estate one must strive for neutrality (not exactly a hallmark of modern news media, I know), but in sports being a beat reporter for your local team means you must become a harsh critic to counter any potential bias.

When you must interview players and coaches face to face, the criticism that comes so easy in the stands or through the internet becomes much more real when Caleb Porter offers a firm rebuke or simply stares you down.

You have to find a way to ask the questions that will make your friends happy (since we’ve sorted out all the roster decisions over pints already), while maintaining a rapport with the club officials and players to ensure we don’t offend (too much).

As this season wore on, it was anything but magical as the Timbers seemed to be performing a repeat of a dreadful 2014 season, when the postseason was missed by a point but felt much further away than that narrow margin.

The nadir seemed to be the 1-nil loss to Sporting Kansas City, Krizstian Nemeth’s sparkling run and finish that eventually claimed MLS Goal of the Year impressive not only in its execution but in how hapless he made Diego Chara, Nat Borchers, and Liam Ridgewell look as he ambled comfortably past them.

Those three looked the picture of impenetrability on Sunday in the team’s 2-1 triumph over Columbus Crew SC in Ohio, so in hindsight it’s fitting that goal takes home an award as it surely stuck in the minds of Portland defenders who chastened themselves against further embarrassment from would be goalscoring posterizers.

The SKC result in early October left the team languishing below the red line of playoff contention, and there was no room for error in the remaining three matches, two on the road. The response was a second win at Real Salt Lake, a place the team the Timbers had never won and now had done the double away in a season.

That was followed by a win at the LA Galaxy, a first victory away at that venue and one done in astonishing fashion as a five goal second half from the visitors made what appeared to be another easy win for the hosts into a rout of epic proportions.

That belief carried over to a home finale against the Colorado Rapids that again saw Portland dominate, Darlington Nagbe putting in a career performance that many saw as the catalyst to the team’s run to the MLS Cup.

Nagbe’s role in that postseason clinching win was instrumental, but it was not down to a tactical shift or playing him in his ‘natural’ position afforded by Diego Valeri’s absence. By Valeri inadvertently making way, Nagbe had no one to hide behind when it came to controlling the game. His seizure of the opportunity gave Nagbe and Timbers fans belief.

Right up to that game many in the stands were still unsure if Portland would blow the opportunity, and the thought of the Maestro sitting out the most important match of the year with captain Will Johnson already sidelined by injury left many uneasy, terrified the season would end in the cruelest of fashions.

To that point, many, myself included, were questioning Nagbe’s regular spot in the starting lineup, so limited was his production of goals or assists per 90 minute shift (less his brilliant solo goal against LA). When Nagbe’s confidence soared that match as the team’s leader, so did the TA’s and the rest of the team.

Peaking at the right time is an old cliche, but believing at the right time was more crucial for this Timbers squad. From so many frustrating moments earlier in the season the team was now clicking and playing passionate, aggressive football that was reaping goals and wins, a heady mix for a town so longing for a champion.

The first playoff hurdle against recent nemesis SKC saw Nemeth again there doing damage as his extra time goal looked set to break Portland hearts, but then Maxi Urruti did what earned him his own song and scored a last gasp equalizer. ‘Two posts’ in the most dramatic of penalty shootouts gave Adam Kwarasey the stage to put his spot kick home and deny his counterpart goalkeeper to seal victory, and the feeling of destiny stirred stronger than ever.

When Kwarasey missed the home match against the Vancouver Whitecaps some doubt crept back in, but Jake Gleeson’s superb clean sheet aided by a more resolute defense meant Portland held the tiebreaker advantage in the ensuing away leg.

Portland then took full advantage in our house in the middle of BC with Fanendo Adi putting away a lovely Valeri pass, then Chara sealed the deal in injury time as Adi fed the Colombian for another unlikely goal.

FC Dallas stood in Portland’s path to MLS Cup, but after winning the first leg at home 3-1 the Timbers looked set to advance easily through goals from Borchers, Ridgewell, and a cracker from Dairon Asprilla, particularly after Adi scored first in the away leg in Texas a week later.

Two second half goals in quick succession from the hosts put hearts in mouths in the Rose City, but again another player full of belief gave Portland a spark as Lucas Melano neatly rounded defender and keeper to put the game to bed at the death.

Watching a replay of that strike makes one wonder if Melano defied the laws of gravity and the game to score, although no one seemed to question if he was offside given he was ahead of the ball and out of bounds when he somehow tucked the ball into the net from a deft touch off the outside of his right boot.

