Tag Archives: Portland Timbers

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DIY Graphics: Portland Timbers Supporter Propaganda

This was how it began:

MLS is Next poster- Timbers Army propaganda

Graphic designer Brent Diskin had long liked soccer, but grew up in a household proud of its support of Oregon State’s college football team, and that was his main sporting interest until very recently. So how did Diskin end up producing the posters above, upon the Portland Timbers’ elevation to Major League Soccer in 2009?

“It was through my eldest brother – an alum of Concordia College’s soccer team – that I became aware of the Timbers and was able to make it to a few matches,” Diskin told Pitch Invasion. “When the announcement of the Timbers’ promotion to MLS in March of 2009 was made, I was carried away in my brother’s excitement and immediately started making my first few propaganda poster modifications (with “MLS – You’re Next! “ being the first). That is when I moved from being a simple fan to a supporter.”

As so often happens to supporters who become involved with passionate groups such as the Timbers Army, a toe-in-the-water soon becomes an obsession. Though Diskin’s schedule and budget made it tough for him to make it to many games, he continued to contribute how he could with his graphics, and began building from the natural connection of the Timbers Army to war imagery.

Portland Timbers Army Propaganda Posters

Yet as his work has progressed and Diskin has become more embedded into Timbers Army culture, so has his output reflected the diversity of the group’s grassroots support.

Bike Brigade and Women of the Rose City: Rise Up posters

“I understood fairly quickly that the Timbers Army has a strong DIY culture and my little efforts will always be in support of that,” Diskin continues. “While I love making them because they allow me to be creative and push my abilities well beyond what my day-to-day work allows, I make them because I love my team, my Army, and my community. Simply, this is one small way I can help support the Timbers beyond losing my voice at Jeld-Wen Field. It has always been my hope that they help keep everyone’s action and energy up, not only in the offseason, but during the year’s campaign. I’ll certainly take a pint, but never a dime for my support.”

Green and White, Home Opener Timbers Poster

Listen to Your Capos and Who Who Timbers' Posters

Of course, a key part of any supporters’ culture is rivalry, and perhaps for nobody more in North America than for Timbers and Seattle Sounders fans.

Seattle Rivalry Posters - Timbers Army Propaganda

Not just the Sounders, however.

Vancouver and San Jose Rivalry Posters, Portland Timbers

Most of Diskin’s work is, though, positively natured. Away travel is promoted with this classy series.

Timbers Army' Legends Travel Posters

And as Diskin concludes, ultimately it’s about support of the team on the field: “These days, I finally have a season ticket and that guarantee that I can make it to every match, but I’ll still keep up my efforts and support and do all I can as a supporter to support the lads and bolster the spirits of my Army. As Timber Jim is often heard saying, “Spread the Love”…and this is my small way of doing so.”

Cameron Knowles and John Spencer Posters - Timbers Army Propaganda

Peter Lowry and Brian Umony Posters

Like most MLS supporters, for Diskin, the 2012 season cannot begin soon enough: he’s just able to express it visually in a way most of us cannot.

Timbers Season Loading, Timbers Ax Posters

Stoking Rivalry In The Right Way: Seattle and Portland’s Tifo Battle

Back in April, Portland had raised the tifo bar in the Cascadia region of North America at their home opener in Major League Soccer at Jeld-Wen Field:

Portland Timbers MLS home opener tifo

(Though, honestly, I preferred this Kings of Cascadia display from last year – less self-reverential. And of course, the Space Needle tifo.)

With that very much in mind, Seattle fans in the Emerald City Supporters’ group set out to do something special of their own for the team’s first MLS meeting with Portland at QWest field this past Saturday night.

On their opening night, the Timbers Army stepped up their game. ECS finally has a rival supporter group to truly compete with. They raised their game, and everyone and their mothers are drooling over what they saw at Jen-Weld Field the rainy night of April 14th. Many have already forgotten that the bar for atmosphere and passion was set by the ECS and Sounders faithful. An atmosphere that put MLS Commissioner Garber in tears, it being a real life expression of his long term dream of what MLS and soccer in this country can be. May 14, 2011 will be the day we all remind the world who is king in Cascadia. It is the day we will all put forth the support that rightly puts us at the top of supporter groups in North America!

Forget the ahistorical silliness of “ECS finally has a rival supporter group to truly compete with”, Seattle fans did produce a display worthy of the occasion. It was the right way up, and everything:

Seattle Sounders tifo - ECS

It pains me as a Fire fan to say it, but that’s some world class tifo from ECS. Scale, execution and concept are all top-drawer. Steve Kelley was certainly impressed:

Moments before kickoff, the Emerald City Supporters dramatically unfurled massive banners that commemorated the rivalry.

Large drawings of former Sounders Marcus Hahnemann, Preston Burpo and Jimmy Gabriel floated down the south end zone along with pictures of assistant coach Brian Schmetzer (the Sounders’ USL coach) and forward Fredy Montero.

Then slowly another banner rolled down from the deck above, displaying a picture of a fist crushing a Timbers ball and proclaiming, “Decades of Dominance.”

Finally, from below, a banner with a drawing of Portland nemesis Roger Levesque unrolled with a jab at Timbers fans that read, “48 seconds.” In the 2009 U.S. Open Cup against Portland, Levesque scored in the first 48 seconds.

So maybe this wasn’t Arsenal and Tottenham or Manchester United and Manchester City, but it was a celebration of what the game slowly is becoming in this country.

The banners were spectacular.

Eh, I can’t say I’ve ever seen EPL fans unveil anything even remotely in the postcode/zip code of a major MLS tifo display. Certainly nothing they’ve created. It added to an outstanding atmosphere in the stadium. This is what Portland-Seattle should be about, not the hipster-rivalry nonsense this rather incomplete Wall Street Journal article got into last week.

Nitpickers might say of the display that ‘Decades of Dominance’ is a little overwrought, but if you’re going to say something a little over the top, may as well display it in an epic fashion. This was epic.

It should also certainly be noted that Portland fans brought an impressive away tifo to the table as well at the game, something we hopefully will see more of in MLS and difficult to do away from home:

Timbers Army away tifo in Seattle

Where does all this tifo fit in MLS history? I guess we’ll leave that for Shawn Francis to figure out. There has been impressive stuff done in many places now over the years, each spurring on rival groups to greater heights. And finally, MLS front offices and headquarters seem to realise the value of these displays to the culture and promotion of soccer in North America as something distinct from other sports here.

At the end of the day, the purpose of tifo is to inspire your team and your fans and in a rivalry stoke the embers: on Saturday night, both sets of fans did this in a manner that can only engender more DIY supporter culture in North America, a really healthy development for the sport here. The good part about this for Cascadia is that it helps make the rivalry between Portland and Seattle about devoting what you can to do support your team in a positive fashion, and not about fighting or other nonsense.

Growing Recognition For American Supporters Groups

It wasn’t too long ago that MLS supporters’ groups who consistently numbered more than a hundred hardy souls per game could be counted on the fingers of one hand nationwide, and were about as popular as herpes with MLS front office folks.

Those times have changed as the groups have grown and the atmosphere and publicity they bring to MLS clubs that help them differentiate those teams in crowded sports marketplaces have been recognised by MLS headquarters and most owners. Now, supporters’ groups are right there in the top reasons listed by Don Garber on why World Cup fans should buy into MLS:

Grant Wahl: Now that the World Cup is over, MLS is one of the few leagues in the world that is in-season right now. Do you feel like the league has put itself in a position to demand the attention of Americans who got into soccer during the World Cup?

Garber: We’re certainly putting ourselves in the position to ask for their attention. I don’t believe we’re positioned yet to demand anything from our fans. Our pitch to the World Cup viewer is give us 90 minutes and we’ll give you the game that you fell in love with at the World Cup. We’ll show you that our stadiums are world-class, our supporters groups are growing and the quality of play is pretty darn good, better than most people think. That’s not just me talking, that’s Sir Alex Ferguson and Thierry Henry talking.

More interestingly, the culture and influence of supporters’ groups is being noticed outside American soccer circles, too. Only last week, Portland’s unofficial supporters’ group, the Timbers Army, was picked at #5 in The Oregonian newspaper’s top 25 “Most influential People in Oregon Sports,” behind the likes of Paul Allen and Phil Knight, and ahead of the actual owner of the Timbers, Merrit Paulson, who comes in at #7:

5. Timbers Army (NR): Drumming, chanting, scarf-wearing soccer supporters transformed overnight from a band of PGE Park rowdies to an effective and influential political organization. Their political clout ends up greasing the wheels on the effort to bring Major League Soccer to Portland. Two favorite sayings: Rose City till we die.  If you want to be in the Timbers Army, you already are.

As the resolution to the recent Timbers logo controversy showed, the Timbers Army — now with its formal arm, the 107ist Supporters’ Trust — is savvy in protecting supporters’ culture while  helping the club move forward to MLS.

Philadephia’s Sons of Ben have never lacked for publicity even before their Union was born (for which they quite rightly pay homage to Steven Wells for), but their own DIY culture was recognised today too by Philadelphia Magazine in its Best of Philly 2010:

sons-of-ben

Supporters organisations have taken a lot of heat over the years in the United States (some of it deserved, most of it not), so at least from my admittedly partisan perspective on them, it’s very good to see recognition of their work in the wider local communities. That can only be good for broader recognition of the role supporters can play in the sport, for soccer’s long-term good in the United States.


Portland Timbers’ MLS Logo Changed Due To Timbers Army Input

A couple of weeks ago, we posted about the furor that had broken out in the American northwest, as fans of the Portland Timbers — known collectively as the Timbers Army, and represented formally by the 107ist independent supporters’ trust — threw up their arms in horror at the logo unveiled for the 2011 MLS Portland Timbers expansion team.

And quite rightly. The new look was cartoonish, with unnecessary bonus wings. It supposedly paid homage to the club’s on-and-off history stretching back to 1974, but in reality did it a disservice with such poor treatment. The failure of the front office to get enough fan input before the unveiling was a real disappointment when they have consistently used the club’s history in their marketing of the club. Here’s a reminder of the new logo’s look:

Portland Timbers new MLS logo

The Timbers Army, or rather the 107ist, took a sensible approach to dealing with what threatened to turn very ugly (after an initial awkward public encounter between owner Merritt Paulson and hardcore Timbers Army fans following the public unveiling). They met with the front office, and came up with modified designs that better matched the traditional look. As another reminder, here is Portland’s current crest:

Portland Timbers original logo

To their credit, Portland’s front office and ownership listened. Here’s the club’s release on the changes:

“The MLS stable of marks holds true to our root elements while evolving to communicate our historic elevation to MLS,” said Merritt Paulson, president of the Timbers. “We welcomed fan input in the process and feel the final result appropriately honors our traditions and represents the magnitude of the organization’s step to the highest level of soccer in North America.”

Elements of the identity system included both direct fan design and input. The ligature was selected from several submissions from talented local designers who are members of the team’s supporters group – the Timbers Army. The secondary crest is a direct take-down of the primary crest, which has been altered slightly to reduce shading in the axe.

And here are the new logos and the “ligature” (yeah, I had to Google that one).

Portland Timbers MLS logos

The changes don’t look radical at first glance. But it is notable that the primary and secondary logos have also been adjusted, with the shading from the axe removed to make it less cartoonish. Let’s compare:

Portland Timbers logos MLS

I still think some of the elements of the new primary crest are overdone, but while subtle, the Timbers organisation has clearly seriously listened to fan input: it would be easy to make fun of merely removing the shading on the axe, but it matters they have in terms of it better representing the club’s past identity. And the secondary logo is close to being a classic. I’m not really sure what the “ligature” is all about — but it’s nice they took a fan submission and made it part of their look.

Credit to the Timbers and the 107ist for getting together sensibly and getting this done. It’s an important demonstration of how fans and front offices can work together, compromise and come up with something better for the club as a whole.

Comparison images courtesy of Calimero JackAcid on the TA messageboard.

Portland Timbers’ New Logo: Fail

The old:

The new:

New Portland Timbers logo

The reaction:

The Portland Timbers’ supporters are not happy with that new logo the Timbers organisation has developed for the Major League Soccer expansion Timbers team, to start play in MLS next season. The MLS version of the club has based its entire marketing campaign and, indeed, owes its existence to the current Portland Timbers team’s identity, the lower division side that has been playing since 2001.

“You can’t fake this,” screams the Timbers’ MLS site, a not-so-subtle nod to the Timbers’ fans well-known antipathy to the Seattle Sounders marketing machine a little further north. Many supporters in the Timbers Army supporters’ group seem to view the new logo as a plastic imposition on Portland’s soccer tradition that the MLS team was supposed to be building on.

The 74 page thread that has grown in the couple of days since the announcement on the Timbers Army messageboard is full of vitriol about the logo’s cartoonish look and fighter plane styling. As is de rigueur these days, a Facebook group has been set-up to protest. The Timbers Army are not going to let this go easily.

The current logo has its roots in the crest of the first version of the Portland Timbers, the NASL side that existed from 1975 to 1982. The new one was developed by a marketing company called Rare Design, whose portfolio is remarkably extensive in its number of mediocre American sports team logo designs. Yes, the Timbers’ MLS logo incorporates a number of elements of the club’s traditional crest, but only in a manner that suggests mere lip service is being paid to that beloved identity.

