Sunday, 26 July 2009

Portland Timbers - The Timbers Army

Shiver me Timbers

- click on photos to enlarge image -

AC Milan v Inter Milan, Celtic v Rangers, Real Madrid v Barcelona, Brighton v Crystal Palace. These are all well established rivalries that everybody knows about and can talk about until the cows come home. Up until a fortnight ago, I didn't know of another great footballing rivalry in the Northwestern United States.

My article on the Seattle Sounders a few weeks back sparked a bit of banter between the good people of Seattle and Portland. Their rivalry is one of the few true derbies that is present in American football/soccer. We've heard all about the Sounders, so in the interests of fairness, it's now time for the Portland Timbers right of reply.

I interviewed Allison Andrews from the influential Soccer City USA website for her take, not only on the rivalry but all things Timbers related in the City of Roses:

Which division to Portland Timbers play in?

The Timbers play in the United Soccer Leagues First Division, which is one league below Major League Soccer, though the leagues have no connection to one another, and there is no promotion or relegation.

How will that all change in 2011?

At the end of 2010, the Timbers will fold or transfer their franchise to another city, as will the Vancouver Whitecaps, who play in the same league as the Timbers, and will also have a Major League Franchise in 2011. This will be similar to what happened to the Seattle Sounders after the 2008 season, when their franchise was transferred to Bremerton, Washington, just west of Seattle, and re-branded themselves as the Kitsap Pumas, and play in the USL’s Premier Development League, which is a mostly amateur league two leagues below the First Division. The new team will carry on the name, and possibly some of the current players will come over to the new team, but technically it will be a new franchise, the fourth incarnation of the Portland Timbers.

How does soccer compete with other sports teams in Portland like the Trail Blazers (basketball), Winterhawks (ice hockey) and Beavers (baseball) in terms of crowds and exposure!?

The Trailblazers, who are the National Basketball League team, are obviously the top team in town, and pretty much determine how the local sports scene works. But the Trailblazers (as well as the Winterhawks, who are a popular junior ice hockey team) both play in the winter, so the Timbers only directly compete against the Beavers. They are a AAA baseball team (one league down from Major League Baseball, as the Timbers are from MLS) and are owned by the same owner as the Timbers are, but their attendance has not grown in recent years in the same way as the Timbers have. But the current owner is determined to find them a new home when PGE Park (which the teams share) is renovated to be more appropriate for soccer.

Do you get much coverage in the Oregonian Newspaper?

This has been one of the most difficult parts of trying to grow the attendance for the Timbers. The simple fact is that the local media gives us very little attention. The local TV stations will sometimes give scores of the matches, sometimes show highlights (for home matches only), but sometimes ignore us completely. The local newspaper (we have only one daily paper) is also inconsistent, and on one occasion, for an important rivalry game at PGE Park against Seattle a few years ago, completely ignored the game altogether, only posting a copy of the team press release the day after. We have a weekly paper that gives us better coverage than the daily paper most of the time, but for the most part, the coverage in the local media is inconsistent and disappointing. I think that’s one reason the Timbers fans have built such a large web presence, in an attempt to fill in the gap where we feel the local media have failed us.

How much does it cost to watch the Timbers?

Season tickets start at $150 for a season ticket (15 home games) for general admission, which is where the Timbers Army support group is located. For reserve seats along the sideline, they can go as high as $330 for a season, which includes waiter service to your seat. For many of the games, the general admission section behind the north goal has many more people than the reserved seats do.

What's been the greatest moment in Timbers history?

This is the third incarnation of the Timbers, going back to their North American Soccer League days of the mid-70’s, but for the current team, who started play in 2001, the greatest moment is probably when forward Fadi Afash back-heeled in a goal late in the last match of the 2004 season which was the game winner over the Milwaukee Wave United and secured the Timbers the top of the table for the 2004 season. Unfortunately in the USL First Division, the league champion is not the regular season champion, but the winner of the playoffs, which we did not win, but the goal is famously known as the “Sunshine goal” (which is a long story, related to the singing of a song and Timber Jim ) and is probably considered the single greatest moment in modern Timbers history.

