Portland in MLS: The Origins of the Timbers Army

Timbers ArmyAs they say in other soccer countries, we’re going up. Today, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber anointed the Portland Timbers—our modest local soccer team with the not-so-modest grassroots fan following, the Timbers Army—as the latest franchise in the nation’s top soccer league.

Much has been said about the machinations behind the MLS expansion process: some informed criticism; some informed defense; much blather from the usual local know-nothings. Less has been said about what elevation to MLS means for the vibrant, homegrown micro-culture of the Timbers and the broader metropolitan culture of Portland. Leaving aside the gnarly financial and political details, the Timbers’ rise caps a remarkable little episode in local history, and begins a new one. For those of us who have followed the team, to one degree or another, since its modern-day launch in 2001, it’s an emotional moment. Yes, we’re going up. What does it mean?

In The Ball is Round, his majestic global history of soccer, author David Goldblatt insists that a given football club—and, in a larger sense, football culture—grows out of the culture, economy, politics and identity of its city, nation and time. The tumultuous radicalism of “Red Vienna” in the 1920s birthed a cerebral style of play exemplified by Matthias Sindelar, who mocked the Nazis at Austria’s final national-team game before the Anschluss. The staggering number of pro clubs in Buenos Aires replicates the city’s ethnic and political diversity and fierce neighborhood pride. Liberal, tolerant 1970s Holland directly informed that era’s freethinking, experimental Ajax and Dutch national sides. And the transformation of Premier League titans like Manchester United and Chelsea into “global brands” owned by foreign tycoons reflected the deregulated flow of capital, labor and information in the booms of the ‘90s and ‘00s.

So it goes with the Portland Timbers Football Club. Our team and the culture that surrounds it are both near-perfect reflections of the city circa now.

The original Timbers thrived in the middle and late 1970s, roughly coinciding with many of the crucial civic decisions that shaped modern Portland. The same era that gave us the urban-growth boundary, the beginnings of light rail and our identity as an environmental and subcultural Mecca gave us Pele’s last game at Civic Stadium, Clive Charles and the faint but enduring nickname “Soccer City USA.” The recession of the early ‘80s killed the first Timbers and the North American Soccer League itself, ensuring that football continued to subsist as a fringe sport in the US. Likewise, Portland itself faced economic malaise, and the payoff from the landmark decisions and cultural shifts of the ‘70s took awhile to arrive.

The ‘80s and ‘90s saw a number of attempts to create a professional club in Portland, none of which stuck. Still, the football culture that began, more or less, with the original Timbers took root and evolved. Elite youth clubs and a vigorous high-school football scene honed generations of players. Huge participatory leagues grew up around both the outdoor game and the indoor variant, and specialty shops opened to serve their equipment needs.

The University of Portland programs, under Charles’ stewardship, achieved national renown and, by the standards of the collegiate game, healthy crowds. Nike’s presence here attracted the North American headquarters of its main global competitor, Adidas. Adidas’ extraordinary heritage as a football brand prompted Nike—long a tentative presence in the game—to master soccer’s language and nuance, develop first-class product and move aggressively to snap up club, national and player endorsements.

Here and there, pubs showed European matches in the early morning or dead of night.

Portland changed. Hispanic, Asian and African communities arrived and flourished, as did a smaller but (at least for football culture) important stream of European expatriates, drawn by work at the sportswear brands, software companies or less quantifiable reasons. The American generations raised with soccer came of age, and at least a few didn’t give up the game as a youthful pastime. Meanwhile, the city’s music and art scenes thrived, emerging from Seattle’s shadow to cut a distinct figure on the national scene. The ‘70s-era policies designed to encourage density, preserve farmland and highlight neighborhood character began to foster a very distinct urban character, one focused (rhetorically, if not always in practice) on cultural independence, localism and small-scale enterprise.

Portland was determined not to be a standard-issue American city. We didn’t want to be Phoenix or Cleveland—Amsterdam seemed more our speed. We kept it weird. We were, in other words, perfect for football.