However improbable the odds seemed in early October, Portland were now headed to Ohio.

Although Columbus conjured plenty of magic of their own to earn the right to host (no, I’m not bitter that head to head wasn’t the tiebreaker), that run of good fortune ended less than 30 seconds into the contest when Valeri pounced on a lackadaisical clearance from their dribble happy goalkeeper Steve Clark.

The resulting opening goal was the sort of slidetackling effort players dream of at every level, and it fittingly earned Valeri MLS Cup MVP honors.

Portland’s magical spell was at its peak in the first half, the referee and linesman somehow missing a ball clearly out of touch on the sidelines, yet the old adage of play to the whistle never rang truer as Nagbe picked the ball off the feet of Tony Tchani and proceeded to sprint past a Columbus defense entranced by disbelief.

Nagbe’s ball to Melano on the wing saw a pinpoint one touch cross to the diving header of Rodney Wallace find the back of the net, and this game looked all but over seven minutes in.

So. Much. Time.

The fear of every Timbers supporter is when in a winning position, the clock seems to take ten times as long to tick down.

When Kwarasey fumbled his catch after bumbling over Kei Kamara, the Crew’s leading goalscorer was quickest to react and squirted the ball over the line in the 18th minute to give Columbus the belief they needed that the tie was not nearly over.

And Timbers supporters were now in for the longest next 72 plus minutes of their lives.

Remarkably that would prove to be the hosts’ solitary shot on goal for the entire match, but the game was still up for debate until the final whistle, thanks to numerous stellar saves (and a few lucky ones) from Clark, as well as the soccer gods leveling the score as Michael Parkhurst’s handball to clear a sure goal off the line went unseen by the officials.

All the drama was there to make the Portland Timbers first league title in 40 years of existence all the more special, and the boisterous traveling support and legions of fans back home and around the world were only beginning to revel in it as the weight of this accomplishment started to sink in.

While many of us back home pined for the chance to be at the match with our friends and colleagues fortunate enough to attend, from thousands of miles away we were simply trying to get a hold of emotions that can only be felt after years of unrequited longing are satisfied with the ultimate in cup glory.

A raucous welcome home at Portland International Airport the day after the final provided the perfect segue to the long journey that ultimately brought home the MLS Cup.

Porter, owner Merritt Paulson, and Gavin Wilkinson all dreamed and planned for this eventuality, but none of them could have predicted it happening under such crazily auspicious circumstances.

I myself dreamt the Friday night before the final that two goals would be scored in the opening minutes of the match, but even in my dreams we were guardedly tied 1-1 after notching an equalizer.

This victory was not the stuff of dreams, it was the stuff of legends.

As the team, town, and TA prepare for the triumphant celebrations en masse on Tuesday, there is no doubt we will all be walking in a Timbers Wonderland for a long time to come.

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Can Timbers contend for trophies in 2015?

The Portland Timbers are gearing up for the 2015 season, fresh off preseason training in Tucson, Arizona. Now the team is back in the Rose City readying for the Simple Invitational preseason tournament, starting with a February 22nd clash against Cascadian counterparts Vancouver Whitecaps.

The Timbers will also square off against the Chicago Fire and Norwegian side Stabaek before a March 7th season opener against Real Salt Lake at home.

As tournament hosts Portland will benefit from the energy of ever exuberant home supporters, the Timbers Army sure to warm up their voices to shake off the rust from their winter of discontent.

After a record-setting 2013 season that saw the club advance under then first year manager Caleb Porter to the Western Conference finals, Portland fans were disappointed to miss the playoffs after a sub-par start in 2014 left the the team languishing below the thin red line of playoff contention at year’s end.

Add to that crashing out of the CONCACAF Champions League in the final group stage game, a U.S. Open Cup exit at the feet of archrivals Seattle Sounders, and finishing last in the Cascadia Cup standings, 2014 was not a year to remember for the boys in green.

While owner Merritt Paulson points to a strong finish and MLS era club records broken in goals scored (61) and away wins (7), neither were enough to salvage a campaign that conceded 52 goals and recorded only 5 wins at Providence Park.

Sugarcoating is too soft a word for the front office assessment.

Five points from the first 24 on offer in 2014 is a paltry return, a repeat of which would severely diminish postseason hopes with the West adding perennial contenders Sporting Kansas City and Houston Dynamo to an already extremely competitive conference.

The rehabilitation from injury of captain Will Johnson and Designated Player and All Star Diego Valeri are expected to keep both out of regular action for the first month or so, signs pointing to a major void in the middle of the park.