But if you consider the greatest game, that would probably be what is known to Timbers fans as the “Chainsaw Massacre” which was earlier in 2004 against the same Milwaukee team, when the Timbers were brought back from a late 2-0 deficit by rookie Alan Gordon (who now plays with the Los Angeles Galaxy along with David Beckham) who scored a hat trick to earn a 3-2 win. Gordon then famously sawed off a slice of the Timbers log himself after the match. See my later answer about Timber Joey for a further explanation of the Timbers log and it’s significance.

What is PGE Park like and do you share it with other teams?

PGE Park was built in 1926, underwent a significant upgrade in 2001, and is a partial horseshoe shape that has accommodated just about every sport that can fit into it over the last 83 years. It is the only stadium in the world to ever host events in two consecutive World Cups (either men’s or women’s) when it hosted matches in both the 1999 and 2003 Women’s World Cup. It also hosted Pele’s last professional match, which was the Soccer Bowl ’77 North American Soccer League Championship match. It seats just under 20,000 in its current configuration, though the restrooms and concessions limitations mean they will cap the attendance at about 16,000. It’s expected to hold somewhere around 23,000 once the MLS renovation is complete.

Half of the stadium sits below street level so it can be a very loud stadium, but I think Timbers fans love the stadium (especially since the renovation) and when there were rumours years ago of possible plans to have a new MLS team in a new stadium instead of PGE Park, the idea was met with almost 100% resistance from Timbers supporters. We love our stadium, and look forward to the renovations for MLS for 2011, which mostly involve completing a grandstand along the east side which will make a complete horseshoe shape from along the west sideline, around the north goal and all the way down the east sideline, which is currently open to accommodate the baseball configuration.

A packed PGE Park for the visit of Puerto Rico Islanders on 23:07:09. (click to enlarge image). Note the small 'patch of dirt' on the bottom right hand corner. That is the home plate area from where the baseball pitchers do their thing. Work is in progress to lay down a section of turf in it's place.

Is it one of those out of town stadiums?

PGE Park sits on the west side of downtown Portland and is directly on the city’s light rail system, and since there is very little parking around the stadium because it is right in a neighborhood, a very high percentage of the fans for a game reach PGE Park this way. There are very few stadiums left in the United States which could survive with this type of arrangement but it works fine here.

Tell us about the Timbers Army

The Timbers Army had their foundation before the most recent Timbers even played a match, when local fan Steven Lenhart was passing out cards at local bars, trying to get together fans first to watch US National Team games, then to support the new Timbers team that we knew was coming in 2001 (the new team was announced in 1999). In the first few years, they were known as the “Cascade Rangers”, which is not a reference to the Glasgow club, but to the local Cascade Range of mountains. Sometime in the second season (none of us remember exactly when), the name evolved to the Timbers Army, and the supporters group has grown from less than a dozen early in the first season, to several thousand for most of the matches nowadays. They do not have membership, or a leader, or any type of fees, and most projects (like scarves, bus trips, banners, etc) are organized by individual members, and funded through the sale of Timbers Army merchandise they create themselves, our out of their own pockets.

The Timbers Army have been criticized at times for the language of a few of their chants, but the relationship with the Timbers front office has improved greatly over the past few years, to the point that this season, the Timbers Army were allowed to create their own official logo, which the team then featured on the sleeve of the kits for the Timbers new U23 team, which played this season in the Premier Development League (mentioned earlier).

The Timbers Army welcome their Japanese players onto the pitch.

Do you get much singing/chanting at games?

The Timbers Army chant and sing almost constantly when the match is in play, and often for many minutes before the start and after the conclusion. A few years ago, on our message board, a survey was taken of the number of unique chants the Timbers Army have used, and at the time, the count was well over 150, though they have some favorites that are chanted multiple times a game. Most of their chants are derivatives of chants other teams use of course, but they have some original ones as well, and have lately been fond of using popular pop song’s from the 80’s and changing their words to become a chant. A recent example is “We’re Not Going To Take It (Anymore)”, a popular 80’s song by Twisted Sister, changed to “We’re The Timbers Army (Who are you?)”.