Portland’s supporters, “organised” in the Timbers Army with the simple credo that you are Timbers Army if you want to be Timbers Army, have built their remarkable culture around that identity and the history of the club in Portland. It’s been a messy history, but it’s one that has been tied to that logo off and on since the 1970s, an age in American soccer.

If some of the reaction from the Timbers Army seems overwrought, it should have been obvious how sensitive the waters that the MLS team’s logo designers were wading into: it seems supporters were little involved in the project to update the crest over the past year. Incorporating supporters in such a process is just as important to winning their approval for it as the final design itself; minor flaws look much less glaring when one has been part of creating it as a whole. The MLS expansion project has used the Timbers Army extensively from its bid to become part of the league to its latest marketing materials. Paying scant attention to their input when updating an element a supporter always holds dear about the club’s visual identity seems arrogant at best.

Writing on these pages a little over a year ago following the announcement the Timbers would be entering MLS in 2011, Zach Dundas provided a superb essay on the development of Portland’s uniquely vibrant supporters’ culture in lower league American soccer that explains the strength of their rejection of the new logo:

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 there’s the rub, as Dundas hinted at the end of his piece: “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.”

That underground brio is now proving a little too “fizzy” for the Timbers’ ownership, led by Meritt Paulson. The challenge is how he will now respond and handle the Timbers Army’s concerns about the logo before this gets ugly; this was not a very good way to start.


Photo Daily: Timbers Army 2010

The Timbers Army, supporters of the Portland Timbers in the USSF Division II, welcome the team in their 2010 home opener.

The Timbers Army, supporters of the Portland Timbers in the USSF Division II, welcome the team at their 2010 home opener in front of 15,418 fans at PGE Park.

Photo credit: Steven D. Lenhart on Flickr, via the Pitch Invasion Photo Pool.


Coming Soon to MLS: Hoodoo Yaller Dogs, Bizarre Tennis Cults, and a New Portland Stadium with Old Soccer History

The current (2009-2010) Portland stadium

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 Portland stadium set up for American football in 1959 (photo via Pete Wright at flickr)

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.

A flooded Multnomah Field in 1904 (photo via Pete Wright on flickr)

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.

From The Oregonian, September 29th 1905

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).

Plaques outside the current stadium's luxury boxes, with tributes to greyhound racing, Elvis, and the NASL

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!”

At the 2003 Women's World Cup (photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images, via sportsbusinessdaily.com)

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

A Willamette Week illustration of Timbers owner Merritt Paulson contemplating the stadium

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.”

The latest MLS stadium plans (from portlandonline.com)


A Mental Game: Us versus Them and the Social Psychology of Fandom

Photo by _ambrown from flickr.com

Why, with intense and organic feelings of affiliation to our teams, does it so rarely seem to matter that the teams themselves are obviously artificial constructions?   Why, in the midst of a fan revolt against an ownership group that is foreign and detached, do Manchester United fans not seem too bothered that most of their players are also ‘foreign’ (beyond Mancunians Gary Neville and Paul Scholes, United’s 18 on Saturday included 15 non-English players)?  Why, amidst the admirable growth of genuine American supporters groups, do MLS teams not seem to put much emphasis on employing local players with roots in their communities?  I’d like to suggest that the emotional intensity of fan affiliation, and the fact that it persists and even grows amidst the globalization and commercialization of the game, is less about our teams and more about our minds.

I’ve been intrigued by the noble irrationality of fan allegiance for years, with recent events in my small corner of the soccer world further piquing my curiosity—as a current Portlander who grew up in Seattle, the MLS-fed intensification of a lingering fan rivalry has been most curious to watch.  The recent tenuous claim of ‘hooliganism’ when a Portland fan was apparently choked with his Timbers scarf by Seattle fans after a pre-season ‘friendly’ was only one marker in an ongoing Pacific Northwest rivalry.

Any American reader of soccer blogs that mention the Sounders or the Timbers is certainly familiar with the phenomenon—comment threads will inevitably end up with angry references to ‘S**ttle’ and ‘Portscum,’ often including exaggerated claims as to the differences between the cities.  Likewise, at games themselves chants, songs, and signs regularly transition into personal attacks that are often demonstrably irrational.  I was particularly struck at a US Open Cup match in Portland last year where a large double posted sign on parade in front of the sold-out crowd had a stark black and white illustration of a large rifle captioned with “KELLER—DO THE COBAIN.”

Really?  Suggesting Kasey Keller should commit suicide because he had at that point played 12 games for the Sounders (about one tenth as many games as he has played for the United States—of which, despite occasional efforts to declare its own people’s republic, Portland is still a part)?  What’s more, Kasey Keller has more connections to the city of Portland than any single player on the field for the Timbers that day.  Keller was an all-American at the University of Portland, and is widely credited as the key player that allowed Clive Charles to make UP a legitimate soccer power—something the city’s soccer fans often note with pride.  Keller even played 10 games for a previous incarnation of the Timbers in 1989.  In contrast, the Timbers starting eleven that day had exactly zero players with any childhood or college roots in Portland—and at least one player on the roster who had not even heard of Portland Oregon until signing a contract.

Of course the vast majority fans, even in Portland and Seattle, don’t choke people with scarves or promote suicide—there are crazy people everywhere.  And the edginess and intensity of passionate fan allegiance is often a crucial element of what makes a great match so much fun for everyone involved.  But that doesn’t make our emotional allegiance to professional teams, which are mostly artificial ‘clubs’ oriented to making money for rich people, any more rational.

What does explain the engaging irrationality of the sports fan?

A few weeks ago I wrote about sports psychology, and the fact that in my experience it has proven less useful for enhancing performance than explaining how the game works.  So this week I’m returning to that theme and suggesting that while many factors contribute to our emotional connections to sports teams, one of the best explanations comes from social psychology.  (For an excellent alternative take in a more English football-centric direction see this recent essay by Fredorrarci.)

The basic idea, drawing off social identity theory, is that for various evolutionary reasons one of our most fundamental psychological instincts is to identify and divide the world into two groups: us and them.  Us is good; them is bad.  In our ancestral past this instinct may have been oriented by clans, but now it is up for grabs—we are constantly, unconsciously, affiliating with cities, countries, schools, political parties, genders, ethnicities, musicians, companies, teams, and whatever else becomes salient in our daily lives.  What’s fascinating about this basic ‘us versus them’ instinct is how quickly, and irrationally, it activates.  For a Portlander at a Timbers-Sounders game Kasey Keller should rationally be one of us.  But instinctively he is one of them.

There are a couple fun examples of the automaticity of ‘us versus them’ thinking that might be familiar to anyone who has ever taken Psychology 101.  The classic is Muzafer Sherif’s 1954 “Robbers Cave Experiment.”  Sherif was a social psychologist at the University of Oklahoma who was interested in group behavior, and devised a classic experiment elegant for its simplicity.  He basically just took a group of normal boys to summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park.  The trick was that the boys were randomly assigned to two separate groups and isolated from each other—adopting group names “The Rattlers” and “The Eagles” (no relation, I presume, to the Screaming Eagles “standing up for DC” United).  After an initial period of bonding, the boys learned of the other group, and the researchers began arranging for competitions on a ball field.  There was almost immediate animosity; name calling, efforts to self-segregate, raids of group camps, and, in fine supporters group tradition, the exchange of derogatory songs.  The researchers added a final phase where they created situations in which the groups had to work together, and suddenly everyone started to get along again.  It was a simple study making a profound point: there was no difference between the two groups of boys until they became groups.  Any of the “Rattlers” could just as easily have been “Eagles” in exactly the same way as, I suspect, many Manchester United supporters could just as easily have been for Arsenal or Liverpool with a few small twists of fate.

Another favorite example comes from several decades ago when an Iowa school teacher named Jane Elliot created a brilliant demonstration of the power of us versus them as a way to address racial discrimination with her elementary school students in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.  One morning she simply told the students that they were going to do a little demonstration where they would be divided up for a few days by the color of their eyes.  First the blue eyed kids got the privileges, while the brown eyed kids put on colored scarves marking their out-group status (and the next day it was reversed).  By recess time that same morning the kids were brawling on the playground because us started mocking them for having brown eyes.  In Jane Elliot’s words: “I watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating, little third-graders in a space of fifteen minutes.”  Substitute “sports fans” for “children,” along with “ninety” for “fifty,” and the quote still works quite well.

Further, in the classroom situation, not only did simple and substantively meaningless group distinctions based on eye color create anger, the kids let their group membership shape their performance on school work—on a flash card task the same kids either excelled or flailed depending on whether their group was assigned superiority for the day.  Our ‘us versus them’ instinct can make kids seem stupid, and I suspect it can also allow ostensibly intelligent and educated soccer fans to end up choking people with scarves.

A laboratory for groupness

It turns out that soccer and supporters groups are nearly perfect laboratories for stimulating ‘us versus them’ instincts.  According to Judith Harris’s accessible, if controversial, summary of the scholarly research, some of the key ingredients for making group membership psychologically significant include:

  • Socially defined membership that necessitates more of an internal than external commitment, along with shared experiences and an emphasis on commonalities within the group (according to the Timbers Army web-site, to be a member “If you like your sports passionate instead of passive – if you’re proud of the Rose City — if you appreciate the Beautiful Game – YOU are Timbers Army. No membership, no initiation, no rules, no fuss. Just wander into the North End of PGE Park and join the fun!”)
  • Competition and an emphasis on points of contrast from other groups (when the European Football Weekends site waded into explaining the Sounders-Timbers rivalry across the pond, the comments were inundated with defensive comparisons from both sides: a relatively tame example from an anonymous Sounders fan, “you may wonder why Timbers fans are commenting on an article about the Sounders. They are a funny lot whose entire supporter culture revolves around jealousy of and irrevocable obsession with the Sounders. They rarely know the names of their own players, but they will mark their calendars months in advance for a match against us. If you spend time in person with a Timbers fan, you will hear more talk about the Sounders than their own team.”).
  • Proximity (it is no coincidence that many supporters groups mark themselves explicitly by the section of the stadium where they sit—the “The 107 Independent Supporters’ Trust is the machinery behind the Timbers Army” and is named after the stadium section where they sit during games, while the Sounders group Emerald City Supporters have their numerical sections (121-123) and their street (“Brougham Faithful”) featured on their logo.)
  • Group goals and/or a common enemy (at the Sounders-Timbers match at least one Vancouver Whitecaps correction: San Jose Earthquakes supporter came to Portland bearing a sign with the message “The enemy of my enemy is my friend!”).
  • Photo by Bjørn Giesenbauer from flickr.com

    Explicit markers of group identity (scarves are virtually ubiquitous across the soccer world because they are such an efficient marker of group identity—one of the Sounders’ marketing coups was to provide ‘free’ scarves to season ticket holders, automatically cementing a social identity while also bearing an eerie resemblance to the scarves Jane Elliot used to mark the “inferior” group in her classroom).

  • Implicit norms and expectations (some Sounders supporters groups, such as Gorilla FC, distinguish themselves by trying to explicitly avoid the stereotypes of “ultra” groups: “One more belief of Gorilla FC, besides the love of the party, is that this group will share the same spirit as the fans of FC ST. PAULI!! WE ARE ANTI-RACIST, ANTI-FACIST, ANTI-SEXIST, AND ANTI-HOMOPHOBIC, BUT PRO-PARTY!! It seems bizarre to have to post that, however we want to establish that our friends are dedicated to building a love of the Sounders free from ignorance. A thinking ethic! We also will be active in supporting various community organizations. Gorilla FC is more than just a supporters club!!”)

As that last example makes clear, creating a sense of ‘groupness’ is not necessarily a bad thing—however artificial, the social identities of sports fans have just as much potential to influence pro-social as anti-social norms.  In fact, the Timbers’ 107ist Supporters Trust includes not just tifo and game travel but also charitable works among its ‘basic purposes.’  Likewise, when social marketing campaigns such as ‘Show Racism the Red Card’ work it is likely due largely to re-framing social identities—remaking the group identity to include ‘soccer fans fight [rather than endorse] racism.’

But what team rivalries and fan allegiances all over the world illustrate most of all is that the ‘us versus them’ instinct plays fast and easy on our minds.  As much as FIFA folks like to spin platitudes about the game bringing people together, it can just as easily tear people apart.  As much as the World Cup presents opportunities to display national identities, our local allegiances and teams (so often composed entirely of outsiders) display how contrived all our social identities can be.  And, at the same time, how meaningful.


The North American Soccer League Strikes Back

Colorado Caribous 1978 jersey. Can't wait to see this brought back!

Colorado Caribous 1978 NASL jersey. Can't wait to see this brought back!

“Party Like It’s 1979″, says the usually stone cold sober Kenn Tomasch. “The future of American soccer appears to be the past of American soccer.”

Kenn writes this because news broke today that the breakaway second-tier league made-up of nine former USL and new clubs may use the North American Soccer League name for itself, after Miami FC put in two trademark claims.

