PORTLAND, Ore. - At first, Gavin Wilkinson didn’t want to admit it. But after a few minutes, the Portland Timbers’ general manager and technical director let slip a home truth about the city whose soccer team he oversees.
“Portland does have a strange culture,” the New Zealand native said.
You don’t have to spend too much time here to find that out first-hand. But there is one familiar thing that stands out immediately as you make your way across town from the Willamette River to Jeld-Wen Field: Soccer is a very, very big deal in Portland.
If you’ve only become a soccer fan since the Union launched last year, then you might only know about the soccer culture in Portland by way of its MLS franchise. You probably saw the highlights from the Timbers’ home opener last month, for example, when the Timbers Army belted out the Star-Spangled Banner a capella on national television.
It was as electric an atmosphere as has ever been produced in this country. But few places anywhere in America can claim the kind of deep-rooted attachment to the sport that exists in the Rose City.
It’s worth taking the time to understand the history of Portland’s passion for soccer. The sport has been going strong here for over 35 years, since the first edition of the Timbers took the field at Civic Stadium in 1975 to play in the North American Soccer League.
The NASL-era Timbers have been brought back to life this year in an exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society Museum. I went to visit the museum yesterday. Among the artifacts at the exhibit are jerseys, game balls, programs, ticket stubs, and video highlights from the 1975 season.
“When they were founded [in 1975], they were extremely successful in their first year,” said Michael Orr, a Timbers fan who helped curate the exhibit. “They had crowds of 20, 25, 30,000 people going to see the Timbers play the Sounders, the St. Louis Stars, and teams like that.”
Former Philadelphia Atoms goalkeeper Bob Rigby, who is now a sideline analyst for the Union’s local TV broadcasts, still remembers playing in Portland.
“They were a very physical team that played a high-pressure, aggressive style,” Rigby told me. “A great atmosphere and very loud fans... never a place that very many goalkeepers looked forward to visiting.”
It helped that the Timbers reached the NASL championship in their debut season. But the bond that grew between the fans and players was strong enough that many of the NASL-era players decided to remain in Portland once their playing careers ended.
One of those players is a name that I suspect some of you will have heard of: Clive Charles. He built the University of Portland into a powerhouse in men’s and women’s college soccer, and had a huge influence on the U.S. youth national team system before dying of prostate cancer in 2003.
When Wilkinson came to Portland, he started a youth soccer club to oversee in addition to his work as a player. Charles was one of the people that Wilkinson sought out for advice on how to be a coach.
“The sense that I got from him, however brief, was that football should be played a certain way and run a certain way,” Wilkinson said. “He started to grow a group that is still giving back to the game today.”
Another former Timbers player who stayed in Portland was John Bain. He is now one of the most prominent youth coaches in the area, with Union forward Danny Mwanga among his former pupils.
“[Bain] would tell us about the history of the team, about how Pelé and all those people used to come here to play the Timbers,” Mwanga told me after the Union’s practice at Jeld-Wen Field yesterday. “I knew a lot about it, and now that the Timbers are in MLS, I think it’s great for the city.”
Among the Timbers fans who got to know Charles well was Jim Serrill. Serrill was no ordinary fan, though: he was “Timber Jim.” In 1978, Serrill tried to bring a chainsaw into Civic Stadium, in order to spice up the atmosphere in a way that honored the Timbers name.
Not surprisingly, the team didn’t really want that to happen. But Serrill persisted, and eventually he was allowed in. Not long afterwards, one of the most famous Timbers traditions began: the sawing off of a piece of a log to celebrate goals scored by the team.
Serrill marvels at how the interest in soccer has grown in Portland, and the culture of soccer support in particular.
“It's more than I could ever imagine and I've been doing it for a long, long time,” Serrill told me. “A lot of it has to do with the advent of the communications that we have now with the Internet. We didn't have that in the NASL days.”
Serrill’s presence at Civic Stadium inspired was the man who eventually succeeded him as the Timbers’ chainsaw-wielder-in-residence: Joey Webber, known as “Timber Joey.”
“I wasn't a soccer fan growing up. I played football and I played rugby,” Webber told me. “I was drawn to the sport because of Timber Jim and what he did on the field.”
Timber Jim’s time in the spotlight did not last long, though, as the NASL-era Timbers folded in 1982. After that happened, the soccer tradition in town was carried on by F.C. Portland. The club played in a regional league, and in 1989 a new owner bought the team and resurrected the Timbers name. That only lasted until 1991, though.
It would be a full decade before the Timbers came back to life, as a franchise in the United Soccer Leagues. Wilkinson was a player on that team, and in 2007 became its coach. When the Timbers joined MLS, Wilkinson took up the position he now occupies.