Apart from the Seattle Sounders do you have any other rivals?

The Vancouver Whitecaps have also been a rival since all three teams were in the NASL back in the 70’s, but the rivalry has never been as intense as it was with Seattle, probably because Seattle is only 3 hours drive away, while Vancouver is a 6 hour drive from Portland. To get an idea of the isolation of the three teams in the northwest, the driving disctance to the next-closest USL First Division rival is in Minnesota, which is 1,732 miles from Portland.

Let's hear it then, there appears to be some rivalry going on with the Seattle Sounders. What's your take on things!?

Of course it’s a rivalry that goes back to earlier incarnations of both teams that played in the NASL back in the 70’s, and when the Timbers returned in 2001 (the Sounders having been reincarnated in 1994), the rivalry returned, and for the first few years, it was a pretty friendly rivalry. The interesting thing that happened is that the two teams went in different directions, and the supporters had different reasons to be proud of their team. For the Timbers, it has been the growth of the fan base and the supporters section, which in recent years, has been growing at a very healthy rate, with total attendance growing at over 22% per year over the past two years, to 8,500 per game, which is second largest in the league.

For Seattle, they have had great success on the field, with two league titles during the time both teams were in the USL First Division, and knocking the Timbers out the playoffs twice, but their attendance was always near the bottom of the league, barely getting above 3,000 per game, even when they moved to the cavernous brand new Qwest Field. I think for Portland fans, the fact that Seattle could never build their fan base even with multiple championships was a constant source of amusement, while for Seattle fans, the futility of the Timbers on the field (who have never won a title of any kind, other than the 2004 Regular Season Championship) gives them great pleasure.

Now in 2009, suddenly a new incarnation of the Sounders begins in MLS, and their attendance jumps by 10 fold. Whether it’s the appeal of MLS over the USL, or some amazing marketing by the Seattle front office, I don’t think that anybody knows. But it’s also been a great aid to the Timbers MLS campaign that going to MLS can significantly boost attendance, and a similar situation happened in Toronto to a lesser extent a few years ago, though in that case, the previous team played under a different name at a different stadium.

My take is that what has happened in Seattle is impressive, and you can’t argue with the numbers, but I also think that the Seattle model is one that we don’t want to follow in Portland. The nature of support in Portland has largely been a fan-based initiative, and its best example is the fact that most of the scarves that you will see at Timbers matches (well over 95% I would guess) are fan-created scarves, including 5,000 green and white Timbers Army scarves, while scarves sold from the Timbers store are relatively uncommon. In Seattle, the front office gave out the “rave green” scarves with the season tickets, which is something you would never see happen here, but it’s impressive when 30,000 fans all hold them up at the same time, there’s no doubt about that.

But I think that the success in Seattle, and I would expect both Portland and Vancouver will also have packed stadiums starting in 2011, has changed the face of how support of soccer is viewed in the United States (and Canada), no matter which approach the teams and their fans take to achieve it.

As to why the rivalry seems to be taken on such a personal level by the supporters, maybe it’s because both sets of supporters seem to enjoy telling each other how they are jealous of what each team has, which I think is ridiculous, but I do believe that once both teams are in MLS in 2011, it will be a rivalry unlike any that MLS has ever seen.

Will we have to wait until both teams are in the MLS in 2011 before we see the two sides play each other?

They have already played each other, on July 1 this year in Portland, in the US Open Cup which is roughly the US equivalent of the FA Cup. Seattle scored very early, then added a second goal before the Timbers pulled one back in what was a pretty even match overall, but the Sounders ended up winning 2-1. It was the first sellout at PGE Park (at a slightly reduced capacity until we get our MLS upgrade) and was our largest-ever crowd at 16,382. It was great to see a large presence of Sounders fans as back in their USL days, they had never brought more than about 50 fans, and they had easily 10x that or more who made the 3 hour trip down.

It’s possible the teams could meet in the US Open Cup next year as well, since pairing of the teams is done regionally to reduce travel costs.

Is there a general rivalry between the people of Portland and Seattle or is it just a soccer thing?