Key to filling this hole is Darlington Nagbe, the fifth year midfielder now called upon to transition from potential superstar to a steady and consistent presence after experiencing a setback in scoring production last year, only netting a solitary goal in the team’s final match.

Nagbe’s seven assists last year showed he still possesses the vision and distribution to be dangerous, but a lack of goals makes him an easier target to mark for the opposition. If Diego Chara sits above Nagbe in the scoring charts for a second straight season, Portland is in for a long and trying season.

Rodney Wallace and Gaston Fernandez are two other players who will be crucial in midfield, the versatility of both giving Porter options as he tries to strike a balance on both sides of the ball.

Wallace was instrumental in the team’s late season resurgence after arriving late following recovery from a knee injury the prior offseason, five goals and an assist enough to make visiting defenders think twice when the Costa Rican is on or near the ball.

Fernandez notched seven goals and two assists in his first season with the Timbers, and the Argentine looks comfortable playing in Porter’s system as he can slot into several positions across the center of the park or higher in the attack.

Ben Zemanski and Jack Jewsbury offer veteran depth at both defensive midfield and outside back positions, while top draft pick Nic Besler is impressing as a holding midfielder, displaying the pedigree that has made his brother Matt of SKC a stalwart of the US Mens’ National Team.

Besler’s inclusion in the first team may be premature with the likes of Michael Nanchoff and George Fochive presumably ahead of him, but he’s one to keep tabs on for the future and should see ample minutes with Timbers 2, the club’s USL side.

Omar Cummings, an eight year veteran of MLS with 43 goals between stints at Colorado Rapids and Houston, scored a goal as a trialist for Portland to equalize against the Dynamo in Arizona last weekend, the Jamaican making a case for a contract with the Timbers.

Newcomer Dairon Asprilla from Colombia brings pace and creativity on the wing, and depending on how fast he settles in he could be an effective complement to Fanendo Adi or Maxi Urruti up top. If Asprilla can come anywhere near the production of these two strikers, he will be an unqualified success.

Another South American joins the club in defender Jeanderson, whether he can displace current incumbents Jorge Villafana or Alvas Powell in a wingback role depends on the tactics of the day for Porter, the Brazilian showing the capability to link up with the attack during limited action in the Desert Friendlies.

It’s unclear if Jeanderson will be an effective addition, but for an area in need of the most improvement it is difficult to see the club doing worse out wide.

In the middle of defense is where a step up was most critical, and the arrival of centerback Nat Borchers brings in a much needed veteran to pair with Designated Player Liam Ridgewell, who is fresh off a six match loan to Wigan Athletic in England.

The return of Ridgewell unscathed is welcome news for supporters, and the promise of the player starting the season fully match fit is another positive compared to joining a disjointed backline in the middle of 2014.

Borchers brings a wealth of experience from his days at RSL and previously in the Norwegian league, including MLS Cup championship credentials. Whether these two can form an early partnership complete with chemistry is vital to Portland’s playoff hopes.

Ties to Norway could prove helpful as the defense integrates a new starting goalkeeper in Adam Kwarasey, who joins the club from Norwegian side Strømsgodset.

Born in Oslo, Kwarasey opted to play for Ghana and was netminder for their opening match of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, a 2-1 defeat to the United States. Yours truly was on hand to witness Kwarasey’s performance in Natal last summer, and while his misfortune was the USA’s gain, he was not at fault for either goal and was hard done by to lose his place in the following match.

In spite of a cruel end to his World Cup, playing on such a grand stage is ample preparation to fill the size-able shoes of the departed Donovan Ricketts, the Jamaican now at Orlando City FC after the Timbers left him unprotected in the expansion draft.

While the the Portland roster did not undergo a complete overhaul, the changes throughout the league means Porter must make do with what he has at his disposal and hope that it is enough to challenge for trophies.

A couple of extra points could have been enough to squeak into the playoffs last year, but it’s unlikely to be near enough to earn a crack at winning the MLS Cup. Hopes of a first place regular season finish are even more far-fetched after ending last season 15 points below Supporters Shield holders Seattle.

A Cascadia Cup is always in contention no matter how bad a team is doing as derbies are an altogether different animal, although that didn’t help a Timbers team that struggled with consistency and suffered from too many self-inflicted wounds.

The ultimate dream of a treble is a monumental ask for any team, but it is a farcical one for a squad that proved incapable of winning three games on the trot in 2014.

