On the northeast corner of 18th Avenue and Morrison Street, Flounder, Ariel’s impossibly loveable and supportive roly-poly fish of a best friend from The Little Mermaid, is drenched in his own blood. There is a lot of blood, so much so that the spatters reach back to his tail fin, leaving him simply looking like a slightly more exotic species of fish, striped now in all three primary colors. His eyes are literally exploding forward from his head in horror, betraying the fact that he spent his final seconds terrified and confused before an unknown assailant drove a double-bit axe deep between his eyes. The axe remains buried in his head.
The sight is gruesome, unsettling and intentional; Flounder’s killer has not only remained at the scene but is proudly resting the hilt of the sickening axe/fish/trophy on his shoulder like a grotesque knapsack, parading the chilling image of Flounder’s cloven body through the streets, proof of his ritualistic killing. The murderer is using Flounder’s body to send a message in papier mâché to intimidate his enemies and compromise their will before they wage war in earnest later tonight.
Tonight, in Portland, Oregon, at the corner of 18th Avenue and Morrison Street, there is a soccer game.
I love soccer. I love it despite the fact that almost no one else even likes it. My dad was a high school soccer coach and it was the one sport when I was a kid that all of my best friends also played, so I spent a lot of hours dodging bees on the fields at Pine Street Park. I obsess over the World Cup and I was frequently one of the scant few fans in the stands at the fledgling third-tier Orlando City FC’s home games in the mass of stone and tetanus that is the Citrus Bowl. This dog stuck prominently to my mirror as a kid (and wherever that mirror is it may still be stuck to it . . . sorry, Mom). I love it for being the purest display of community and passion in all of sports, the very reasons I love sports, the fan section at the Swamp for a big Saturday night game only cranked up to 11. Sadly, liking soccer after the age of twelve is not only a minority opinion in this country but one that will usually catch you some abuse, some mockery. The game is a frequent punchline for jokes, especially if their subject is boredom, even from the mouths of comedy sources I respect the highest like The Colbert Report and Saturday Night Live. So when the opportunity presented itself to attend the real deal (as far as America goes, anyway), an MLS game in the Pacific Northwest, the inexplicable cradle of America’s soccer rebirth, I was so thrilled I decided I would document my experience by keeping a running diary through the day. I did it so I could remember my experience and in hopes others might see what a real match day environment is like in a place where soccer not only matters but is absolutely beloved (maybe it could somehow magically change a few minds?). Plus, it wouldn’t be just any old MLS game, but a home game for one of the MLS’ greatest success stories, the Portland Timbers and the Timbers Army, their group of fanatical supporters. Oh, and I’d be sitting amongst those impassioned lunatics, including team mascot Timber Joey, a man prone to sawing plates of wood from a massive log for every Timber goal. And the Timbers would be playing their hated rival the Seattle Sounders (who they derisively call the ‘Flounders,’ get it?). And the Sounders would be bringing along their equally zealous fans, the Emerald City Supporters. And it would be U.S. national team star Clint Dempsey’s first game in a Sounders kit at hostile Jeld-Wen Field since being paid a fortune to come fall down on U.S. soil instead of Her Majesty’s. And one point separated the two teams in the standings with the playoffs on the line. And the winner would find itself in first place in the Western Conference.
Barring playoff games, it would essentially be the best game an American soccer fan could possibly attend.
Portland has embraced soccer fandom to an extent I previously assumed would only ever be a pipe dream. I was excited to see what gameday looked like in a place where thousands of people are obsessed with futbol instead of foo– well, the other one. Above all else I really, truly wanted to see something that would validate my optimism that what’s happened in Portland, Seattle, Kansas City and Philadelphia could happen in other cities across the country; that this whole American soccer thing might finally catch on. There has been hope in the past, but America’s soccer history is bloodier than a Game of Thrones novel. To summarize that as briefly as possible, we’ve had a number of leagues field dozens of teams that last a couple years and then fold due to financial ruin and fan apathy; no one in this country ever gives a crap, plain and simple. The popularity of those leagues was directly tied to the fortunes of the U.S. national team’s World Cup performances, so in 1994 domestic soccer love for our shiny new professional Major League Soccer was off the charts after we hosted the Cup that summer (and wore the single finest sports uniforms in competitive athletic history). Six years later, the MLS was nearly bankrupt and contracting teams (bye bye, Tampa and Miami). It is doing much better these days, even planning new expansion teams (COME ON, ORLANDO), but it is still an also-ran in the American sports consciousness, let alone compared to the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga or Italy’s Serie A. Teams like Chivas USA bring bad memories and anxiety due to mismanagement and lack of fan interest, just like the good old days; one step forward, two steps back. The rest of America has never given me reason to believe soccer will ever succeed here or the U.S.A would compete for a World Cup in my lifetime, even though I want it to flourish to the point that it leads the evening news like it does abroad. I want people to experience the passion of singing for 90+ minutes in a supporter’s section of doctors and attorneys by day, mild degenerates by night. I greedily want my friends to find it exultantly fun. I so badly want to look back laughingly on the day when everyone thought soccer was boring, but I know better. I do not get my hopes up.