They are very different cities, with Seattle being slightly larger, but both are geographically isolated from the rest of the major cities in the United States so I think a rivalry is natural. On the sports front though, the USL and soon-to-be MLS rivalry is greatly enhanced by the fact that in the four major sports in the US: NFL (football), MLB (baseball), NHL (hockey), NBA (basketball), there are no rivalries between the cities since as none of those leagues have teams in both cities since Seattle lost their NBA team recently.

Tell me about Timber Joey (the club mascot), does he really wield a chainsaw around the field?

Timber Joey is a real lumberjack who does cut off a slice of the log every time the Timbers score and gives them to the player after the match (as he does for the keeper if he records a shutout), and uses his chainsaw to excite the crowd. His name is Joey Webber and he actually took over the role from the legendary Timber Jim (Serrill), who started his association with the Timbers back in the 70’s, and when the Timbers returned in 2001, so did Timber Jim. He tried to retire a few times but we wouldn’t let him leave, but finally at the season opener in 2008, he finally retired and by mid-season, Timber Joey had taken over the role. Timber Jim is now a regular in the supporters section, and occasionally will move down in front of the supporters section to lead them in a cheer. Timber Jim is a legend to the Timbers fans and has always been considered the heart of the franchise, but Timber Joey has been embraced by the fans as well. The fact that both Jim and Joey are real in that they do this for their career is something that is pretty unique as well. That’s why we don’t really consider them to be “mascots”, since they are not just a representation of what “Timbers” means to our city and our region. They are the real thing!

Timber Jim officially passes on the responsibility to Timbers Joey...

...who does this everytime the Timbers score. What's not to like!?

What music do the Portland Timbers enter the field of play to?

Players are introduced as they come out of the tunnel, but there is no music played while they are doing so.

Do you play music in the stadium after a goal is scored?

No music is played during the match at all. Unfortunately, many stadiums in the US play music not only after the goals, but while play is underway, which effectively mutes out any noise coming from the supporters. So this is something that will never happen in Portland because our owner understands that it just won’t work here. I think the fact that music has never been played in Portland during our matches has greatly contributed to why our supporters group has grown the way that it has. There are still several teams in our league who have to deal with loud music played over the loudspeakers during the match in an attempt to “pump up the crowd”, when it fact the effect is exactly the opposite.

What is the club anthem?

We don’t have one officially, but our own version of “Blue is the colour” called “Green is the colo(u)r” was recorded back in the 70’s and is still played occasionally while the fans are filing into the stadium.

Do you have any celebrity fans?

None that come to mind, though the rich history of soccer in Portland, plus the presence of the University of Portland, which is a top college soccer program, especially their women’s program, brings many national team players and coaches to the games now and then. It’s not unusual to see them seated in the corner suites during the matches, or sometimes even among the supporters.

What is the biggest selling item in the Pro Shop?

No single item stands out as far as I can tell, but the Timbers have featured a distinctive third kit in each of the past three years, and this year’s black hit has proved to be very popular. As mentioned before, the fact that so many scarves, t-shirts, flags, and similar items are produced by the fans undoubtedly affects the amount of items sold at the team store.

And the most tacky item they sell in there?

As far as I’m concerned, anything that says “soccer” instead of “football” is tacky, but that’s just me (and me as well - Ed). But I guess sometimes you have to go with the flow, as my use of “soccer” instead of “football” for most of my answers will indicate.

Also, I think most Timbers fans think vuvuzellas should be banned, as they are sold in our store as well, and as we all know from recent history, they can ruin a stadium’s atmosphere if enough of them are present.

Presumably with the distances involved you don't receive or take many away fans to matches?

Timbers fans have always been the best traveling fans in the league by far, and just about every road game, even in Puerto Rico, will draw a few Timbers fans to it. We used to take several hundred up to Seattle when they were in our league, sometimes 50 or more to Vancouver, and often more than a dozen will travel to places like San Jose for a pre-season game with the MLS Earthquakes earlier this season, or to places like Charleston on the east coast, a good 3,000 miles away.