Kenn’s response, not quite as euphoric as I painted it above, is actually a well-balanced take on the name’s real importance (not as important as a lot of other stuff) tinged with a little welcome nostalgia for those of us too young to remember the league.

Kenn points to the growing trend of American soccer teams claiming a part of their city’s past with the sport, and resurrecting NASL team names has hardly done any harm to Seattle, Portland or Vancouver, for example. Indeed, a connection to the past is something that gives a little more depth to each club’s existence, even if it’s a mythical imagined past of fathers and sons following the Sounders various incarnations since the 1970s.

I think American soccer has grown up enough not to be afraid of the NASL boogyman any longer (lessons have been learned well enough already), though there’s something fitting if it is indeed used on this risky, ambitious breakaway. What really matters is the substance of the league’s business plan and the performance of each club’s front office, not the name.

Though some have immediately rubbished the name’s return in any case, a poll on Inside Minnesota Soccer (the best site for news on the breakaway league, incidentally) suggests reaction is mixed and broadly positive, with more in favour of the NASL name returning than against it.

Oh…and how about them Cosmos, then?

The Timbers, The Gambia, and Futty Danso: Stories from Africa

Futty Danso

Futty Danso

The reason Mamadou “Futty” Danso wore the rather odd number 98 for the Portland Timbers this year says a lot about globalization and soccer.  The story starts in his native Gambia, where he grew up carefully watching African players who found success on the international scene.  Among his favorites was the Cameroonian Marc-Vivien Foé , a classy midfielder for Lens, West Ham, Lyon, Man City, and the Indomitable Lions.  The day of Foé’s tragic death during Cameroon’s 2003 Confederations Cup match in France against Columbia Foé was wearing the number 17.  From that day forward. Futty, at the time playing with top Gambian club Ports Authority and on his way to stops with the Gambian U-23 national team, a club team in Senegal, a college team in Georgia, and a PDL team in North Carolina, always wore 17.

When he arrived in Portland this year, however, 17 was on the back of Timbers stalwart Scot Thompson and as an unproven rookie Futty knew he had no chance at the number.  But he remembered a trick from another of his childhood heroes— when Chilean legend Iván Zamorano had been unable to get his favored number 9 at Inter Milan, Zamorano took 18 with a plus sign in between.  Though Futty’s jersey doesn’t have a plus sign, 9 + 8 does equal 17 and it all adds up to a subtle nod to his African roots, his appreciation for Latin American creativity, his European fandom, and his current reality in the second tier of soccer in the United States.  Number 98 is essentially an inter-continental soccer mash-up.

Futty—whose nickname derives from a Fula honorific that translates approximately to “sir” and has served him in place of Mamadou his enitre life—doesn’t have any definitive explanations for The Gambia’s success, but he was kind enough to sit down with me last week and share his soccer stories.  Though the specifics of his experiences are unique, the patterns offer some rich examples of how the game plays from Africa.

As the 2009 USL season culminates this month, Futty has not necessarily been among the most prominent players on the field (particularly considering that the Timbers, despite having the best record over the course of the league season, were just eliminated from the play-offs by the Vancouver Whitecaps).  He’s an imposing figure, a fast and agile 6’3” 185 pounder with broad shoulders and a sculpted visage, but he’s still learning the professional game and has only figured in slightly more than half of the Timbers games during this rookie season.  So what’s interesting about Futty is his story as a Gambian in America in this year of African soccer.

The Gambia

The Gambia

From an outsider’s perspective, The Gambia offers one of the great mysteries of African soccer.  How is it possible that this former British colony, a nation of 1.7 million people (significantly fewer than the Portland metropolitan area) with the smallest landmass of any country in Africa, has produced teams of “Baby Scorpions” (the nickname for Gambia’s senior team is “The Scorpions”) that are among the most successful sides in world youth soccer?

Gambia announced itself by beating Brazil during the group stage of the 2005 U-17 World Cup in Peru, advanced to the knockout stage of the 2007 U-20 World Cup in Canada, won the African U-17 Championship in both 2005 and 2009, and will be an intriguing presence at the upcoming U-17 World Cup in Nigeria.  Gambia also has the surprising distinction of being home to more MLS players than any other country outside the Americas (there are currently 5 Gambian players in MLS—not including Mac Kandji whose mother is Gambian and father Senegalese—which by my tentative count is only bettered by Argentina with 11, Brazil with 10, Columbia with 9, and Costa Rica with 9).

Growing up with the game

Like most Gambian boys, Futty grew up playing the game informally with friends in streets, vacant lots, and anywhere else that could serve as an improvised field.  But in Futty’s family, education always came first: “when I was going to school, my dad wouldn’t let me play soccer.  I had to hide, tell him that I would have to stay at school for extra help so I could slip in time to play.”

His father was a headmaster at a local secondary school, and took it upon himself to ensure the whole extended family prioritized developing the mind over the body.  Mamadou Danso senior had been a distance runner in his day, and did not tend to think much of soccer.  During adolescence, when most talented Gambians joined organized teams either through their schools or through youth clubs, Futty played on the sly—locking himself in his room to “study” and climbing out his second story window to escape for a day with the game.

According to Futty, high school soccer in Gambia is kind of a big deal—and when good players in “the cities” (Banjul and Serrekunda are neighboring cities that comprise the primary urban area in The Gambia) make their decisions about where to attend 10th grade for the start of senior secondary, they are often the subject of intense recruiting battles: “the coaches will call you all night; it’s like here [in America] for high school basketball players going to college.”

Partially to make things competitive, and partly to be a little further away from his father’s cautious eye, Futty and some friends went to “Gambia High” in Banjul—some 15 miles from his home in Serrekunda and right down the street from the other main option for talented youth: “Saints” (St. Augustine’s Senior Secondary School).  According to Futty, games between Gambia High and Saints were among the biggest events in the Gambian soccer scene.  When they played in big tournaments “almost everyone in Banjul that’s interested in soccer will come out—we play in the national stadium, and 15,000 to 20,000 people will be there.”  The games are such events that the crowds can get aggressive: “It’s a good thing people don’t drink that much…[being a 90% Muslim country] I never saw many people getting drunk…yeah, maybe some of the British tourists coming for a beach holiday, but with them most Gambians don’t actually know if they are drunk or just acting strange.”

In contrast, the biggest derby between the top local club teams might draw 8000 to smaller venues in town.  According to Futty, “even for track and field, everyone wants to see the inter-schools competitions—that will draw much more than a game like Wallidan v Real De Banjul.”  The top Gambian league is technically still an amateur affair where players get a few perks from team sponsors but not enough to make a living.  Unlike other leagues in west Africa such as those in Senegal or Nigeria, the Gambian league necessarily depends on youth.

Emphasizing youth

In thinking about the success of Gambian youth international teams, it seems significant that Gambians love their school sports.  In places like the Gambia, with an absence of extensive professional systems, schools offer a convenient opportunity to organize players and competitions that matter.  They also provide easy opportunities for coaches to scout young talent, and with such a small population there is a good chance that the best players will be seen.

In Futty’s case, top local club “Ports” (representing the Gambian Ports Authority) trained just behind Gambia High, saw him playing for his school, and invited him to join them.  Though this required a bit more subterfuge with his father, he signed on for a small monthly student allowance and expected to play with the rest of the youth players for Ports reserve team.  Early in his tenure with the club, however, one of the team’s main center backs took a knock and Futty’s size and speed made him the choice as a replacement.  The coach talked to him on a Tuesday, and on Saturday Ports took on their main rival Hawks.

Such opportunities for youth players to feature in senior games is, according to Futty, another key to the success of Gambian youth players.  Because the Gambian league is an amateur affair with only modest allowances or part-time jobs on offer, older players unable to go abroad often give up on soccer and move on to “real” jobs which they perceive as more likely to provide a living.  So the league itself, unlike more professional leagues in neighboring countries such as Senegal, includes mostly youth players trying to break-through.

Futty himself, after some success with Ports, had the opportunity to go on loan to a Senegalese team in Kaolack—just north of the Gambian border.  But he found the players there to be much more mature, and the game much more physical: “I was 18 and I think I only ended up playing the second half of one game, but that felt like I had played for 10 days non-stop; I mean after that I just went home and slept I was so tired.”  According to Futty, in Senegal the standard of the training facilities, the  stadiums, and the money was all higher than in Gambia—but that meant it was much more difficult for youth players to break in because in Senegal older players stick around.

Back in Gambia, Futty’s success with Ports and Gambia High led to some opportunities with the U-23 national youth team, including a nationally televised game against the senior team—a game organized in celebration of the Scorpions having tied Senegal in Banjul and barely lost on a late penalty kick in Dakar.  There is nothing Gambians enjoy more than competing with Senegal—their much bigger neighbor that literally encompasses The Gambia like a smothering glove.  Though Futty considers himself a fan of most African teams and hopes one might contend for the World Cup title in 2010, he emphasizes “as long as it’s not Senegal—if Senegal ever won the World Cup I’d have to commit suicide.”  I think he was kidding.

But that celebratory game between the U-23’s and the senior team finally blew Futty’s cover with his father: “I guess other people told my dad I was going to play; I mean I didn’t tell him.  I guess he was happy but he didn’t want to show me he was happy—he was like ‘I know you’ve been doing it for a long time’—and I said no, they just saw me playing outside.  But he said ‘the newspaper says you played for Ports Authority,’ so I said yeah I kind of played maybe a couple of games.  So he said ‘well, whatever you do be careful and don’t let soccer get in the way of school.”

Coming to America

Relatively soon thereafter Futty had a serendipitous encounter with an American college soccer coach travelling through Gambia looking for players with some academic credentials.  Like most young players in the Gambia, Futty had been thinking about trying to get overseas.  Because his father was worried about him neglecting academics, American college soccer seemed like the perfect compromise.  So he shipped off to a place I imagine to be about as far from Serrekunda as is humanly possible: Rocky Mount North Carolina, North Carolina Wesleyan College, and the less than elite world of NCAA Division III.

North Carolina Wesleyan College

North Carolina Wesleyan College campus

He arrived a week after school started and had to sit out most of the North Carolina Wesleyan games because of complications with his NCAA paperwork.  He did enjoy his classes, earn some credits, and meet some good people in Rocky Mount—but financial aid got complicated and an opportunity arose to get an athletic scholarship with a brand new men’s soccer program at Southern Polytechnic in Atlanta.  After a year at Southern Poly he spent part of the summer back in North Carolina with Cary in the USL’s summer developmental league and ended up having a strong match against Burnley as they traveled through North Carolina during their 2008 pre-season.

In another of Futty’s happenstance experiences with random soccer outposts, he ended up being invited to join Burnley for the part of their training camp that took place in North Carolina: “It was good, it gave me some knowledge of how professionals go day by day.  I mean I thought I was in shape when I went to play with them, but man—I told my friend, these people earn their money; everything they do is 100 miles an hour.  It’s like they want to kill you.  You train twice a day, you don’t go anywhere, you don’t leave the stadium.”

There was some talk of him signing with Burnley and being loaned out for seasoning with a club team in a European country with less restrictive immigration requirements.  But it didn’t seem likely, and Futty went back for one more year at Southern Poly before finally committing to the professional game—first during a brief spell with DC United that was foiled by more administrative issues, a trial with the Minnesota Thunder that wasn’t too pleasing to either side, and finally signing with the Timbers for at least one season in Portland.

By the time he signed with Portland, Futty had been in the US for almost four years but he had never heard of Portland.  When he looked it up on the map and found a version near Boston he thought that would work fine; imagine his surprise when he got a plane ticket taking him to Oregon.

It’s worked out reasonably well; the Timbers have had a good season, Futty feels like he’s learned from the experience, and he appreciates the atmosphere both within and around the team.  But the outlines of what he describes as his life as a pro are less than glorious; he shares a team-provided apartment near the train station, plays soccer, and watches a lot of Fox Soccer Channel (though he may have been being a bit modest in talking with me considering he was recently named the Timbers “Community Player of the Year“).  He doesn’t have many impressions of Portland as a town—going out primarily for team functions or the occasional meet-up with a Gambian friend living in town with an American wife.

It turns out that particular Gambian was once a crafty left-back for the senior Gambian national team—but he left home to go to school “in Alabama or somewhere,” dropped out, married an American women, moved to Portland, and now “does some kind of work around town—I don’t even know what…It’s a good example actually of what used to happen to the best Gambian players—once they get to a certain age, they just stop playing.”  Some of the best Gambian players just sort of disappear.

Futty notes that many such players are on display every year in a 4th of July tournament held as a sort of Gambian reunion in Atlanta.  One year he thought he recognized one of the heroes of his youth playing for the Gambian team from Washington DC, but couldn’t be sure because “I mean the guy is bigger now—he put on a lot of weight.”  But that was just because a player once considered among the best midfielders in all of West Africa no longer has anything to do with the game—Futty notes with a friendly laugh, “he just working in DC, living his American dream.”

The best place?