So I enlisted in the Timbers Army for a day.
all times noted are Pacific Standard Time, October 14, 2013
7:04 am – Alarm is going off, and it’s doing that before 9 am while on vacation because the Timbers Army section of seats is general admission; thousands of seats sold and no one has a specified seat number. So, you must get a wristband with a number printed on it, and that is the order Army personnel will be let into the stadium 90 minutes prior to kickoff (and before anyone else is let in). Earlier you get in line, the better choice of seats available come match time. I choke down two Tylenol to stifle a headache and throw on a green flannel shirt (go Timbers) and even greener underwear (go Timbers). Steeling my nerves for a day of tough-talking bravado and faux macho idiot hooliganism.
7:51 am – Starbucks, grande chai tea latte. Well, I gave it my best shot.
8:17 am – An uphill hike brings us to Jeld-Wen Field and the line, which stretches an unknown distance north into the foggy Portland morning. Chairs set up, meet fellow Timber militia who are part of our group, settle in. The entire line is decked in green and gold and I am the only jerk without a scarf which is annoying (if this makes no sense, soccer supporters wear team scarves . . . just go with it!), as I love soccer scarves only slightly less than I love soccer. Line rumor places the folks at the front of the line in their spots since Thursday evening. It is Sunday.
9:01 am – The cold is settling in better than we are (it’s in the 40s) but a Minnesota winter has prepared me well, as I am fairly warm and teaching people cribbage (and nothing says rowdy fandom like math-based card games!). A group waiting behind us has begun juggling a ball, quite well actually. The day’s first alcohol is consumed when one member of our party walks across the street and buys a shot of tequila solely so she can use the bathroom. Upon returning and reporting feeling much warmer, two others immediately leave to also buy tequila shots.
9:54 am – Boredom leads one of our party to walk to the front of the line for some investigating; she confirms they arrived at 7 am Saturday and have been camping out since. Not as insane as was thought but still pretty
insane awesome. As there are legal issues with camping in downtown Portland overnight, police have apparently set up barricades to allow the fans to stay as some form of legal temporary housing. Good job, Portland’s finest!
10:02 am – Yelling breaks out ahead of us but, alas, it is not hooliganism, it’s celebratory; the line is moving. The team’s policy is to distribute the wristbands anywhere from three to eight hours prior to game time, strategically maintaining this window of uncertainty to weed out the fair-weather fans who can’t be bothered with such hassles. Mercifully, today’s decision is the maximum eight hours prior to game time as I am now cold and all that “Minnesota winter” was a bunch of bullcrap. Papier mâché Flounder and his murderer are first glimpsed.
10:29 am – Wristband secured. Upon receiving them, fans are free to leave but asked to return to the line in their designated section before 4 pm for kick-off at 6 pm. I am a member of the Timbers Army, number 0569.
3:40 pm – The walk from pre-game drinking at a local soccer bar to the stadium is on, with my current anticipation/giddiness level not dissimilar to the slow clanking of a roller coaster as it crawls up the chain to the first drop. As we walk, Kasey Keller, the greatest goalkeeper in American soccer history and the man single-handedly responsible for the only time the United States has ever beaten Brazil in 17 attempts, hurriedly passes us heading the other direction. I panic with excitement; not only does no one else in the group pay attention but one actually turns around to loudly mock him about finishing his career playing for hated Seattle. Awesome.