We like a beer with our football here in Europe, is it true that Portland has 28 (twenty eight!) breweries?

Portland is famous for being the home of microbreweries, though I don’t know the exact numbers. Many pubs have their own breweries, so many beers can only be found at one location (where do we sign? - Ed).

What is the beer of choice for the locals?

The large number of microbreweries means the taste is quite varied, and a few pubs even feature beers created just for Timbers fans, including Timber Jim Lager.

Do you have a view on David Beckham?

I think like most American soccer fans, it was exciting to see him commit to helping promote the sport in the US when he joined the LA Galaxy, but disappointed that he has seemed to back off on that commitment. Of course to Timbers fans, he wouldn’t’ have any success at all in LA if he didn’t have two excellent former Timbers to serve his passes up to, as both goals scored off Beckham assists against AC Milan last week were by former Timbers Alan Gordon (see “Chainsaw Massacre” above) and Bryan Jordan.

Have you ever been over to Europe for a football match?

In 2006, 31 Timbers Army members traveled to the UK and saw two matches as a group: Sunderland at Manchester United and then when Newcastle United came to the Stadium of Light a few days later. The Timbers fans formed a great relationship with the Sunderland fans after the Black Cats visited us for an exhibition in 2005 (which was a 0-0 draw) and Sunderland supporter Gary Lamb organized the trip for us to visit in April, 2006. We were amazed at the silence of the Man U supporters (maybe not surprising, they were being held to a 0-0 draw by Sunderland at home) and equally amazed at the passion at the Sunderland/Newcastle derby match. The Timbers fans were featured on BBC North, welcomed by the mayors of Seaham (where they were staying), Sunderland, and by Sunderland legend Gary Rowell.

So there you have it. Where would football be without rivalries eh!? It's a very healthy thing as far as I'm concerned as long as it doesn't spill over into physical or personal abuse. Passion, banter and vociferous support is what's football is all about. Both the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers appear to have this in abundence which is why they've come to our attention.

One thing is for sure, when these two teams finally meet again in the 2011 MLS season, European Football Weekends will be arranging a trip over to the game. Who to support though!?

Feel free to add your comments below


Anonymous said...

As a Sounders fan, I was pleased with and appreciative of Allison's even keeled description of our rivalry. I think she hit the nail mostly on the head, but I would point out that again much of what she claims for Portland in opposition of the "Seattle" way is a reflection more of the missteps of our FO than the Seattle fan base (including the ECS).

Thanks Danny, and Thanks Allison

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great piece, I was glad to see some press and love given to a team with some of the most intense, devoted, and knowledgeable US football fans that I'm personally aware of.

2011 is going to be insane...hope MLS is ready for it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the write up.

Timbers are taking an organic approach to building a football club.

S**ttle glows in the chemical green of toxic corporation-run-clubs.

Up the Timbers!

Anonymous said...

Awesome! Up the Timbers!

Unknown said...

Even in your own article you cant help but mention Seattle.

I smell envy from south of I-5

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FootyFan said...

This is a well balanced piece regarding the timbers. I especially enjoy the history as given in the interview. Can't argue with most of the points brought up.

Though it is obvious that portland is quite Seattle obsessed. The Sounders FC article has almost 100 responses, many from portland fans screaming how much better their team is but an article on the timbers gets written and there's nothing. Again this is a really well done article but it seems the audience it's geared for is more interested in their rivals than their own club. Too bad.

Sterlinho said...

I love that there were a ton more Timbers fans hating on the Sounders in the Sounders article, yet the same Timbers die hard don't show love to their own club. Mind boggling.

Prost Amerika said...

Nice interview by Allison and she described the rivalry very well. Great to see the Timbers getting their ground situation sorted in readiness for 2011.

Once they and Vancouver are in, these rivalries will dominate MLS especially if more than one of the three is chasing for honours.

Roll on Columbia!

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Anonymous said...

I was across in Portland 2005 for the pre season game v sunderland as well as the games v Vancouver and Seatle and by far the best supporters were the Portland lot.The only problem i had in Portland was at a pub outside the ground wher i was asked for id to prove my age FFS i was 50 at the time .