Futty himself is somewhat ambivalent about his American experience: “Most people in Gambia, they don’t know much about America.  They think what you see in movies, you’re going to live like that…but I mean it’s very different, people don’t know that but you try to tell them.  They say I want to come to America—but for myself if I had the option, like I had before, I don’t know if I would come to America.  I might try somewhere else.  And people are like ‘yeah, now that you’re in America you’re tired of that,’ but it’s not that.  I mean, it’s not that I don’t like America—it’s nice.  But you have to work really hard for anything.  It’s not like Gambia where you just sit down all day, food is not a problem, everything is cheap.  I mean here you have to work so hard for everything…I had an American friend that was travelling in Africa and first went to South Africa where everything is moving 1000 miles an hour.  Then he went to Gambia and everyone was just going at their own pace.  No one is in a rush, even the way they walk…if you have money, then Gambia is the best place…”

Such ambivalence is a familiar part of the American immigrant experience, and is probably enhanced by coming to play soccer.  The game itself is basically the same, but the world around the game is strange.  Futty knows most of the other Gambian players in MLS, having played with the Nyassi brothers at Ports back in Banjul, and while Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi have now been around long enough to enjoy New England, Futty notes that for Sanna Nyassi coming to Seattle “I think it was a little tough for him—at first he was like ‘everything in America is just big;’ in Gambia its extra-small, but in America it’s just so big…”

In talking with Futty it struck me that Gambia’s “extra-smallness” may in fact be part of the secret to their success in world youth football.  Futty claims that it all started in The Gambia after watching France win the 1998 World Cup.  Perhaps due to the success of so many African immigrants, Gambians started to take soccer more seriously.  Then, a few years later, new leadership in the Gambian FA started to realize that “if you just focus on the senior players we will never get there—we didn’t have the quality, and we didn’t have enough players going abroad…so they said why don’t we start on the grass-roots level.  Since with the senior team it’s 90% that we’re not going to make any tournament, let’s start sending coaches out around the country looking for the youths.”

They didn’t have far to go—most of the successful players in Gambia come from the more urban areas around Banjul, Serrekunda, and Brikama.  Futty refers to the rest of the country as “the provinces” and notes that to play seriously you have to get to “the cities.”  Combining that with the prominence of inter-school competitions, and what seems to be a reasonably well organized system of “Nawettan” youth tournaments, and finding the best youth players would seem to be a relatively easy task.

In addition, as in many African countries the number of semi-formal “youth academies” has exploded—including one funded by Gambian born former England youth international Cherno Samba: Samger FC or “the academy boys.” Despite its focus on youth, Samger has been competitive in the top Gambian league and already counts an MLS player as an alum—Emmanuel Gomez at Toronto FC (even informal “training matches” for TFC have thus become news in the Gambia).

Yahya Jammeh

Yahya Jammeh

Youth sports in the Gambia also benefit from the patronage of the Gambian president Yahya Jammeh.  Jammeh seems to fit the mold of the stereotypical African autocrat, known internationally for his seeming obsession with witchcraft and fear of a free press.  But, Futty notes, the President really likes sports and has spent money on tournaments, competitions, and rewards—including plots of land for senior players involved in noble performances against Senegal, and a prize of 1,000,000 Dalasis (about $30,000) to each of the U-17 players from their last championship.

The future

Futty’s younger cousin Saihou Gassama is one of those U-17’s, and is a player Futty thinks has a chance “to be one of the best Gambian players ever.”  Whether or not that comes to fruition will likely depend greatly on how he and the Baby Scorpions perform in the upcoming U-17 World Cup in Nigeria.  As a child Gassama would tag along with Futty to trainings for Ports, and now features for the first team himself, but being almost 10 years younger he will likely have more lucrative options for the future than a liberal arts education in Rocky Mount North Carolina.

As for Futty, he’s not sure where his own journey will end.  He loves the game, and is sure that he wants to see how far he can go.  But he also recognizes that he’s not quite there yet.  When he talks about his various experiences with the Timbers, with Burnley, in Senegal, the consistent theme is a recognition that professional soccer involves an intensity and on-field savvy that he has yet to fully develop.  He’s big, fast, coachable, and improving—certainly worthy of a chance.  But he also plans to finish the 20 credits he needs for his computer science degree from Southern Poly, and hopes to go on for a Masters before too long.

Likewise, it will be interesting to watch what happens over time with the story of soccer in The Gambia.  Being “extra-small” combined with an intense emphasis on youth soccer seems to have helped The Gambia at the youth level, but those same qualities may prohibit senior success.  It may be, however, that for a place such as The Gambia the successful niche they’ve found is enough: despite valid fears that African soccer players are at risk of exploitation in our unequal world system, Gambians such as Futty seem to be leveraging the game towards what end up being worthwhile opportunities and pretty interesting stories.  Whatever happens with the Timbers, whether or not the Baby Scorpions challenge for the U-17 World Cup next month in Nigeria, such stories will go on—just as Futty will continue his own journey through the inter-continental mash-up that is the global game.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon. Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa. He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.


Where Women’s Soccer is King

Portland Pilots logo

Perhaps my most powerful experience of soccer fandom, amidst years of following MLS, the English Premier League, and the World Cup, came in a college basketball arena at the University of Portland (UP) in the early winter of 2005.  Along with a thousand locals, I watched a projected ESPN feed from Texas of a national championship game where my little University team (~3500 students) was playing the giants of UCLA (~38000 students).  It had been a dramatic season including national team regulars, local heroes, legendary coaches, and community passion; a playoff game against Notre Dame had sold out in a matter of minutes in a frenzy of community interest, and the local news was packed with attention to each stage of the tournament.

As the championship game began the tension was palpable, only to be broken by a glorious slice of the beautiful game—92 seconds in a passing sequence created space on the opposite side of the field for a free runner to receive and finish with verve.  The crowd exploded and, as if to reward our joy, the goals kept coming.  After 90 minutes it was 4-0 Portland.  The players on the screen were pictures of ecstasy.  The basketball arena was a sea of moist eyes.  The weeks that followed included front page newspaper articles, a downtown parade, a commemorative book written by a local journalist, and the communal feeling sports fans remember for the rest of their lives.  It was, in its own way for our corner of the Pacific Northwest, England in July of 1966, Barcelona winning the European Cup, Didier Deschamps lifting the Jules Rimet trophy in Paris.  On a local level it was that rare moment when soccer in the United States means something.

And, to make it even more rare, the players were all women.

Women’s Soccer Rules

Here’s an audacious claim: The University of Portland is the only place in the world boasting high-level teams for men and women where the single most popular sport is women’s soccer.  Although I’d be pleased if someone could prove that claim false, the NCAA Division I Portland Pilots are unquestionably a rare breed.  The women’s team has been the national attendance leader in college soccer for either men’s or women’s teams for three straight years (2006, 2007, and 2008).  They significantly outdraw both a reasonably successful men’s soccer team and an improving men’s basketball team.  The Pilot women are a Portland soccer phenomenon that generates attention and loyalty of the type that WPS teams, women’s national teams, and other high-level women’s teams around the world both crave and deserve.  So what makes the Pilots outliers?  And what lessons might they offer about promoting women’s soccer, and soccer in the US more generally?

Before addressing those questions I want to acknowledge that my claims of audacious success for women’s soccer at UP are relative.  The average women’s soccer crowd is still only pushing 4,000 fans (in a stadium that seats around 4,800).  Revenue from the program is still relatively small—though I do not know the exact figures, people I talked to suggested that at best the women’s soccer program comes close to breaking even.  But the institution has continued to invest in women’s soccer because it is widely considered a positive contributor to the broader community.  The program’s devoted following includes many people outside of the university and the local soccer world.  Given the limited global attention to women’s soccer as a spectator sport, I’d argue that relative success is still worth considering as a means towards understanding how Americans come to take soccer seriously.

Background of the program

I’ve worked at the University of Portland for five years.  I’ve attended many games of both the men’s and women’s teams—but I’ve had no actual connection to the programs other than having an occasional player as a student in class.  For present purposes I consider myself a sort-of recreational ethnographer who has been collecting amateur observations throughout the years, and recently decided to make a few slightly more formal inquiries.  So last week I sat down with some of the fans and promoters of the UP women’s team, and put out a query to the “Pilot Nation” discussion board for opinions from the hardcore fans about what makes the Pilot women outliers in the American soccer world.  Although the general consensus was that the relative success of women’s soccer at Portland is “unquantifiable,” as a social scientist I think with the right interpretive lens everything can be at least effectively organized (if not fully quantified)—and, as with most cultural phenomena, that starts with some history.

Clive Charles

Clive Charles

No matter who you talk to, the Pilots’ success starts with the series of odd circumstances that made former West Ham and Cardiff City defender Clive Charles the “director of soccer” at the University of Portland (a story partially told, with some inaccuracies, in a history of several West Ham players titled East End Heroes, Stateside Kings and in another book by the same author titled The Black Hammers—relevant parts of which have been excerpted by Pilot faithful).  Charles came to Portland to play for the NASL version of the Timbers, and after a few other vagabond soccer travels had come back to town to work with youth soccer programs—initially focusing on a local high school team.

Charismatic and cocksure, when he interviewed for the job as men’s soccer coach at the University of Portland he claimed he could take the team to the “final four” of the national championships within three years.  The interviewers simply laughed.  UP was a small and quiet regional Catholic University with modest ambitions and limited athletic success.  Competing for national championships was not on the radar.  But Clive (he is still largely known around town by first name only), had a certain type of genius and some fortuitous recruits—after his hiring the men’s team made the “final four” in his second year.

The most famous of the early recruits was Kasey Keller, who in 1988 was a long-haired golden boy in at North Thurston High School in nearby Lacey Washington.  As Keller went on to an outstanding four years at UP and then to establish himself as one of the most successful American professionals, other aspiring American starlets followed—including Steve Cherundolo, Conor Casey, Heath Pearce, Kelly Gray, Luis Robles, and Nate Jaqua.  The success of the men’s program also helped inspire the construction of Merlo Field.  A simple but accommodating 4,800 capacity soccer specific stadium, opened in 1990, that on its best days creates an electric atmosphere for the game.  It’s the closest thing American soccer has to the intimate community grounds at the lower-levels of the European game.

In 1989, in a move that seems to have initially been more pragmatic than visionary, Clive added on duties as head coach of the women’s program so that he could earn some extra income and have broader control of soccer programs.  The next year a star female player from one of Clive’s youth club teams, Tiffeny Milbrett, enrolled at UP specifically to play for Clive and the women’s team quickly became a national player.  In 1995 both the men’s and women’s team made the final four, and for a number of years both programs drew a good bit of attention in the American soccer world with the men generally maintaining a slight edge in prestige.  The women were important, but not yet kings.

Villa Drum Squad

Villa Drum Squad

Somewhere along the way another thing happened at Portland that is essential to a truly great soccer experience: the team developed a creative DIY supporters group.  The legend here goes that an advisor to one of the University’s all-male dormitories had fallen in love with soccer.  He also had a particular affinity for the samba rhythms of the south American game.  So a group of students was organized into the “Villa drum squad” (named for the dormitory—Villa Maria Hall), and a true supporters culture was born—the Villa drum squad made drum beats, supporter songs, megaphones, creativity, quirky rituals, and devotion a regular part of the Portland soccer experience (a few years ago ESPN’s Graham Hays featured the Villa drum squad in more depth with one of his chronicles of American college soccer).  Every year a new crop of students were socialized into a Pilot version of European ultras, offering what all great supporters groups offer their clubs: undying support, local character, and guaranteed atmosphere.  Initially the drum squad, like Clive, was focused primarily on the men’s games, but around 2,000 the momentum began to swing towards the women.  To the credit of the Villa drum squad, an all-male group, they made the transition by tacitly acknowledging that good soccer is good soccer—regardless of gender.

Winning was a big part of this transition.  While Clive’s teams were almost always national contenders, neither the men nor the women won a national championship until the 2002 women’s team went on a run for which I am obliged to rely on the cliché “storybook.”  In August of 2000, before coaching the US men’s Olympic team to a fourth place finish in Sydney, Clive was diagnosed with prostate cancer.  Though he continued coaching, his health deteriorated.  With a 2002 squad led by Canadian international Christine Sinclair, the women’s team had a good, but not great, regular season culminating in a low seed to the national tournament.  After a bit of luck, including beating top-ranked Stanford in PK’s in the quarterfinals, the Pilots advanced to play league rival Santa Clara in the final.  The game went to overtime, at which point the regular UP goalkeeper suffered a concussion from a boot to the face.  She left the game seeing double—replaced by a freshman who had played 10 minutes all season.  While the Pilot faithful expected the worst, Clive seemed to have no doubt.  A few minutes later Sinclair finished a golden goal, and the New York Times memorialized the experience as a perverse tribute to women’s progress in sports: “Playing with pain is equal opportunity.”  It was the first ever NCAA national championship by a University of Portland team (though the women’s cross-country team had won a 1984 NAIA national championship).  Clive Charles died nine months later, just before the start of the next season.

The emotion of it all was the stuff that sports legends are made of, and the tragedy of Clive dying too young was affecting.  But, interestingly, attendance at women’s games those years was still relatively modest—they went from an average of around 1,700 in 2002 to an average of around 1,900 in 2003.  The community seemed uncertain as to whether Clive’s former lieutenants Garrett Smith and Bill Irwin (also a former player for Cardiff City) could grow the program.  The 2003 season was also good but not great, and fans might have continued to simply hold steady if not for a funny thing: Merlo Field got lights.

