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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.