3:48 pm – I detour from the group to satisfy my quest to purchase a scarf from the Timbers Army tent instead of the Adidas store, as it’s way better when it’s handmade by real fans, sold at cost and not available anywhere else because it’s custom designed for Army members (you heard me right; specific soccer scarves made by fans specifically for other fans sitting in a specific section) but my plan derails; they’re sold out. I sulk back to the group, all of whom are now in line again, extremely bummed out and resolve to just overpay for an Adidas scarf at the team store. One of the longest-tenured and most passionate Timbers supporters of our group hears the story and hands me his scarf, the same scarf he has worn to years of Timbers games, with untold numbers of memories now woven in the threads. I immediately refused, knowing exactly how much it is killing him to offer this to me but he ignores it, says he’ll buy another one, is just happy to have another soccer lover in the Army tonight. I am impossibly grateful. In the meantime, joyous songs have broken out, chants are increasing in volume and a parade of pro-Seattle signs and fans that is passing by is met with screams of “GO HOME, SHITTLE.”
4:00 pm – The mad dash for the choice Timbers Army seats begins as the line is now being let in. Confusion breaks out as we lose track of the line entirely before smashing through the dense crowd and jumping in again; who knows if we lost or gained spots. Two members of our group are gone, now twenty people back. The people we have fallen in with are angrily singing ‘I’d Rather Bomb Seattle Than Iraq’ to the tune of ‘She’ll Be Comin’ Around the Mountain.’ I forcibly pinball off of strangers and end up reaching the gate with only one other friend, a veteran Army member. Right before her ticket is scanned and knowing I am underestimating what is about to happen, she turns to me and says “Are you ready?”
UNKNOWN TIME – Chaos. Shoving. Grown men and women in dead sprints past the closed concession stands. Vision and memory of events fuzzy. People screaming at strangers, frantically trying to secure seats. Others are literally jumping over rows of chairs like hurdlers, which is made extra challenging as the team has placed massive flags in every third seat for the fans to wave. We briefly secure one chunk of seats before leaping down three more rows to better ones. We finally settle here.
4:54 pm – Cheers have been continuous since reaching our seats. There is not a fan in sight without one or more beers on their person. Someone is running through the aisles blowing bubbles. The Seattle supporters, sequestered in a single section of chairs on the total opposite side of the stadium, begin to wave massive banners and sing; Timber war drums respond, reverberating thunder from every direction, boom boom boom boom.
5: 05 pm – Handfuls of Monopoly money with Clint Dempsey’s face printed on them are distributed (teams that don’t spend as much money always like to point out success is hollow if bought; I can’t tell if Seattle cares in the least). The Army unites to sing a song about their two Cascadia rivals, Seattle and the Vancouver Whitecaps, set to the tune of ‘Oh My Darlin’:
“Build a bonfire, build a bonfire, put Seattle on the top!
Put Vancouver in the middle and we’ll burn the fucking lot!”
5:24 pm – Seattle first hits the field. 3,000 adults jingle their car keys with one hand and flip them off with the other.
6:03 pm – Timbers coach (and handsome sonofabitch) Caleb Porter enters the field to euphoric cheers as the PA announcer whips the entire stadium into a frenzy. Music is played, the army is dancing in the aisles. The jumbotron shows footage of one row of Army members who brought letters to spell out “GUT THE FISH” which causes further joyous pandemonium. The aforementioned flags are being waved furiously, one of which is being manned by a drunken idiot over my right shoulder who crushes me across the head with the PVC pipe flagpole. I wasn’t mad until I turned and saw he was oblivious to what had happened, was wearing no Timber’s gear, no green at all, and a Boston Red Sox hat. Then I was mad.
6:05 pm – The national anthem. The entire Army proudly sings along and drowns out whoever is singing on the field. The second it ends, as instructed, the fans toss the provided Monopoly money into the air in a technicolor cloud of Dempsey-trolling mockery. As the bills float to the ground, the Army unveils its tifo (here’s the video if you want to see for yourself or hear how loud it was). If you’re not familiar with tifo, it’s the term for essentially any large-scale choreography performed by a team’s fans, usually in soccer, usually orchestrated/paid for/hand-made entirely by said fans, always personalized to each game and almost always reserved for momentous anniversaries or
local derbies rivalry games. Tonight’s did not disappoint.
Pretty clever, with some Beatles-themed abuse targeting Seattle’s pricey Dempsey signing and ingeniously setting their fans up for disappointment regardless of the game’s result; if Seattle wins, they’ll have had to buy their success. If they lose, they will have wasted that money, for today at least, at the hands of the courageous, small-market underdogs. Ingenious (we were behind the word ‘me’ in ‘can’t buy me love’). Fans are grabbing handfuls of the monopoly money that’s now carpeting the aisles and are Lebron-ing them into the air. They are jumping up and down alongside the falling bills, dancing, screaming, every flag is waving.
6:16 pm – Kickoff.