In 2004, despite some community concerns that night games would cause noise and congestion, the UP soccer teams fulfilled one of Clive’s dreams: to turn mundane afternoon games into festive nighttime occasions.  Though both the men’s and women’s teams had some of the main event games, the women’s program maintained its status as a national power while the men suffered from the increased opportunities for its best players to leave early for sustainable professional careers (players such as Conor Casey and Steve Cherundolo only played two years at UP—just long enough to ensure they were physically ready for Europe).  Friday nights watching the Pilots quickly became a grand occasion for women’s soccer.

Portland Pilots

As Portland Sports Information Director Jason Brough (an athletic department staffer responsible for media to do with all the University teams) told me, no matter how hard they try to explain the energy of those games to people from other places, the atmosphere UP can create for women’s soccer is something you have to experience to believe.  With 4,000-5,000 fans tightly packed and directly on top of the field, a raucous and creative student section, a stylish version of soccer emphasizing possession and dynamic movement off the ball, and elite international players also known in the community as good students and good people (including, over the course of recent years, Sinclair, Stephanie Cox (née Lopez), Megan Rapinoe, Angie Woznuk, and Sophie Schmidt), the atmosphere is addictive.  As one particularly articulate former player explains:

Where men can pursue professional soccer careers and make big money the vast majority of women are playing out the pinnacle of their careers on Merlo. They exude this when they play, they enjoy the moments, celebrate every goal, step on to the field every time as if it was the national championship final, they appreciate and recognize the phenomenal fans at Merlo.

After another magical run to that 2005 national championship, Portland soccer fans were hooked—attendance jumped to an average near 4,000 and the women’s team has been the top draw in American college soccer every year since (in recent years the men’s attendance leader has been UC Santa Barbara—but they’ve averaged several hundred fewer fans than the Pilot women).

I should note here that I do not use the above addiction metaphors loosely; the majesty of a truly great match combined with an energy of an enamored crowd is, anywhere in the world, something like a high.  Whether at Old Trafford, Azteca, the Bombonera, the Camp Nou, or Merlo Field, the actual rush is that rare and fleeting moment when all the good things about soccer coalesce: the elegance of the game, the intensity of competition, the pride of affiliation, the aesthetics of athletic excellence, the subtlety of sophisticated tactics, the transcendent feeling of taking part in something larger than one’s self.  That moment, in my experience, happens only rarely—once or twice a season in a good year.  In fact, there are plenty of UP women’s games that offer only the average entertainment and mediocre crowds.  But the highs are frequent enough to keep people coming back for more, to show up during the slog of a mid-season mismatch or the agony of losing to a lesser opponent through sheer bad luck.

The UP women’s soccer fans I asked said something similar about their experiences, emphasizing the ephemeral feelings that serve as the highlights of their fandom.  As one explained:

The closest thing I can relate this ‘feeling’ to is the spirit that surrounded the Grateful Dead in the late ’60’s and ‘70’s (when I grew up). The Grateful Dead were certainly not the most successful rock band in that era, nor did they get the most press, and they certainly weren’t the most talented group of musicians. However, they commanded a fierce and loyal following primarily because of what they stood for – family, community and watching out for others. I think that same phenomena surrounds UP’s women’s soccer team.

A list of ingredients

In my mind what makes the Pilot women an American soccer success story, and really what makes soccer work anywhere, is something like what happens on the food channel when chefs put together a great meal: they work with a set of ingredients that matter more in how they go together than in their particular individual contributions.  Here, in an approximate order of importance, are the “ingredients” that I think matter:

Winning: Being successful on the field matters.  One of the most basic academic theories of sports fandom depends upon what is called the BIRG effect (Basking In Reflected Glory).  People like to identify with winners.  The fact that the Pilot women are very good and have won the only two national championships in UP history matters.  But winning alone is not enough.  Far and away the most dominant women’s soccer program in the United States in the University of North Carolina—and though they’ve had some very good years for attendance, during their most recent run to yet another national championship they only averaged 1,600 fans a game (with free admission—though UP tickets are not overwhelmingly expensive, they do go for an average of $12 a pop and the program has sold over 1,000 season tickets a year for recent seasons).

The soccer appropriate stadium: One of the most obvious lessons of the early years of MLS was that making soccer work in the US requires stadiums that allow for a great soccer atmosphere.  That will never happen on a regular basis at gigantic American football stadiums, and it will be rare at multi-purpose stadiums where running tracks or baseball configurations separate fans from the action.  Merlo Field at UP has no luxury amenities and it will not win any awards for contemporary design.  But it does do a great job of placing reasonably sized rows of fans on top of the game on three sides of the pitch, with the fourth side appropriately lined by large pine trees that create a Pacific Northwest sense of outdoor intimacy.  The capacity of 4,800 is too small for a few big games and certain playoff contests, but for most games it seats just enough people to balance a sense of community with a sense of exclusivity.

The creative DIY supporters culture: As noted above, the Pilots have the undying support of an energetic and creative supporters group.  The Villa drum squad is a smaller and more contained version of that other excellent supporters group in town: the Timbers Army.  At their best DIY groups draw on authentic local character to creatively and artistically tribute their teams.  At other college sports events, including many basketball games at UP, the support tends to be less about creativity and more about aggression—when Gonzaga basketball comes to town fans on both sides often slip into the type of base and crude contempt that makes me worry about human nature.  But for Pilot soccer support is an art: the songs, rhythms, body paint, chants, and even the heckling is often enough a form of aesthetic expression rather than raw xenophobia.  At times with both the Villa drum squad and the Timbers Army it is not entirely clear how much attention they are actually paying to the soccer.  But their devotion and energy makes the experience exponentially better for those of us that are.

Portland Pilots

Savvy marketing: For soccer in the US to succeed it needs organic DIY supporters culture, but as Benjamin Kumming observed in his insightful comparison of the Timbers and the Sounders, soccer success also requires some intentional and inorganic promotion.  Just as the Sounders (at a much larger scale) used savvy marketing to capitalize on a vibrant local soccer culture, the University of Portland has intentionally built on the success of the Pilot women by devoting resources and personnel to women’s soccer.  There is a recognition at UP that women’s soccer alone will not be enough to enhance the broad profile of the University, but several years ago the powers-that-be did make an intentional decision to make both women’s soccer and men’s basketball as their feature programs.  That has translated into efforts such as a gigantic billboard placed at a prominent highway interchange during the 2007 season picturing the established players from the Pilots in uniform with the tag-line: “REAL FUTBOL”—a friendly jibe at the other primary sports obsession during the Fall in the Pacific Northwest: American college football.

Real Futbol

The market niche: The Pilot women fill a nice niche as the most prominent women’s team in a town that likes to consider itself a progressive (and thus generally in favor of women’s sports) soccer town.  Of course, the Pilots have to split some of that soccer crowd with the Portland Timbers.  But for the most part the Timbers crowd and the Pilot women’s crowd seem complimentary rather than competitive.  The Timbers draw proportionally more young urban professionals and hardcore soccer fans, while the Pilot women draw proportionally more UP students (obviously), families, and soccer fans interested in local human interest stories (this distinction is facilitated by the simple fact that the Timbers sell beer; lots of beer).  Though it is hard to say for sure, I’d speculate that the Timbers and the Pilot women split the lesbian crowd that women’s sports promoters sometimes target, and each has other idiosyncratic demographics: one Pilot fan and UP alum reports, for example, that the Pilot women have a following among the town’s homeless population: “many of our street friends follow the women’s soccer team closely, and they notice and pick out students wandering around downtown wearing Pilots gear. One really lovely older gentleman who suffers from intense schizophrenia once wrote the entire history of the program on a napkin for me.”

The role model thing: Through an odd amalgam of marketing, the 1999 Women’s World Cup, and the demographics of US soccer, when Americans think of elite women’s soccer players they think of role models.  There are interesting problems with this association—as evidenced by the recent blogosphere discussion of whether women’s soccer can succeed if it is considered as much a social cause as a business endeavor.  While I’ll leave that discussion (for now) to others, in my informal surveying of Pilots fans there is no question that the character of the Portland players and their ability to serve as approachable and real role models comes up regularly as an essential part of the team’s success.  The Pilot women’s players have a reputation on campus as serious students with high ambitions, and do much community work on their own initiative.  As just a single example of how much this means to the fans, one Pilot Nation contributor (whose avatar consists of a picture of Megan Rapinoe wearing a fan’s homemade Pilot purple shirt stating boldly: “Megan is my IDOL” – no last names necessary):

With all the pressures and worries facing girls today, and the need for self-esteem, the girls I know thrive on the attention they get back from the Pilots. I’ve never seen anything like it from any other team, anywhere. Autographs, souvenirs, having a star player recognize them or chat online with them or even coach them — all these factors build an emotional bond that goes beyond data or won-loss record. It’s not just a beautiful game, it’s a beautiful place to be the dad of a daughter.

Being taken seriously by males: For better or worse, most hardcore sports fans are still males.  This often creates a dilemma for promoters of women’s soccer: the classic example is the popularity of the 1999 US Women’s World Cup winners whose breakthrough popularity among men and the male dominated sports media may have been partially driven by the happenstance that many of the players fit with conventional cultural norms of physical attractiveness.  But if women’s soccer is to be taken seriously it must be about much more than looks; FIFA President Sepp Blatter was roundly and justly criticized when he claimed that the women’s game would really benefit from “tighter uniforms.”  Though fans of the Pilot women may notice the physical attractiveness of the players, I have been generally impressed with how little that issue seems to come up among adult fans.  Likewise, among youth fans there are often as many boy youth players at Pilot women’s games as girl youth players—it was a U-10 boys team that recently won an auction to get to train with the Pilot women, and the pictures I saw of 9 year old boys ecstatic to be warming-up with their (female) soccer heroes seemed to me a striking tribute to gender progress.  Honestly, I have yet to figure out how the Pilot women are able to get a nearly unquestioning respect as athletes rather than as objects when too many other female athletes do not—but they do.

Playing attractive (and comprehensible) soccer: The Pilot coaches, from Clive to present, have put a priority on playing an attacking, dynamic, possession oriented version of the beautiful game—a women’s soccer version of Arsene Wenger’s “Champagne football.”  The women’s version, however, has an added benefit for the casual American fan—it takes place at a slower pace.  Many Pilot fans told me that the more controlled pace is a benefit to both youth players and fans without a deep history in the game.  In those cases the pace of the women’s game, its more tactical and less physical dimensions, allows for a satisfying comprehension.  It also means that lesser teams cannot get by on sheer hustle and effort, making for many goal-fests with 5-0 score lines.  For better or worse, to the casual fan lots of goals means lots of fun.

The lessons?

There are some other factors that go into the relative success of the Pilot women, and one might easily draw the conclusion that the peculiarities of the situation at Portland is not replicable.  But I would suggest that while the women’s soccer story at UP is indeed unique, all good stories still have a moral.  For me, the moral here is that the success of women’s soccer depends on striking that delicate balance between allowing space for that which is globally compelling about the beautiful game to co-evolve with the local strengths of people, institutions, and communities.  I suspect that a league such as the WPS will never succeed by depending on catchy branding, fashion forward thinking, or short-term business models alone; those things matter, but only as part of historical narratives, competitive highs, community connections, and long-term character.  The kinds of things that, at their core, have no gender.

Still, after all this analysis, I feel obliged to admit what now seems like a dirty secret: in many ways I personally continue to enjoy watching men’s soccer more than women’s soccer.  Having enough of an experienced eye to appreciate a faster pace and more even contests, when the Pilot women jump out to a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes against an inferior opponent I find many of the games anti-climatic.  But there is no question at Merlo Field which games have the better energy and atmosphere, which team creates the more compelling stories, nor which team is more likely to moisten my eyes: at Portland women’s soccer is king.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon. Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa. He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

Q&A with the Portland Timbers’ Amos Magee

Amos Magee

Amos Magee. Photo by Brian Quarstad.

I’ve known Portland Timbers Director of Soccer Development and Assistant Coach Amos Magee for 15 years.  He played for me both with the A-League Minnesota Thunder and several times as a call up with the Chicago Fire.  Amos was one of the most tenacious and savvy players I’ve ever known.  His playing and coaching experiences in USL, MLS and indoor soccer over the last two decades give him a unique perspective on all levels of soccer in the United States.

Working alongside Timbers General Manager and Head Coach Gavin Wilkinson, Magee has seen the Timbers put together a USL first division record 24 game undefeated streak that has Portland atop the USL1 standings with three games, all at home, remaining in the regular season.  The Timbers will join Major League Soccer as an expansion team in 2011.

peter wilt: You had several runs in MLS as well as a long career in what is now USL1.  What adjustments are needed by a player when going from USL1 to MLS?  What are the main differences between the Leagues?

