The future home of the Portland Timbers, which opened a final USL season Saturday in the midst of a remodel to ready it for MLS in 2011, has been hosting soccer games with various degrees of success for over 100 years. But while we Portlanders can be proud of our soccer history, we also must be honest: the stadium itself has never really been a good place to watch a game.
Please don’t misunderstand. There have been many glorious crowds, magnificent atmospheres, and bravura games in Portland. On Saturday alone the place was packed with over 15,000 fans to watch a minor league match against the Rochester Rhinos in a stadium configured for baseball—a hearty Portland crowd significantly bigger than those that watched half of the MLS games that same night, and several thousand more than bothered to show up at New York’s sparkling new “soccer palace.”
Yet Portland’s building itself has always been more like Javier Zanetti than Lionel Messi, more Kasey Keller than Clint Dempsey – always there, always valuable, often intriguing, but never likely to steal the show. I’ve heard several local fans of both soccer and baseball describe the stadium as feeling ‘soulless’ – which is reasonable as a description for the feeling of the structure itself. The gently sloping seating areas, currently off-set in a way that makes a soccer crowd disturbingly asymmetrical, are cramped and crumbling. The moldy grey cement walls that border much of the field look melancholy and cheap. The surface has been slippery, ugly versions of artificial turf for over 40 years. But saying that the structure feels ‘soulless’ is very different from saying it has no soul.
In fact, more than any other current MLS stadium (with the possible exception of RFK in Washington DC—which the league is desperate to vacate anyway) Portland’s future home will offer the league true American soccer history. From a ‘Pacific Coast Championship’ contested by teams of immigrants at a 1905 World’s Fair, to the late 1970’s glory days of the NASL, to the rise of American support for US National Teams, to the vanguard of modern supporters’ culture, the Portland stadium has seen it all. And now, if they can get the latest remodel right (a topic I may return to in future weeks), if they can actually make it a good place to watch the game, the Timbers MLS home has a chance to be a truly unique place for American soccer fans: a new stadium with meaningful history.
The Pre-Timbers Years
The name of the stadium is as good a place to start as any: though currently known as PGE Park, Portland General Electric only bought ten years worth of naming rights in 2000. Immediately prior to that it was known as “Civic Stadium,” though upon its founding in 1893 place was called “Multnomah Field” after the blue-blood Athletic Club (and, in turn, the county) that still borders the playing surface. It also had a period after its first major upgrade in 1926 as “Multnomah Stadium” until being sold to the city in 1966 by the Multnomah Athletic Club (known colloquially as “The MAC”). And now PGE’s naming rights are set to expire just in time for MLS to arrive—with little word as to what name might come next.
So for reasons of both historical flux and personal bitterness (due to having my jacked up PGE rates fund the types of exorbitant CEO buy-outs and Enron business practices that represent all that is wrong with the American economy), I’m going to just call it Portland’s stadium. It has, after all, been the city’s primary site for sport and spectacle of all types for almost 120 years—and its coming incarnation will likely be a prominent face of the city for many years to come.
One of the main explanations for the stadium’s local prominence is its location in an old heart of town: just west of the downtown business district, just east of the moneyed West Hills, just south of a yuppified shopping/dining/drinking district, and just off a mass transit line, the original Multnomah Field was built on a site that the history of the Multnomah Athletic Club describes as having been a ‘natural amphitheater perfect for athletic use.’ That ‘natural amphitheater’ was created partially by Tanner Creek Gulch, a water source that also made possible a 1840’s tannery central to early Portland’s commerce, along with a series of ‘Chinese vegetable gardens and shanties.’ With the coming of the athletic field, however, Tanner Creek was gradually diverted underground—an old landscape feature that has created some modern challenges to construction work on the current re-model, along with local calls for the new stadium to tribute the ‘historic course of the creek.’ I’ve also heard some vague (and so far unsubstantiated) claims that the gulch is one reason the space would be hard to maintain as a grass playing surface—the natural drainage patterns are apparently more conducive to a bog garden than a football pitch.
Football was, nevertheless, among the original tenants of the field—though in the 1890’s the specific type of football to be played was still somewhat uncertain. The “intercollegiate” rules for what would become ‘American football’ were still being negotiated on the East Coast, and amateur athletic clubs such as The MAC were prime sites for experimentation. As such, according to The MAC’s history, when the first interested ‘football’ players gathered at Multnomah Field in the 1890’s the specific code they’d use was uncertain: one of their organizers had introduced ‘rugby and association football’ at a local academy, but others “insisted they play the new version.” American football, including many college games played by the various state universities in Oregon, eventually did become a feature of the early decades of the Portland stadium—but it is interesting for a soccer fan to note that with a few twists of fate it could have been otherwise.