I didn’t keep any notes during the game because I just wanted to enjoy the experience and, let’s be honest, what was I going to say? There are plenty of inspiring, phenomenal sports writers who with ease do what I’ve been haphazardly trying to do by writing this, that is vividly detailing what is so beautiful about the beautiful game. What I do remember is that Clint Dempsey did what he always does, which was spend more time on the ground than the ball did, and it’s a lot less defensible when he’s not wearing the red, white and blue. The guy in front of me looked and acted like Andy Kaufman if he had Sideshow Bob’s hair and never put his damn arms down the entire game, as if Malcolm Gladwell and one of these things had a love child. Just before halftime the Timbers scored to go up 1-0 and confetti and streamers and people began raining down everywhere. Gas canisters were burst and green and yellow smoke swallowed the Army while Timber Joey’s chainsaw roared to life. The chants and songs literally never stopped, so many I cannot remember half of them, 4,000 people strong singing for 90 minutes. At some point during the scoreless second half an actual fight happened, that started with the Sounders captain elbowing a Timber in the face, continued when he then tried to fight the referees and ended when security removed him from the field. As the dust settled, the drums got louder, BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM.
8:01 pm – After an INSANE final few minutes in which a Sounders shot hit the goalpost for the second time that night, the ref blows the whistle for full time. Timbers win, 1-0. The gas began billowing again, the flags literally filled the air, strangers emotionally embraced, couples made out in the war zone.
8:10 pm – Timbers players and coach Caleb Porter walk to the North end zone to thank the Army. Porter holds his Timbers Army scarf aloft, the players do the same with Timber Joey’s wooden plates (one is given to the Timber goalkeeper for the shutout). The drums are pounding and pounding.
8:16 pm – While the stadium has emptied, no one in the Army has left their seats. Coincidentally, neither has the Seattle section, which sits across the stadium, stoically watching us revel. Four thousand adults again flip them off, this time with both capable hands, and instead of cheering ‘Let’s Go Tim-Bers!’ with some pace-keeping claps in between, loudly scream “FUCK SE-ATT-LE!!!! FUCK SE-ATT-LE!!!!” long into the night.
A couple of years ago, the Timbers Army newly came under fire (previously, management had disseminated pamphlets warning the Army to cut their swearing from cheers, had even posted security in the Army section. Fans responded by abandoning section 107 entirely and singing the same chants while spread around the stadium). This time, a mother sent an email to the team’s owner. She was furious with the amount of cursing her three sons had been subjected to at a recent game, saying “this is not England, and you should not tolerate Portland Timbers Hooligans.” Her email labeled army members “a bunch of angry white guys tanked up on liquor,” stated the team would never succeed financially because “there are simply not enough drunks in Portland to pay the bills,” and warned ownership to do something about the stadium’s “mob mentality.” Timbers owner Merritt Paulson personally responded. While professionally addressing her concerns, he also promptly refuted her accusation of hooliganism and wrote “MLS soccer teams would be ecstatic to have a supporters group like the TA, which provides an authentic soccer ambiance second to none in the U.S.” He ended his email with this: “If you are … offended by the TA, then do not sit near them. – Regards, Merritt.”
My day rooting for the Timbers was a great day, an indelibly memorable day, because I spent it amongst the best kind of company, the selfless kind who gives you a hug after the game even though you only met them that morning, that asks to read the blog post you’ve been weirdly keeping notes to help write even though you might be a piss poor, rambling writer who abuses run-on sentences, that sincerely tells me “You earned that scarf.” It was a great day to be amongst so many who, win or lose, were having an absolute blast. It seems less significant that the Timbers won the game. Or that they beat their rival. Or that come midnight they were in first place and I got to watch it all. Because what I want to happen in this country, what I came here greedily hoping to also see, other than simply a good soccer game, might actually be happening this time. It certainly has already happened in Portland because they’ve all lost their minds. They somehow love soccer! An owner defending his supporters section’s insane behavior! Law enforcement going out of their way to help passionate fans bend the law instead of, well, enforcing it! Fans not only showing up to soccer games but showing up days early! With tifo! The list goes on and on. So we can only hope (or maybe just I can only hope) this same insanity reaches the fanbases, ownership and players of the other MLS clubs. That new cities for potential expansion clubs in Orlando, Miami and elsewhere can embrace it where in the past it has failed. That the average American sports fan stops thinking of soccer derisively as that insufferably boring game for foreigners where everyone just fakes injuries all the time, something unfit for American television sets, the punchline of the joke. At least in Portland, soccer is no one’s joke.