“You have a group of supporters that was less than 50 going back to 2001, and now it's thousands and thousands of people,” Wilkinson said.
Or, as Orr put it to me, “It's exploded from a couple dozen people standing in the front couple rows banging on pickle barrels, to an orchestrated tifo display with several thousand people.”
The new generation of Timbers players has definitely noticed.
“I think most of them are intrigued by it,” Wilkinson said. “We’ve had a very proud tradition in Division 2, and that then leads the players on to asking about the NASL. And the Timbers Army are great educators.”
For as much as things have changed in American soccer over the years, including in Portland, there have been two constants.
One was the presence of super-fan Giselle Currier, who died last month at age 55.
When you watch tonight’s game, you will see a lot of green-and-white striped scarves with the phrase “No Pity” in the middle. Those scarves were Currier’s creation, and her way of spreading the word about soccer.
“I would bet that there are over 10,000 Timbers Army 'No Pity' scarves out there throughout the world right now, and they've all been sold for no profit whatsoever,” Webber said.
Currier’s extensive collection of Timbers memorabilia helped inspire Orr to put together the NASL exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society Museum.
“It's been really important to have a handful of people who are direct links to the past, who carry the traditions from the earliest days to the present,” he said. “For the exhibit at the Historical Society, [Currier] let us look through a lot of her scrapbooks and collections of stuff. She was a fascinating woman who was a source of all kinds of information.”
The second thing that has remained constant in Portland has been the walls constructed on a patch of land at Southwest 18th Avenue and Morrison Street. Whether by the name Multnomah Stadium, Civic Stadium, PGE Park or Jeld-Wen Field, the same venue has been the home of professional soccer in the Rose City for its entire history.
“The fans have always done the same sorts of things, and had the same kinds of goofy banners,” Orr said. “It's definitely more organized now than it was before, but you do get a sense when you watch Timbers home games on old NASL tapes that you are watching a Portland game.”
For much of the Timbers’ existence, soccer had to share the stage with minor-league baseball. But when Portland got into the running for an MLS franchise, Timbers owner Merritt Paulson decided to turn what was then called PGE Park into a soccer-only venue.
Paulson tried to find a new home for the Triple-A Beavers. But in a classic case of NIMBY-ism, Paulson couldn’t find a place in the region that wanted the stadium on its turf. So the Beavers left town entirely - and in the end, there weren’t many objections.
“The Beavers last year had 250 season ticket holders,” Orr said. “Last year [in Division 2], the Timbers had several thousand season ticket holders, and this year they've sold out all 12,500.”
Think about that for a moment. In how many American cities are there 50 times as many people who want to buy soccer tickets compared to baseball season tickets?
Sure, the team was Triple-A and not major-league, but it was the only game in town, and it was a pretty big deal. Maybe you can’t compare the Beavers to the Phillies, but you certainly can’t compare them to the Camden RiverSharks either.
For this year, Jeld-Wen Field has been renovated so that it has seats on three sides instead of two. With a seating bowl that is partially sunken below ground, and a location that is in an actual neighborhood instead of a sea of parking lots, the Timbers’ home has one of the most intimate environments you’ll find in a top-level American sports venue.
“I've never been anywhere that the stadium was enlarged, and it made the place feel smaller - that's the sense that you get,” Orr said. “It still feels like a building that was built in 1926 if you're anywhere except for the new construction.”
One other thing has not changed: the demand from fans in Portland that their team give a full effort every game.
“What the Timbers Army wants, is even if you aren't a superior athlete with exceptional skill, they do appreciate work ethic,” Serrill told me. “If there has been a moniker for the team over the years, it would be blue-collar hard-workers.”
I said to Serrill that fans in Philadelphia would understand what he meant. Serrill laughed.
“My parents are from Ivyland, near Warminster in Bucks County,” he said.
You could have knocked me over with a feather. One of the most famous Portlandians of all time has roots in the Philadelphia suburbs? Yes, he does.
“I spent my entire career with Asplundh Tree Expert company - they used to be in Jenkintown, but now they are in Willow Grove,” Serrill said. “My dad spent 32 years with them, and that's how we migrated across the country. I go back there all the time - I have an uncle that lives in New Hope and I've got relatives in Pitman, N.J.”
I still can’t quite believe it, but there it is. You really can find people from Philadelphia anywhere you go.
I know that tonight will be a long night for a lot of you, with kickoff time set for 10:30 p.m. But I hope you’ll take a moment or two during the game to soak in the atmosphere, or at least as much of it as will come through on television. Portland has a special place in American soccer history, as evidenced by its longtime nickname, “Soccer City, U.S.A.”
It’s been a while, though, since Portland has been on the sport’s biggest stage in this country. Now the Rose City is back, and its soccer culture is blooming at just the right time.