Amos Magee:  I think both leagues have improved a lot since I retired (in 2003).  The USL 1st Division has made great strides with established players joining from all over the world.  This year in Portland, we have added Johan Claesson, a 28 year old midfielder who has played over 25 games a year in the Swedish Premier League for the last 4-5 years.  When we won the A-League Championship in Minnesota in 1999, one of our key players was Morgan Zeba, a Swedish midfielder who was developed at Malmo FC but never played 1st team games.  While Morgan was a very good player, he did not arrive with the same experience and resume as Johan.  A player with Johan’s resume is no longer the exception to the rule in the USL 1st Division.  However, the top end of MLS rosters tend to be a lot better than USL1 rosters.  Beyond these 7 or 8 players it is close.  On any given day a USL-1 can compete with the best in MLS, but overall, MLS is the better league with better players.  The adjustment for me was going from the top end of the Thunder roster to a squad player in MLS even though I was in my prime as a player.  I was mature enough to deal with this readjustment but it was difficult.  My training habits improved.  My knowledge of the game improved, but I was never able to get consistent minutes in MLS.

pjw:  You’ve played and coached with some very well respected coaches.  What have you taken from the likes of Buzz Lagos, Bob Bradley, Dave Sarachan and Gavin Wilkinson?

AM:  All of these coaches are very different and have very different strengths.  From Buzz I learned a great deal about treating people with respect and maintain patience.  The patience to deal with adversity and the patience to deal with personalities.  I also learned that you need to be yourself and to surround yourself with people that believe in you.  Our core in Minnesota, that was so successful for so many years, all believed in Buzz and believed in his manner of doing things.  That didn’t mean that we always agreed with him, but it meant that we respected him enough to try it his way first.  And more often than not it was successful.  I spent far less time with Bob and Dave.  However I was struck by Bob’s preparation and honesty.  I always knew where I stood with him.  And I always felt I went on to the field with a very good idea of what I needed to do to be successful.  My relationship with Dave was much more personal and I felt that he gave me invaluable advice as I transitioned from playing to coaching.  Gavin has been fantastic to work with.  He is very detail oriented.  He has an amazing capacity to look at minute details while still not losing track of the big picture.  Our strengths and weaknesses tend to complement each other very well and it has been a great working relationship this season.

pjw:  How do Portland’s supporters compare to other home supporters you’ve played or coached for.

AM:  I have a ton of love and respect for the Thunder supporters.  The Dark Clouds have been great for Minnesota and have been very supportive of me in my career as a player and a coach.  I will always feel that way about all of the Minnesota Thunder fans.  That said, I am in awe of what the Timbers Army and the Portland soccer fans are up to out here.  It is unlike anything in our league and to be honest, I have not felt this atmosphere in other MLS stadiums.  The Fire fans in Section 8 are incredible and the DC United fans are intimidating as they bounce and shake the stands at RFK, but the Timbers Army will set the bar in MLS as they have done here in USL-1.  The numbers, volume, creativity and interest is amazing.  I can’t wait for the rest of the country to see the Timbers Army in 2011

pjw:  Can you compare the Seattle/Portland rivalry to anything else you’ve experienced?  How will Portland differ from Seattle culturally in MLS?

AM:  The US Open Cup 3rdRound game vs. Seattle sold out in less than two weeks… what more can you say?  It has some nastiness that straddles the line of being an intense rivalry and going overboard, but for sheer enthusiasm and intensity, it makes the old MN-Milwaukee rivalry seem like an afterschool special.  These games in 2011 and beyond will make the Brimstone/SuperClasico/Tor-Columbus look tame.  I think Portland and the Timbers Army fancy themselves as the alternative to the successful and carefully managed Sounders marketing explosion.  I think Portland soccer fans feel that the Timbers’ support is more organic and homegrown than Seattle and that because of this support, the sentiment and emotion run much deeper.  However, organic or not, we will be very happy to average 28,000 people in 2011.  Throw Vancouver into the mix and you will have a new dynamic that MLS just hasn’t yet seen.  Everyone in MLS and US Soccer should be salivating at the thought of these games and what they will bring to the soccer landscape in N. America.

pjw:  You starred at Wesleyan, a small Division-3 school in Connecticut.  What were the advantages and challenges of playing at a small school off the radar of the major US soccer observers?

AM:  As a player that developed and matured much later than most, going to a D-3 school fit me perfectly.  I started and played every game over my four-year career and was asked to carry a major load as a freshman and beyond.  This responsibility and attention, coupled with a supporting role during the summers with the Minnesota Thunder (which was an amateur team at this point) really helped me develop.  I was fortunate that I was involved with the Thunder while at Wesleyan so I wasn’t completely off the radar and had a well positioned road to further development during and after my four years at Wesleyan.  The sheer joy of playing college soccer at Wesleyan and in the NESCAC was unmatched.

pjw:  You’ve played in at least four classic games involving USL teams in your career.  Please tell us your memories of each:

August 15, 1994  The USISL Championship game.  Greensboro scored first, but the Minnesota Thunder got the equalizer at 45:31 when Gerard Lagos scored from 12 yards off a pass from you.  Playing in front of a record UNC Greensboro Stadium crowd of 5,159, the teams battled to a 1-1 standstill through regulation, two overtimes and a five rounds of shootout attempts.  Then the Dynamo’s Brian Japp squibbed the ball through John Swallen’s legs to send the crowd into a frenzy.

Magee was an intense forward in his playing days and is the Minnesota Thunder's all-time leading goal scorer.

Magee was an intense forward in his playing days and is the Minnesota Thunder's all-time leading goal scorer.

AM:  I’ve always prided myself on playing well in big games.  This was the Thunder’s first championship game and we were undefeated over the course of the season.  Greensboro was the defending champion and had a packed house.  One of my lasting memories, unfortunately, was that I scored the go-ahead goal in the 2nd half but the center referee called it back for offside that was not flagged by the assistant referee.  The video also later proved that it wasn’t offside and so, 15 years later, I’m still bitter.

September 4, 1995 The USISL Championship game.  You scored the Minnesota Thunder’s lone goal in the game, but Long Island Roughriders forward Giovanni Savarese scored on a Chris Armas feed with only six seconds left to give the Rough Riders a 2-1 victory in the USISL championship game.  In addition to you, Armas and Savarese, Tony Meola, Manny Lagos and Tony Sanneh played in that game and all went on to MLS.

AM:  Still bitter about this one as well.  Losing on a goal with six seconds left (that year the USISL experimented with a clock that counts down so I know that there was exactly six seconds left when Armas scored) is pretty hard to take.  It was made a little bit easier when I played with Kevin Anderson in Minnesota and  Chris Armas in Chicago and learned that they are both outstanding guys.  I have to imagine that the final was one of the higher quality games played in the US pre-MLS.  I still think we were the better team, but I would guess that Chris and Kevin might disagree.

October 16, 1999 You assisted on both goals as the Minnesota Thunder earned the A-League Championship by edging the Rochester Rhinos 2-1.   Minnesota’s goals were three minutes apart spanning intermission to defeat the defending champs in front of 9,987 fans at the National Sports Center in Blaine, MN.

AM:  Much less bitter about this game, surprisingly.  Our rivalry with the Rhinos in the late 90’s was epic.  Both teams were very good and played attractive soccer.  After losing in three finals and one semi-final, the immediate feeling was more a sense of relief than excitement although that soon followed.  Winning our first and only championship in front of our home Minnesota crowd was the cherry on top.  I felt that I played particularly well that day.  In all facets of the game it was one of my better ones.  Come to think about it, everyone on the Thunder played well that night and considering Rochester had knocked off four MLS teams on their way to the US Open Cup championship, it’s easy to say that we beat one of the best teams in the US in 1999.

July 24, 2001. The Chicago Fire defeated the Pittsburgh Riverhounds of the A-League 3-2 in the quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. A standing room only crowd of 2,500 fans at Wheaton College witnessed your golden goal game-winner in the 111th minute off your chest.  The goal made you a bit of a folk hero to long time Fire fans and earned you the nickname “Chesty” Magee.

Magee scored one of the biggest US Open Cup goals in Chicago Fire history.

Magee scored one of the biggest US Open Cup goals in Chicago Fire history.

AM:  This was one of my favorite moments of my career.  Mostly because I have the video and featured prominently on this video is Hristo Stoitchkov celebrating my game-winning goal like it was the 1994 World Cup.  Even though he never knew my name and only called me “#5”, that doesn’t really matter.  I had been called up by the Fire earlier in the competition and when the game wore on and stayed tied I really figured I had no chance of playing.  When Bob Bradley called me over and started giving me instructions, I think I might even have thought, “Are you sure?”  But once I got on the field the adrenaline and excitement took over. The in-swinging ball played across the box by Sergi Daniv was perfect and I just concentrated on making solid contact with it.  It happened to be with my chest and the contact was solid enough to slip past a goalkeeper playing out of his mind.  The crowd at Wheaton was among the best and loudest I’ve played in front of.  I still get people coming up to me and telling me that they were at that game.  It’s amazing that it is remembered so fondly by people other than me.

pjw:  Do any other games you played or coached in stick out as clearly as these four?

AM:  After laboring on the bench for a year-and-a-half in Tampa with the Mutiny, the lifeline Bob Bradley gave my MLS career was much appreciated.  In 2002 he called me up for several games and I scored two goals against Columbus at North Central College.  The Fire won 5-4 and I was a finalist as the MLS Player of the week as an A-League call up.  There was a Cinderella feel to my brief Chicago Fire career and for that reason I really love the club and its fans.  The strong relationship between the Fire and Timbers fans only make it sweeter.

pjw:  In December 2007, you coached the US Maccabi squad to the gold medal of the 2007 Pan American Maccabiah in Buenos Aires.  How did you get this opportunity and what’s your favorite memory of the games?

AM:  The Pan-Am Maccabi games and the World Maccabiah are incredible tournaments.  I have as many amazing memories and friendships from these tournaments as I do from my professional career.  I played for the US team and coach Seth Roland in 1993, winning a bronze medal; coached with Survivor winner Ethan Zohn in Chile in 2003; assisted (SDSU Men’s Coach) Lev Kirshner  in the 2005 Maccabiah Games where we won a silver (with US National Team members, Benny Feilhaber and Johnny Bornstein); and coached the US Team in the 2007 Pan American Maccabi games in Argentina with US Maccabi legend Kevin Friedland serving as captain.  It has been a very successful relationship with US Sports for Israel and I am as proud of my relationship and success with the US Maccabi teams as I am of anything I accomplished in my career.

pjw:  In what ways could MLS and USL1 better work together to each other’s mutual benefit?

AM:  We have worked quite well with Real Salt Lake agreeing upon a yearlong loan deal for Alex Nimo.  Our working relationship with Adrian and Chris at Seattle is outstanding as well.  Our relationships with other MLS teams and staffs are also thriving based on common goals and long-standing relationships.  However,  I think that under the current set up of leagues (which on the USL end seems to be under more uncertainty than usual), relegation and promotion will never happen. Still, competitions like the US Open Cup and CONCACAF champion’s league will help grow the rivalry between leagues and increase the level of American soccer.

pjw: What do those in the Portland camp (players, coaches and staff) think about the impending elevation to MLS — how have they taken it?  Excitement mixed with uncertainty?

AM: It’s been an interesting time in Portland this year.  I think the Timbers/ PGE Park staff has done a very good job of balancing the 2009 season and the impending move to MLS.  They have not dropped the ball on game day operations or ticket/sponsorship sales and the behind the scenes work necessary get our organization ready for MLS continues to move forward.  Furthermore, the players and coaching staff have been very focused on the here and now.  There are no guarantees for any of us and so we concentrate on what we have some control over which are our performances this season.  We all know that the better we perform, the higher the likelihood that we’ll be considered for 2011 and beyond.  I think all of us feel that there will be plenty of time to worry about the future, but that our opportunity to do something amazing here in Portland is in the present.  There is a single-mindedness to Gavin’s and my approach and it has been something of a relief to be honest.  Worrying about 2009 is job enough.  I think that 2010 will be a difficult year.  After talking to people in Seattle, I know that the USL Sounders had a difficult time staying focused on their final season in 2008 with so much going on.  However, I have a lot of confidence in the core group of players we have in place and their ability to stay engaged and focused.  I think when you play in front of 12,000 screaming fans, you can’t help but compete in the present.  But first things first, and that is clinching the league regular season title and winning the USL-1 championship.

pjw: The early Thunder teams throughout the 1990s were uniquely local and successful.  What were the keys to their success and can it be replicated in other states…including Minnesota?

AM:  It is always tough to talk about a model working from one generation to another.  The success that Ajax had in the early 70s is no longer possible due to the changing demographics of professional soccer.  In Minnesota in the early 90s we had an experienced core of players and a very talented young core led by Tony Sanneh and Manny Lagos.  The evolution of our young core mirrored the evolution of the USL and we grew into being a very competitive team in a competitive league.  I think the USL 1st and 2nd Division has gotten too good for a young core that all grew up together to move into that professional environment together right after college, but the PDL should be able to help a strong nucleus grow into talented professionals.

pjw:  You played professionally indoors with the Milwaukee Wave, the oldest professional soccer franchise in the United States.  What were the challenges and benefits of playing year round indoor/outdoor soccer?