Soccer did not, however, disappear entirely. In fact, thanks to a tip from eminent soccer historian Colin Jose, I learned that in 1905 Multnomah Field hosted what I’ll claim to be a precursor to the Cascadia Cup—a “Pacific Coast Championship” held in conjunction with the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition (Portland’s version of a World’s Fair). Invitations went out to teams from California, Washington, and British Columbia, and the Portland team prepared by playing teams of sailors from British ships cruising the Pacific coast; one report from the August 27th 1905 Oregonian has the locals “defeating a team of sailors from the British ships Tottenham and Comeric by 6 to1.” If it is true that history repeats itself, I like the sound of Portland defeats Tottenham 6 to 1.
Unfortunately, like too many Cascadia Cups, the actual Exposition tournament didn’t go well for Portland. Only one of the invited teams actually showed up, from Ladysmith BC, and they soundly beat Portland to take the 1905 title. As the September 29th Oregonian reported “The Portlands were outplayed and outweighed, man for man, although they played a plucky game.” The paper went on to describe the great ancestors of the Timbers Army: “The attendance? At the busiest part of the game a careful computation of the occupants of the grandstand revealed 18 young men and one ‘yaller’ dog. Whether this combination formed a hoodoo against the Portlands is not known.” Damn that yaller dog.
The Portland stadium would host more soccer in coming decades, but prior to the arrival of the NASL Timbers in 1975 it was more known for its eclecticism: it hosted undistinguished US Presidents such as William H. Taft and Warren Harding, an artificial ski jump competition that delighted “40,000 cheering spectators” in 1953, an Elvis Presley concert that prompted a 1957 Oregonian headline of “Stadium Site of Bedlam,” and 22 years of greyhound racing that made for the stadium’s primary income from 1933-1955. Even now, the stadium is a stop on the “Fasten Your Seat Belts—It’s Been a Bumpy Ride” bus tour of “Portland’s discriminatory past:” according to the Willamette Week, “In the 1920s, Oregon had the largest Ku Klux Klan contingent west of the Rocky Mountains, with about 70,000 members and over 50 ‘klaverns’ (KKK chapters) statewide. The KKK held rallies at Civic Stadium, now PGE Park, when voicing its opposition to ‘Koons, Kikes and Katholics.’” (According to some other sources, the focus for the Oregon KKK was mostly on being anti-Catholic—though I’m sure Oregon’s small African-American population wasn’t too popular either).
Greyhound racing was displaced as the stadium’s primary tenant in 1956 when Portland’s minor league baseball team moved from a demolished Vaughn Street Park, leading to a decision all soccer fans must rue: in 1969 the stadium achieved the dubious distinction of becoming “the first outdoor baseball facility to install artificial turf.” And because I agree with most American soccer fans that artificial turf is a detriment to the game, I have a sad confession to make: in looking at many pictures of the stadium field through its early history I’ve yet to see one where the grass looked to have been playable. In its grass days Multnomah Field was always a muddy, wood-chipped, patchy mess. It was, and I fear always will be, a pitch conspired against by long rainy days, a busy schedule, a subterranean playing surface, and a previous identity as Tanner Creek Gulch.
The Post-Timbers Years
Despite its bastard turf, however, recent incarnations of Portland’s stadium have hosted some pretty good soccer. In the NASL Timbers’ very first year, for example, they beat the Seattle Sounders in front of a 31,000 person home crowd—leading to a good old American style pitch invasion and a run to ‘Soccer Bowl 1975.’ With teams of primarily British imports including Clyde Best and Clive Charles, the first iteration of the Portland Timbers then averaged 20,000 in 1976 (its second year of existence), only falling below 10,000 during their final season in 1982 when the NASL was well into its fatal decline. Their attendance figures were not the best in the league, but considering Portland’s relatively small population they are impressive enough to make a current MLS team like FC Dallas blush.
