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AFC Ajax gives MLS fans a major-league display

by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Vurnon Anita (left) of AFC Ajax sweeps in to take the ball from the Portland Timbers' Sal Zizzo.

Dutch club AFC Ajax may not be as famous as Manchester United or Real Madrid. On Wednesday night at Jeld-Wen Field, though, Ajax proved that it is in the supermodel category of soccer clubs.

From start to finish of a 2-0 victory, Ajax's total football was gorgeous to watch. With the touches, the passing, the spacing, the movement away from the ball, the match against the Portland Timbers was a runway fashion show of how enjoyable soccer can be.

In what other style of soccer will you see two defenders (Gregory Van Der Wiel and Vurnon Anita) credited for assists for the first goal of the match to a striker (Lorenzo Ebecilio), and see two strikers (Ebecilio and Aras Ozbiliz) each credited with an assist to a defender (Demy De Zeeuw) for the second goal?

Ajax coach Frank Do Boer explained why total football is so enjoyable to watch and so deadly for the opposing side.

'It looks so simple,' Do Boer said. 'But simple is normally the hardest thing. It's only one, two touches, and at the end you have somebody with the special quality to make a dribble or a good action. But we play always on the transition games. You saw some highlights today.'

Timbers coach John Spencer said he believed that Ajax was only playing in third gear coming off recently winning their 30th league title. Still, Do Boer expected his club to take the pitch in Portland and make an impression on those watching.

'You have a responsibility,' Do Boer said. 'You represent Ajax. (The players) have to be professional. And they may already have their mind on holiday because this is their last game. But, still, there's a responsibility for the name of Ajax.'

Do Boer was pleased with the way Ajax played as a team and dominated the friendly.

'I have to give the team compliments because they were very concentrated and almost didn't give any chances away,' Do Boer said. 'They didn't play for themselves to let (fans) see 'oh, how good I am.' No, they played like a team, and that was what I want to see always.

'This game I saw some very good things. We played total football, a lot of one-touches, and played between the two lines always looking for our midfielders. A lot of times we reached them and maybe at the end we didn't create that many chances, but we controlled the game almost 90 minutes.

'Only one scary moment (when a Timbers corner kick by Ryan Pore allowed shots on goal by Eddie Johnson and Peter Lowry). At the end, it was fully deserved that we won.'

It seems impossible that anyone leaving Jeld-Wen Field could have argued that Major League Soccer is able to match the strength of a top-flight European club.

Spencer said that when comparing Ajax and the Timbers it is important to take history and economics into account.

'What you must remember before you make comparisons is when was Ajax as a club founded compared to when was Major League Soccer started, in what, 1996?' Spencer said. 'They're spending 70, 80, 100 million a year. You draw your own conclusions. I don't want to spell it out any more for you.'

Do Boer agreed that MLS has a long way to go with its quality.

'It still can develop more,' Do Boer said. 'Especially when I see the precision games, how we play. A lot of MLS teams' (strategy is) try first a long ball and then we fight for the second ball and then we try to play football. What we do is try to construct from behind and search for our midfielders and then try to get chances. (MLS) can improve. In the end, that is very important if you want to reach a higher level.'

Do Boer did add some praise for the athleticism of MLS, and he had some advice regarding how the league can continue to getting better.

'The physical qualities and strength, that's always here, and it's an advantage,' Do Boer said. 'When you add them to the quality of the precision game, then it's really tough.'