The defensive woes that plagued Portland last year appear to be remedied on paper, if they are to be playoff contenders they must survive a grueling start to the 2015 campaign that includes matches against playoff teams in seven of the first eight outings.

Can the Timbers vie for supremacy in any competition this season? Certainly.

Will they? Only if they can get at least half the points available in the first two months, and no less than a point away to Vancouver and Seattle.

If Portland can come out with a fighting chance come May, they will be a team to be reckoned with the remainder of the year, reaping the rewards of valuable minutes for fringe players adding required depth for multiple competitions when Johnson and Valeri return.

Should the Timbers repeat the start of last year, it will be another year to be forgotten, no matter how positive a spin one tries to put on it.

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The Brazil Chronicles: The Finale

Copacabana beach from atop Sugarloaf Mountain.

Copacabana beach from atop Sugarloaf Mountain.

Read parts I, II, and III

Our whirlwind trip continued as we exited the flight from Natal shortly after sunrise, a taxi trip in morning traffic offering us a glimpse into the vast expanse of Rio de Janeiro as we made our way to our hotel nestled between the confluence of the famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches.

There was no time for rest as we dropped our bags at the front desk and walked the block to the oceanfront boardwalk, then strolled down to enjoy brunch as beach soccer and beach volleyball games entertained us.

Further up we came to the FIFA Fan Fest in Copacabana where thousands gathered to watch a cracking match between the Netherlands and Australia, then hurried back to our hotel to check in and catch the subway to see the last of our ticketed contests, Spain versus Chile in the world renowned Maracana.

This has to be the place. Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro.

This has to be the place. Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro.

While our concierge’s idea of transit time left something to be desired, we managed to avoid the chaos of Chilean supporters crashing through the media entrance and circumnavigated the stadium to find our seats prior to kickoff.

We found some gentleman holding our seats for us, and after some even gentler prodding they made way as we settled in just in time to see Chile make things worse for the defending World Cup champions with a superb team goal finished off by Eduardo Vargas.

Chile were dominant on the pitch and in the stands.

Chile were dominant on the pitch and in the stands.

The 75,000 plus capacity arena was awash in a sea of red, both countries fans bearing the same primary color red but to the neutral the majority of support was clearly in the South American side’s favor.

That fanatical fervor doubled just before the break when Chile capitalized on a poor free kick clearance by Iker Casillas, Charles Aranguiz pouncing on the loose ball with a delightful one touch toe punch finish to put Spain into deeper misery to compound their capitulation to Holland days earlier.

The dismissal of Spain was a surprise, but the class on the field came from a Chilean team that would later unfairly fall to hosts Brazil in the Round of Sixteen following a penalty shootout.

Perhaps one day.

Perhaps one day.

Field of Dreams.

Field of Dreams.

Before that came to pass, however, we enjoyed an ebullient evening with celebrating Chilenos eager to share their elation. Standing in the grand environs of the stadium long after the final whistle, we eventually made our way back home on a packed subway, meeting new friends along the way.

BrenaldoYDamininhoMaracana

A couple of twenty-something Chilean guys made these two intrepid travelers envious, their tales of road tripping across South America to attend the Copa Mundial harkening back to our younger days of driving from Portland to Panama.

We finished our night watching Croatia crush Cameroon 4-nil from a bar near our hotel, and after a day that began before dawn we retired to our room.

This way to the media center!

This way to the media center!

The next day was a rarity as rain and an overcast sky put a damper on any plans to lounge in the sun, so instead we sought out some sightseeing that led us to the media center at Forte do Copacabana, which turned out was only three blocks from our temporary home.

The media centers were always a welcome respite from the craziness and unpredictability of Brazilian life, not to mention the best wireless internet access. After a bit of hobnobbing with other journalists we pushed on and resumed our primary aim of watching football.

Reporting is hard.

Reporting is hard.

Think we can get in there?

Think we can get in there?

Impressed by the chipping skills of James Rodriguez in Colombia’s defeat of the Ivory Coast, the match of the day for us was Uruguay and England. On the advice of a friend living in Rio we made our way to the Mud Bug pub, a well known locale for viewing matches and apparently also for beautiful Brazilian and Colombian bartenders.

Missing out on seeing Luis Suarez as he sat out in the loss to Costa Rica we attended in Fortaleza, the now former Liverpool striker was electric as he punished the country of his one time employment with two scintillating goals either side of a fantastic finish from his old strike partner Daniel Sturridge.

The Three Lions bowed out as early as Spain, and remarkably Uruguay would go on to take down Italy as well, but not before Suarez ensconced his place in infamy with the bite seen round the world on the understandably apopleptic Giorgio Chiellini.