Portland was also chosen as the host for the 1977 Soccer Bowl – and though the Timbers failed to make the playoffs that season, the stadium turned out over 35,000 fans to watch the New York Cosmos defeat the Seattle Sounders 2-1 in what would be Pele’s last competitive game. As Clive Gammon described it in Sports Illustrated: “It was a huge fiesta in the rain. The lucky ones sat in the stands and the rest on open benches, drying out a little when the sun fitfully appeared, and roaring their hearts out as if this were Munich on World Cup day, not a soaking Sabbath in Portland. All 35,548 of them were crammed into creaky old Civic Stadium that was built in the ’20s with greyhound racing in mind but which in the future may be recognized as the place where soccer in North America had its coming-of-age party.”
Sadly, however, claims of a ‘coming-of-age’ party for North American soccer were premature. The NASL Timbers, along with much of the league, were gone by 1982—reincarnated briefly in 1989, and then in its current form in 2001. So the stadium experienced another relative big-event soccer lull, albeit one interspersed with some significant appearances by US National Teams.
Of the US National Team appearances, perhaps the most significant men’s game came in 1997. The US was in the midst of a sloppy qualifying campaign for the 1998 World Cup in France, and needed a pro-American venue for a crucial qualifier against Costa Rica. With the help of Nike (headquartered in nearby Beaverton), the US Federation created an atmosphere that many have cited as an early crest of soccer enthusiasm for our own national team. As Tim Crothers reported “The capacity crowd of 27,396 at Civic Stadium did muster plenty of enthusiasm, albeit somewhat orchestrated by a certain local sneaker company of national repute that, in its role as a sponsor of U.S. Soccer, passed out noisemakers and urged fans to wear white clothing as a sign of unity. This request was largely honored, resulting in a scene that could have passed for a convention of some bizarre tennis cult.”
Yet, however bizarre the scene, when Tab Ramos scored a late goal for a 1-0 victory that “virtually clinched” a World Cup spot Portland felt like the capital of the American game. Even Big Soccer’s Dan Loney, with his entertaining tone of informed mockery, has cited the game in Portland as something close to a genuine highlight of American soccer fandom: “For a long time, Portland in September 1997 held that prize [of greatest moment in US fans’ soccer-watching lives]. There was a fan section! We won! It was a sellout! Soccer was here to stay, and Portland was destined to get an MLS team!”
While the MLS team obviously took a while longer to arrive, within a few years the Portland stadium did earn the inadvertent distinction of being one of the few places in the world to host games for consecutive FIFA World Cups—the 1999 and 2003 Women’s World Cup (with the US serving as an emergency fill-in for China in 2003 after a SARS outbreak). In 1999 Portland only hosted group games, drawing decent crowds including over 20,000 for games such as the decidedly non-glamorous North Korea – Denmark clash (neither team advanced). In 2003, with the stadium having been remodeled two years prior partially in a failed effort to make it more baseball friendly, Portland hosted a semifinal doubleheader with temporary stands and an imported grass surface. In one of those games the US lost to Germany 3-0, a contest that symbolized both the waning on-field dominance of our women’s team and its nascent off-field potential: it drew huge local interest along with a sold out crowd—including a colleague of mine who gladly paid $500 dollars to a scalper for two tickets just to be able to say he was there.
The Present and the Future
In more recent years Portland has been enjoying its new version of the Timbers, and wrangling its way through a sometimes contentious debate about what having an MLS team will be worth. Whether or not you like the team, the minor league version of the Timbers has offered an impressive example of how an American city can foster a large and passionate fan base for soccer—despite the team being in a minor league and playing in what is in current form is basically a bad baseball stadium.
And this, ultimately, is the rub. All the meaningful soccer history embodied in the Portland stadium exists at odds with the fact that it has never really been a very good place to watch the game. So yes soccer purists, the MLS version of the Timbers will have to share the stadium with some Portland State University football games, and yes it probably doesn’t make sense right now to put down a real grass playing surface. But for the first time in its 100+ year history Portland is going to have a stadium designed primarily to cater to soccer. And, hopefully, to make more history.
In that vein, it may be appropriate to return one last time to the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition, where Portland’s team captain explained his team’s failure to win the championship to an Oregonian journalist by noting: “I wish to say that I am not in the least discouraged at the showing made by our team. On the contrary, I am proud of their work…I am confident that in a year or so, with the support of all admirers in Portland of association football, we shall be able to turn out a team that will be a credit to this city and carry off the laurels in this branch of sport. We can do nothing without enthusiasm….”
And if by including the qualifier ‘a year or so’ the captain was allowing for the possibility it could take 106, then he might be right—with a new stadium and old history Portland may just yet “carry off the laurels in this branch of sport.”