By the late ‘90s, few cities could match Portland as a friendly home for US national team matches. The 1999 Women’s World Cup games at Civic Stadium drew huge and passionate crowds. It was only a matter of time before a true professional team arrived.

When the Timbers reappeared in the spring of 2001, the dot-com era was still alive, if not particularly well. Portland experienced its own version of tech-boom hysteria, with the orange scooters of Kozmo.com patrolling the streets to deliver gourmet ice cream and videos at a net loss. The nouveau Timbers shared a little of the They-Do-It-With-Mirrors! character of all those strangely named, purposeless companies sucking up venture capital at the time. The franchise ownership group put up a shiny façade, including a renovated and renamed PGE Park  (in honor of an Enron subsidiary, no less), to conceal a flimsy, hyped-up business construct. I remember sitting, as a reporter, in a meeting in which I was shown an artist’s rendering of a future pro gridiron football game at PGE—an XFL game. The stadium remodel managed to combine a not-very-good soccer park with a not-very-good baseball park, but did include a very swish new sports bar.

And even though the Timbers would play in the second-tier USL, you could say the effort to educate the public on the difference between that circuit and MLS was less than diligent. (In fairness, MLS was wobbly at best at the time. No one would have been surprised if the thing had expired, leaving the USL on top of a very short pyramid.) True to the era, the first owners eventually ran out of happy talk, found themselves afoul of financial commitments to their landlord and ostensible partners, the City of Portland, and departed the scene.

On the other hand, the team itself exuded an agreeable, wacky vibe. When I interviewed the supposed star signing, ex-MLS (and ex-everything else) player Darren Sawatzky, he met me for a cocktail at the Driftwood Room in the old Mallory Hotel. He brought along his brother, whom I believe was working concessions at PGE.

The general manager, a full-bore football fanatic named Jim Taylor, would have sent his cobbled-together side of kids, journeymen and semi-pros out against Arsenal in half a heartbeat, such was his enthusiasm. The head coach, an old-school ex-West Ham man named Bobby Howe, was straight from Central Casting. I recall a concerted effort to turn the “lads” into gossip-column sex symbols. The team also boasted perhaps the greatest mascot in sports history: Timber Jim; a man in Carhartts; a man with a chainsaw; a man who sliced a hunk of wood off a loge every time the Timbers scored and brandished it at rival goalkeepers in a threatening manner. Timber Jim added a jolt of deranged American genius to the Europhile world of soccer fandom.

I Can't Hear You!!!

Add a string section and voila: musical comedy. Still, it was football, and Portland was ready. The new Timbers’ debut drew well over 10,000 fans, a terrific crowd in the context of the threadbare USL, better than many MLS attendances, and no doubt a shock to the chorus of dinosaur mainstream sports pundits who dismissed the new franchise in advance. (Taylor, I remember, was practically vibrating with excitement afterwards.) The germ of the Timbers Army hid somewhere in that opening-night crowd inflated by curiosity-seekers and one-time fans. By the middle of that first season, the pioneer hardcores staked out Section 107, at the north end of the ground, as their turf. The first drums, horns and hand-painted banners began to appear.

In those early days, the Timbers Army consisted of a few punk rockers, some lifelong soccer nerds, the occasional Hispanic dude, a smattering of Portland’s skins/ska/scooters contingent and whatever friends, acquaintances and significant others the aforementioned could drag along. But Portland is a city where a small number of people can touch off a sizeable cultural wave, and from the beginning the Army possessed out-of-scale enterprise and energy. Various online efforts soon coalesced around the roiling Talk Timbers message board, and the Army developed a recruitment policy that would do either the real Army or the Lesbian Avengers proud.

With the terror attacks of 11 September 2001, the Bush Era began in earnest. The Timbers Army made its own small statement, displaying flags representing all the players’ nationalities (even Kyrgyzstan, I believe) at the first game after the tragedy. It was an early sign that the Army would become a bastion of a certain kind of resistance—not overtly political, since the leaderless, structureless Army undoubtedly takes in anarchists, Republicans, professional Democratic Party activists, Pacific Greens and people who don’t vote. But during the bizarre years that followed, with so much of the national discourse synthesized and choreographed, the Army functioned as a spontaneous outlet for authentic grassroots expression in a city that sometimes felt like an internal-exile camp for liberals. And, if nothing else, the Timbers provided a forum in which to drink and forget.