While the indelible image of fans posing with Suarez’s open-mouthed advertisement in Copacabana prompted adidas to take it down, we prefer to think of a simpler time when the Uruguayan was better known for his scoring panache than his odd predilection for human flesh.

We discussed the finer points of the sport with aficionados from numerous nations while we watched the night’s slate of matches, making new friends from Uruguay, Mexico, and Brazil in particular. Being our last night before flying home, we did our best to savor the moment and let the amazing experiences in this beautiful country sink in before crashing hard.

The Dude is a notorious photo bomber.

The Dude is a notorious photo bomber.

Waking up early the next morning we set out directly to Corcovado to see the Christ the Redeemer statue, the symbol of Rio and Brazil more than simply a Catholic icon as the mountaintop setting over two thousand feet above sea level is a view unlike any other in the world.

Rio from atop Corcovado.

Rio from atop Corcovado.

The proximity of the mountain is mere miles from the ocean, so to go from the beach to the clouds is a dizzying trip that induces vertigo when you look down the sheer cliff from the edge of the viewing platform.

Even for those with a fear of heights the trek is well worth the psychological discomfort, the reward unobstructed 360 degree vistas that include the Maracana, Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, and Sugarloaf Mountain.

T is for Timbers.

T is for Timbers.

Green is the color.

Green is the color.

After snapping the gratuitous Jesus Christ pose pictures, we headed for the next major landmark in Sugarloaf to take the cable car to the top of the seaside peak.

For these two boys from Oregon that grew up with the Goonies and the dominant image of Cannon Beach’s 235 foot Haystack Rock, while Sugarloaf was smaller than Corcovado at roughly 1,300 feet the height and views impressed in equal measure.

Stunning scenes from Sugarloaf.

Stunning scenes from Sugarloaf.

There are two cable cars that take you up to the top, the midway point of Morro da Urca putting you squarely inside a national park complete with helicopter trips and native monkeys like marmosets roaming free.

Marmoset mealtime.

Marmoset mealtime.

The views from the cable cars on both legs are majestic, and once you reach the summit of Pao de Acucar you can hike around the circumference on paved trails that provide unparalleled scenes of the tropical paradise that is Rio de Janeiro.

The scope and scale of both these viewpoints is hard to fathom, but seeing helicopters flying beneath you offers some perspective.

To offer more evidence of Rio’s credentials as one of the most visually captivating cities in the world, at least once in your life watch the arcing flight path of jets passing under El Cristo Redentor and then below and past Sugarloaf into Rio’s domestic airport on Guanabara Bay, truly a sight to behold.

Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro.

Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro.

It was on that high of highs that we made our way halfway back down to lunch while watching the Ticos upset Italy and book Costa Rica’s passage out of the group stage. Always aiming to time our travel in between matches, we returned to our hotel to see France seal their own advancement with a 5-2 thrashing of the Swiss.

Even when I stepped out for some last minute shopping I could not miss a goal, every shop window and restaurant tuned into the World Cup allowing me to partake in the match while moving about town.

As that match ended so did our final moments in Brazil, and we sadly stepped into a cab waiting to take us to our flight. We caught the remainder of Ecuador’s win over Honduras before boarding the airport bus to our plane, and with that our adventure came to an end after one last delay to top off the fuel tanks.

After nearly a fortnight of crazy travel, little sleep, and incredibly good times, departure was bittersweet, but we’d do it again in a heartbeat given the opportunity.

Obrigado, Brazil!

Obrigado, Brazil!

After settling in back home to watch the rest of the tournament and ultimately see Brazil’s national team, the Selecao, fall so unfortunately from grace in a crushing semifinal defeat to eventual World Cup winners Germany, a twinge of pain is felt for a country that lives and breathes futebol.

For all the flaws exposed by protests and unfinished sections of stadiums, going to Brazil for the World Cup was a dream come true and Brazilians deserve immense credit for serving as excellent hosts and gracious caretakers of all the traveling fans.

Witnessing first hand the USA’s win over Ghana will always stand out as a highlight, but even more memorable is the warm acceptance of Americans by not only Brazilians but other nationalities as fellow brothers and sisters of the world’s game.

The United States may not be world beaters yet, but the intangible of belief means expectations continue to rise for a country that is now considered a regular in the latter rounds of the World Cup.

Personally I hope it’s only a matter of time before America achieves greater success at the international level, and that someday I can return to Brazil to reminisce while making new memories.

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