AM:  I loved my year with the Milwaukee Wave.  It is a very different game and the learning curve can be pretty steep.  I signed my first professional contract in Milwaukee and I learned a lot about becoming a professional soccer player there.  I became a stronger player and spent a lot more time in the weight room trying to add something, anything, to my 5’7 135lb frame.  I played off and on that season and experienced the normal roller coaster of a rookie athlete.  However, there were good veterans on the team and Keith Tozer was a lot of fun to play for.  As much as I enjoyed the indoor game and my time in Milwaukee, it takes its toll on your body.  Bouncing back and forth between the leagues is very difficult.  I played two years of indoor soccer and that was enough for me.

pjw:  Thank you very much Amos for taking the time to answer these questions and all the best throughout the rest of the 2009 USL1 campaign.

I hope to do a Q&A once a month with someone from the U.S. soccer landscape who may fly under the radar of the mainstream soccer world, but has a unique perspective on the state of the sport.  If you have suggestions, please leave them in the comment section below or email them to me at pwilt@chicagoredstars.com.  Have a great week!

Editor’s Note: Chicago Red Stars President and CEO Peter Wilt writes weekly for Pitch Invasion.

DIY or Prefab? Portland, Seattle and Success in American Soccer Culture

On July 23rd, the City Council of Portland, Oregon approved a plan to renovate PGE Park, home of USL-1 side Portland Timbers. The renovation and expansion of the long-time home of the Timbers was a point of contention – a requirement if the Timbers were to host MLS games at PGE Park, but one that required city financing. And so, as the mayor was paraded before the raucous Timbers Army, Portland’s supporters’ umbrella group, and the club-record 14,000 in attendance, fans rightfully celebrated their impending berth in North America’s top-flight soccer league.

However, with the good news there will now come inevitable comparisons with the Timbers’ primary rival, and MLS expansion case study, the nearby Seattle Sounders. And these comparisons make Timbers fans bristle. You see, while Seattle’s inaugural MLS season has been an undoubted success, Portlanders are suffering through what amounts to a sporting version of the overlooked younger sibling. They have been toiling away in the deep darkness of USL soccer for years, growing one of the largest supporters sections in any league in the US, and all through grassroot organization. But in a few months of Seattle Sounders MLS soccer, Portland has been overshadowed by what is, by all accounts, MLS’ most successful expansion to date.

A Historic Rivalry

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Soccer in the two cities shares a similar history, dating back to the mid-seventies halcyon of the NASL. The Sounders and Timbers were admitted as expansion franchises in 1974 and 1975 and folded in 1982 and 1983 respectively, as the league disintegrated.

In the years after, as North American soccer died and was reborn and moved inside and back outside and died again, seemingly without end, teams from both cities competed in the alphabet soup of interim leagues, like the WSA, WSL, ASL, and ASPL. It was not until the USSF firmly established the United Soccer Leagues and a federation-run pyramid that the teams found stability. In the USL A-League (the nation’s top-flight until MLS was formed) the Seattle Sounders name and logo was rededicated in 1994, and the Timbers followed suit some seven years later in 2001.

In the A-League (later renamed USL First Division), Seattle proved to be a strong force, winning four League Championships and reaching US Open Cup semifinals three times. Portland, on the other hand, struggled mightily, never winning the league, or making it past the 4th round of the Open Cup. The Timbers’ greatest success was winning the 2004 A-League Western Division.

Off the field, however, the results were reversed. Seattle struggled to attract crowds over 3,000 for their entire existence, averaging closer to 2,000 around the turn of the millennium. Their highest average attendance came in their inaugural A-League season, 1994, with 6,347. Otherwise, the average for their entire existence in the A-League/USL-1 was 3,194.

Compare that with the Timbers, who’ve averaged nearly twice that in their seven years of USL soccer: 6,235. In fact, in ’07 and ’08, the Timbers have been the second highest drawing team in USL, behind only Montreal (who miraculously draw well over 10,000 regularly because French Canada is just inexplicable). The Timbers also became considerably well ingrained into the city’s sports consciousness, having only to compete with NBA’s Trailblazers and Triple-A baseball.

Crowning the large crowds (large by our modest standards, of course) is the Timbers Army, who occupy the North End of the stadium and have built a reputation for being among the most active supporters in any league in the United States — a recent “animated” tifo display, in which a 20-foot lumberjack clad in Timbers green chopped down a replica of the Seattle Space Needle, made waves in the deep recesses of the internet reserved for American soccer talk.

Guerrilla Marketing

All of that work, though, and the Timbers Army’s brick-by-brick construction of their club’s identity, has been eclipsed by the sudden appearance of a soccer marketing giant to the north, where before there had been little comparison between the two.

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Seattle Sounders FC is going gangbusters since their “promotion” to MLS this season, both on the field in MLS and in the stands (and in the bank and in the city and in the news). In contrast to their meager USL days, the MLS Sounders have drawn average crowds near 30,000 in their 10 home matches this season. Yes. 30,000. You read that correctly (the semi-official number is 29,983.90, but all those zeroes look better in print). You may be doing some quick math in your head right now, so I’ll give you a moment to work it all out.

In the meantime, note that MLS’ previous best-team-ever-everybody-look-at-that, Toronto FC, are averaging 20,277 (probably as a function of stadium capacity – they’d draw more if they could). Have you done the math yet? The MLS Sounders are drawing almost ten-times as many fans than they did just last year, in the same stadium, with the same name. So what gives? Well, that’s what the Timbers Army wants to know when they chant “Where were you last year?!” at the seas of Sounders fans at Qwest Field.

A perfect storm settled over Seattle in 2008, at least as far as Seattle Sounders FC ownership group (faced by mascot Drew Carey but mainly backed by Hollywooder Joe Roth, along with Adrian Hanauer and Microsoft founder Paul Allen) were concerned. Seattle’s oldest sports team, gridiron’s Seattle Seahawks, were suffering a miserable season winning only four games and missing the playoffs by a mile and a half. Baseball’s Mariners had been nothing more than mediocre for some time. Most importantly, however, was the departure for Oklahoma City of the city’s most successful and nationally renowned sports team, the NBA’s SuperSonics. That left a huge gaping hole in Seattle’s sports consciousness.

The Sounders plugged that hole with scarves. In a “guerilla marketing” maneuver, engineered by Seattle-based Wexley School for Girls (a jocularly named “alt” ad and marketing agency), thousands of Seattle Sounders FC branded scarves were disseminated around the metropolitan area and fans were encouraged to display them publicly in a Scarf Seattle campaign.

The maneuver worked, and the city’s mailboxes, balconies, and shop windows were all a-flutter with the blue and green scarves. Through special offers to groups, Seahawks season ticket holders, and the like, the Sounders managed to sell 13,000 season tickets in a matter of weeks. While some of the announced tickets were actually Seahawks holders who had simply not-yet-passed-up their special offer, the number created buzz, and the momentum kept the sales sky-rocketing. By season’s start, there were nearly 20,000 legitimate Sounders season ticket holders. Throughout the city, posters, schedules and bar signs began popping up and a giant scarf was hung from a highway overpass. It was a perfect modern marketing gimmick: make the buzz, and the buzz makes sales, even if the product is totally unknown.

scarf-seattle

And therein lies the rub for the Timbers Army and their DIY culture down the road. Seattle’s initial success was the result of expensive marketing. John Keatley’s blog is an insider’s look that innocently enough details a stage of the campaign in which, since there were no available press photos of Sounders fans, a cartoon modeling company was hired to make the background for a billboard. Tellingly, Portlanders refer to Sounders fans as “customers,” characterizing them as simply having been the victims of good advertising. But the complaints go deeper than street-marketing.

Do It Yourself

In the strange marketplace and cultural space of American soccer, the idea of authenticity has become vital to supporters and fans. Many fan groups around the country have struggled hard to develop an identity, often at odds with the management groups of their supported clubs that, in the early days, insisted on clean family-friendly atmospheres, hoping to cash in on the soccer-mom and youth team market. This has made the DIY ethic a point of pride for many North American supporters groups, who view the trials and tribulations of the past as battles won. For example, many supporters groups in MLS have had to make their own team merchandise and even large flags and banners, paying out of association dues. The Timbers Army are perhaps the epitome of this sense of DIY pride, especially considering that they’ve labored in anonymity in the lower divisions. In many ways, to Timbers supporters, the sudden success of Seattle Sounders FC seems to represent the opposite of this mentality.

Timbers Army Banners

Timbers Army Banners

Meanwhile, within the stadium, Seattle’s games are conducted under much pomp and circumstance – a marching band, the Sound Wave, marches with fans into the stadium prior to kick off, green and blue confetti is shot from cannons overhead as the team is announced, and canned music blares out of the PA throughout the proceedings. The stadium announcer reads a dramatic script in a (presumably authentic) posh English accent, not unlike Robin Leach of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. And amidst all this, fans hold aloft their uniform team-granted scarves. Overhead, large branded tarps cover unused seats in the top tier — a good use of dead space, except that one of them features goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, who plays for the Kansas City Wizards.

The whole ordeal feels as orchestrated as The Lion King On Ice. It is, without a doubt, a choreographed and controlled game experience – the antithesis to the anarchic, heady and wild experience so many supporters groups have struggled for years to engender in other stadia, not only in Portland, but also in Chicago, DC and other MLS markets. It’s no wonder the Sounders Experience has been derided as plastic, prefabricated, and shallow.

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Seattle's Marching Band

That said, such derision is in some sense the product of envy. Seattle is what every American soccer team strives to be – appreciated by the city and treated as a sporting equal to other major sports, supported by regular sell out crowds, carried on local broadcast television, with a highly visible presence in the market. Seattle is strewn with Sounderphernalia, from team gear in the Space Needle gift shop to a branded Budweiser sign in every bar. Restaurants advertise televised games to draw customers. In most MLS cities, teams are lucky to have more than one “soccer bar” through which to market and build community, and it’s rare one can find merchandise available anywhere but at the stadium.

Teams in MLS sit across an uncomfortable dichotomy: one at play in the Northwest, but representing the entire soccer culture — that between supporters (being those fans who participate regularly in supporters’ sections, singing, displays of tifo and pyrotechnics and the like) and casual fans. The problem is that there simply are not enough supporters in any given American market to alone make a team profitable. Instead, much like the majority of attendees at an NBA or MLB game are not season ticket holding, chest painting, laid-off Ford plant workers, the casual fan has long been the holy grail for MLS. Drawing a group of 20,000 fans — diehard supporters or not — each and every match is what will make MLS teams profitable, more pervasive in the sports consciousness, and permanent.

On the other hand, however, as in all sports it is the wildly zealous and colorful die-hard fans that generate a team’s sense of identity and make the experience unique. You need only look to two-team baseball markets to find how the cultures of teams differ from club to club. Soccer’s single biggest asset, the thing that makes it a unique sport experience (and thus a unique return on your entertainment dollar) are the supporters. No other sport in North America produces a similar fan environment to the supporters sections in MLS from DC to Chicago to the newer expansion teams, not even close.

Thankfully, many soccer teams in the States are beginning to realize this, and are slowly undoing years of adversarial relations by trying to encourage the growth of supporters sections. After all, while the moms and dads will be the largest paying group, none of them will pay as often and as repeatedly as the supporters, and none will broadcast the brand as fervently. The Timbers’ highest attendance came in 2008, the year the team finished dead last in the table. These groups are the permanent kernel of the team’s identity, which is absolutely vital to the survival of an underdog sport like soccer in America.

Of course, Qwest Field in Seattle is not exactly populated solely by Mariners fans who wandered into the wrong stadium. The Emerald City Supporters group was founded in 2005, back when the Sounders were a USL franchise. Still active today, the ECS has grown into an umbrella organization representing various supporters’ clubs that occupy what has become known as the Brougham End, behind the southern goal. As do all other supporters groups, they organize tifo, stand, and sing, and just as Qwest Field is near capacity, the sections occupied by the ECS have been full for every MLS game — even if they get their tifo upside down upon occasion.

Scarves Up in Seattle

Scarves Up in Seattle

It is at the intersection of these two sectors where MLS pay-dirt lays. For while ECS and Seattle’s soccer-knowledgable hard core perhaps face an uphill battle to impart some personality on their squeaky clean new top-flight team, the Timbers Army will face a struggle to meld their raucous, foul mouthed energy with the family crowd the Timbers will need in MLS. In a recent interview in the Oregonian, Timbers owner Merrit Paulson saluted the Scarf Seattle campaign as a huge success, saying it will “go down in history as one of the all-time great marketing campaigns… that campaign, ultimately resulting in everybody bringing all the scarves to the games, was in my mind of the great examples of brilliant marketing. And we may take elements of that.”

It’s no secret that the success in Seattle has made every MLS executive sit up and begin taking furious notes, hoping to glean some bit of knowledge or luck that will draw that elusive beast, the average American sports fan, out of its armchair. Portland will want him just as much Seattle does, as will Vancouver and Philly, and as does the frustrated bulk of MLS teams from floundering franchises like New York and Dallas to clubs on the cusp like Chicago, Houston and DC.

So while the Timbers Army can bemoan having been overlooked, and MLS fans can have a go at Seattle’s preposterous game day fanfare and the newly minted fans with their team supplied scarves, Seattle is still out drawing all other MLS markets by a long shot. Here’s the rub, and the moral that risks going unnoticed. The true goal of all MLS teams, Seattle and Portland included, should be a melding of these two approaches. After all, marketing puts asses in seats, but the atmosphere created by dedicated, Do-It-Yourselfing supporters, the thing that makes soccer unique against an increasingly noisy sports market, gets them to come back. Shooting confetti from cannons does not.