In subtle ways, the fabric of the city itself helped the Army grow and Timbers survive. Unlike the average American stadium surrounded by oceanic parking lots, PGE Park sits amid a dense weave of streets and light-rail lines. Burnside Street, the central city’s greasy main artery, pulses right past the stadium, lined by bars, restaurants and cafes. The handy proximity of pubs like the Bitter End and the Bull Pen gives fans a chance to congregate before and after games, a crucial ingredient to the Army’s attempt to create a European-style matchday culture. The fact that Timbers players—a blue-collar, underpaid breed—sometimes drop by for a post-game pint adds a unique flavor to the club. As heroic Timbers defender Scot “With One ‘T’” Thompson once noted, it doesn’t happen in Los Angeles.

While all this feels organic and natural, the density, diversity and locally focused commerce around PGE Park are dividends of Portland’s concerted political efforts to turn back urban decline. A visit to one of the sterile exurban stadiums built by MLS teams in recent years underlines the distinct character of the Timbers’ environs.

While the club itself clung to viability under absentee ownership—enjoying, for a time, the dubious distinction of being the only football club in world history owned by a pro baseball league—the Army thrived. The fans shared a character-building history. Those of us who witnessed Chugger Adair, a forward with the monolithic stature (and mobility) of an Easter Island totem, will never forget him. On the field, the Timbers have won—to borrow an apt British-ism—sweet fuck all. In the stands, the club is arguably the most dynamic phenomenon in North American football culture. The evolution and internal nuance of Timbers Army culture could fuel many masters-degree theses. Let it suffice to say that the spectacle of today’s Army, which often numbers more than 1,000 fans packed into a surreal, maniacal, Technicolor-green north end, amazes me. The Army embodies Portland’s eccentricity, creativity and DIY spirit, as well as an urban patriotism worthy of a medieval city-state. Major League Soccer has only a faint notion of the monster it is about to absorb.

And in the face of competitive struggles, perennial fiscal uncertainty and the utter obscurity of the USL, the Timbers also garnered a broader following. Attendance last year increased 25 percent over 2007 despite the team’s hideous performance. (How hideous? Try 26 goals scored in 30 league games.) Within the USL First Division, only the Montreal Impact enjoyed stronger support. Fans in other parts of PGE Park generally appreciate the Army’s boisterous shenanigans—an appreciation not always mutual, unfortunately. They also demonstrate Portland’s larger appetite for cultural adventure. Though the city certainly harbors its own xenophobes, moron soccer-bashers and people who just can’t be bothered to find out about something new, the average Portlander exhibits a commendable open-mindedness. As the club joins MLS, this audience, which a personal ad might describe as “football-curious,” will be the crucial factor in its success.

It now looks like the Timbers will last exactly 10 seasons in their USL incarnation. The club will then strip down and rebuild as an MLS franchise, keeping the treasured identity first forged in the swingin’ ‘70s but changing just about everything else. The vitalizing, hate-charged rivalries with Seattle and Vancouver will migrate, too. Instead of the Rochester Raging Rhinos, Puerto Rico Islanders and Carolina RailHawks, the fixture list will include the Los Angeles Galaxy, Houston Dynamo and DC United. International matches against Mexican and Central American teams beckon—and maybe MLS clubs really will play in South America’s Copa Libertadores one day. Timbers v. Boca Juniors? It could happen, and PGE Park could become one of the best football venues on the continent.

Think what you will about the politicking that brings us here, this is going to be fun. The only question is whether the MLS-certified Timbers can maintain the fizzy underground brio of today’s lo-fi club. That is a question that will largely be answered on the terraces rather than on the field.

Photo credits: Senex Prime and ohhh_yeah808, on Flickr.

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