For more trenchant cultural analysis of just about anything, catch Benny and friends at Running Downhill

Of course, Qwest Field in Seattle is not exactly populated solely by Mariners fans who wandered into the wrong stadium. The Emerald City Supporters group was founded in 2005, back when the Sounders were a USL franchise. Still active today, the ECS has grown into an umbrella organization representing various supporters’ clubs that occupy what has become known as the Brougham End, behind the southern goal. As do all other supporters groups, they organize tifo, stand, and sing, and just as Qwest Field is near capacity, the sections occupied by the ECS have been full for every MLS game – even if they get their tifo upside down upon occasion.

It is at the intersection of these two sectors where MLS pay-dirt lays. For while ECS and Seattle’s soccer-knowledgable hard core perhaps face an uphill battle to impart some personality on their squeaky clean new top-flight team, the Timbers Army will face a struggle to meld their raucous, foul mouthed energy with the family crowd the Timbers will need in MLS. In a recent interview in the Oregonian, Timbers owner Merrit Paulson saluted the Scarf Seattle campaign as a huge success, saying it will “go down in history as one of the all-time great marketing campaigns… that campaign, ultimately resulting in everybody bringing all the scarves to the games, was in my mind of the great examples of brilliant marketing. And we may take elements of that.” It’s no secret that the success in Seattle has made every MLS executive, and those yet to be, sit up and begin taking furious notes, hoping to glean some bit of knowledge or luck that will draw that elusive beast, the average American sports fan, out of its armchair. Portland will want him just as much Seattle does, as will Vancouver and Philly, and as does the frustrated bulk of MLS teams from floundering franchises like New York and Dallas to clubs on the cusp like Chicago, Houston, and DC.


American Soccer: A Little Bit Dangerous?

Does soccer need more ‘danger’ to sell in the United States to the right demographic?

Comments made by former MLS Commissioner Doug Logan to the Oregonian in this regard made waves recently. “Soccer audiences at their best have got to be a little dangerous,” Logan said. “It’s three guys with a beer cursing at the guy on the field. It’s not a family activity. If you want a family activity, go to the circus.”

Logan further criticised the reliance of MLS teams on group ticket sales to youth soccer groups. ”Success at the gate has to have a tribal following and not just a van of soccer-playing kids who come to one game a year,” Logan said. “If your business model depends on youth soccer, it won’t be enough.”

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This might seem an obvious statement to fans outside the U.S., but for years, soccer marketers in MLS have mainly been all too on message that the sport is a family-focused activity based on appealing to youth soccer. In recent years, that’s begun to change league-wide, and Logan was recognising that, albeit clumsily.

Yet Logan’s comments were curious in that he himself was MLS Commissioner during the period of its launch years that most of its teams — DC and Chicago excepted — were attempting to sell the sport solely as a family activity, and doing little but alienating the 18-34 adult demographic in their pursuit of the youth soccer crowd: which led to most MLS teams cracking down on anything that might potentially alienate their own stereotyped view of a sensitive soccer mom, who’d be frightened away at the mere hint of a swear word.

We can all get along

While he did not address the league’s past failures, it seems that what Logan really meant to do was point to the fact that MLS teams do now need to market more to adults who like to drink beer and come out to matches with friends to support their team week in-week out, rather than solely to families and youth soccer team groups — especially if the aim is building a strong season ticketholder base. What he failed to acknowledge was that this doesn’t necessarily exclude attracting families and children elsewhere to the rest of the stadium, and that many of them can also be passionate  fans themselves.

In a recent interview on du Nord, the Fire’s former President and current Red Stars President Peter Wilt explained that the two demographics can co-exist, with some effort to grow understanding on both sides.

The two most important audiences in American soccer are suburban families, which are traditionally conservative and sensitive to vulgarities and rowdy behavior, and young, urban, male, passionate fans who like and partake in extreme behavior. It’s two extremes that are oftentimes seated side by side. It’s ironic that they have this dichotomy while their end goal is the same: supporting the team they love to victory.

Throughout my time with the Fire, the key I found was communication. I get most credit for my dealings with Section 8 — with the young, urban, passionate fans — but I spent just as much time dealing with the suburban soccer community. It’s important that both constituencies understand each other and that they’re empathetic to each other.

Interestingly, this was a similar point to one made by Portland Timbers owner Merrit Paulson in an interview also published in the Oregonian this week, in which he deliberately played down the ‘danger’ of American soccer when asked about Logan’s comment that soccer support needed to be “a little bit dangerous.”

I disagree with that, strongly. I strongly disagree with that. That sort of plays to the worst stereotypes. But I understand the point, and I just think he’s trying to make the point in a flamboyant manner.

And the point that I agree with is a model that just targets soccer moms and youth soccer is an inherently flawed model. Those people spend their lives going to soccer games every weekend. Trying to target them for season tickets is the wrong way to go.

Now, the reality is, you’re going to get some of those folks. One hundred percent, you need a family environment. I don’t know if you could see a better family environment than Seattle right now. It’s one big party.

But in my mind, soccer is about the new America. It’s a younger demographic, by and large. The 20- to 30-somethings, more urban, is definitely a sweet spot. But families and sports fans and suburbanites are very much a target. And it’s a really unique sporting experience. I don’t think it needs to be dangerous.

What I’d say to that is, we have a section of our supporters, the Timbers Army, which adds to the ambiance, adds to the atmosphere, and I would not suggest that families sit there, with kids. So you need to have different environments for different people. And that’s part of the show, the Timbers Army.

So I would agree with him to the extent that there’s probably a section that’s not a family-oriented section. You get a lot of the European flair here — especially in Portland, even more so than in Seattle, in terms of the standing and the chanting and the synchronized chanting.

It’s never been clear to me why it’s been so difficult for so many MLS executives at the team and league level to figure out that the two demographics are not mutually exclusive, as Wilt and Paulson explain. One section or even end of ‘rowdy’ fans isn’t going to put-off most families attending in the rest of the stadium; in fact, the unique atmosphere that supporters’ groups engender is only likely to improve the spectacle and differentiate a soccer game from the other sports youth groups and families attend.

Kevin Payne, DC United’s supremo, figured this out back in MLS’ inaugural season, 1996, and ever since, DC has had strong support and solid attendance.  I interviewed Payne last year, and explained how they facilitated the supporters’ groups who created the most passionate support in MLS at the time. “The biggest difference between our approach and the rest of the league was that we set out from the beginning to appeal to people who already cared about soccer, whether they were American fans of the game or came from another country with a love for the game,” Payne said. “We thought there were enough people like that to be successful. Part of our philosophy was not expecting to attract non-believers.”

Chicago Fires Section 8

Chicago Fire's Section 8

Unfortunately, the rest of the league largely ignored this approach, aside from expansion team the Chicago Fire under Wilt, who in 1998 launched to strong attendance numbers and worked with the Barn Burners and the Polish Ultras ’98 (later standing in Section 8 together) who helped develop the Fire’s identity as a club with their tailgates, tifo displays and vibrant support.

In neither DC nor Chicago, despite the existence of strong supporters’ groups, were families and youth soccer groups sidelined as a result or scared away en masse. That’s not to say there was never a balancing act or some explaining to do by the front office, but all it takes is good communication and an effort by the club to connect with both sides.

Again, though, much of the league ignored this success, presumably petrified that the perceived ‘danger’ of supporters’ groups would scare off their dwindling youth soccer crowds. Obstruction to supporters culture based on a customer service rep occasionally receiving a few emails complaining about a curse word or because of the myth that youth soccer groups who come a few times a year would inevitably develop into an adult fanbase on their own dampened the atmosphere and slowed season ticket sale growth. Without a large base of season ticketholders, MLS teams were constantly scrambling to group sales, ticket giveaways and promotions to half-fill the stands at the expense of building an identity as a club people would believe in and support through thick and thin.

Payne’s absence from DC’s leadership from 2001-4 and Wilt’s firing from Chicago in 2005 (by an AEG executive who had never attended a Chicago Fire match) hardly helped matters. But Toronto’s arrival in the league in 2007 kickstarted their approach again with a successful launch with a largely adult supporters base who were already into soccer, an echo of Payne’s approach in 1996.

Toronto’s successful season ticket drive created a bandwagon wholeheartedly leaped on by expansion team Seattle this season, who have over 20,000 season ticketholders in part thanks to their Scarf Seattle marketing campaign. Nearby, Paulson in Portland seems to have the right approach, recognising the base of organic culture the Timbers Army that already exists provides, and planning to grow from that when the team joins MLS. 2010 expansion team Philadelphia have done the same thing, working closely with their supporters group, Sons of Ben, who had thousands of members even before the team had a name and an MLS franchise.

Toronto fans celebrate their first ever goal

Toronto fans celebrate their first ever goal

Meanwhile, MLS has begun to encourage existing teams to follow this approach, including at teams that have long had very weak supporters’ sections. Brian Bilello, COO of the New England Revolution, told footiebusiness.com earlier this year about the change of emphasis in their marketing campaign, with a new “Defend the Fort” theme aimed at supporters:

The primary reasoning behind the Defend the Fort campaign is to grow the number of season tickets in The Fort, our supporters section. While we’ll do as much as we can to grow the supporters section in general, we feel that season ticket growth is the key because those fans are the most passionate, most involved and have the biggest stake in the game, so to speak. So we didn’t want it to be where people are coming two, three or four games and sitting in that section, but rather growing a base of fans who are here every single week. That will drive the energy in the building.

Whilst this is welcome, hardcore soccer support can’t be generated solely out of a new marketing campaign. MLS front offices can do much to facilitate supporters’ groups, but in many places there is a lot of damage teams will have a hard time repairing, if they even try. The years of neglect and obstruction to supporters’ groups at teams like Dallas and Colorado mean it might never be possible for strong supporters groups to develop there.

It’s a shame it’s taken so many at the top of MLS so long to realise all this, exemplified by Doug Logan’s comments ten years after the end of his tenure as MLS Commissioner. What MLS has long lacked is not just snazzy marketing campaigns or “danger”, it’s the mere facilitation of supporters’ culture, despite the examples set in DC and Chicago and more recent expansion franchises. This does not mean the exclusion of everyone who doesn’t want to stand or sing or drink. Family sections and supporters coexist quite comfortably and safely in European stadia in various places: you can have atmosphere without alienating a family who comes to support the team as well.

What MLS needs to appeal to the 18-34 demographic is not danger in itself, but simply smart, far-sighted leadership by MLS executives and supporters’ groups who can work together to grow soccer culture bottom-up.

The Timbers Army

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.

The Austin Aztex and Foreign Ownership in American Soccer

Austin AztexHere come the Austin Aztex — the newest United Soccer Leagues team, who will play in the First Division, itself one rung below Major League Soccer in the American soccer pyramid.

As Americans are too busy buying Premier League teams, it’s been left to an Englishman, Phil Rawlins, to launch the Aztex in Texas. Rawlins is also an owner and director of Stoke City, who play in England’s Championship.

The Aztex will be officially affiliated to Stoke, which will mean “the English club holding their summer training camp in Austin, scouting for talent both locally and across the US, exchanging players with the Aztex and sharing best practices between the two clubs.”

The interesting part is that this latest move is part of a deliberate strategy by USL founder and president Francisco Marcos to further internationalise the league. As he explained,

I firmly believe that Phil Rawlins understands, and is fully committed to, the concept of international relationships as the way to speed up American player development and to further the creation of thriving soccer culture in the US. Following in the footsteps of Crystal Palace Baltimore, who began play last season, and of our recently announced partnership with West Ham United, this is a significant moment in the history and growth of the USL First Division

My question is, does this represent a good step for American soccer? On the one hand, bringing in foreign expertise on training and development could be helpful (though it would be good if the affiliations were with clubs from more diverse football cultures than the British).

On the other, it’s hard to imagine Americans becoming attached to the likes of Crystal Palace Baltimore, and I say that not only out of my own personal antipathy to Crystal Palace.

Locally rooted USL teams can develop strong support and identity, as we’ve seen with the Portland Timbers. But foreign owned USL teams, as essentially farms or appendages to a higher priority team, seem unlikely to set down roots for long. Despite the remarkably passionate and valiant efforts of California Victory fans to save the club after their Spanish ownership abandoned them, they’ll be on hiatus from the USL in 2008, and their return uncertain.

Yet it’s hard to say a new team being placed in Texas is bad for soccer overall. Austin is a vibrant, growing city — if the Aztex can find and settle at a suitable stadium, it could be a success. There’s already talk on soccer forums of a supporters’ group being formed.

And the Aztex — despite the really forced way they’ve stuck “tex” in the name — can at least claim an actual local basis to their ownership, as Rawlins lives in the area. He also said all the right things, stating that “My goal is to make the Aztex a community-based club that the Austin area can be proud of.”

Let’s hope so. What soccer needs here are more locally rooted clubs that stick around for a long time, not farm operations run for the benefit of foreign clubs.