For the Portland Timbers, winning isn't everything

Posted by Jason Davis

The Portland Timbers are cursed. Or, if you prefer, they might as well be cursed. Because even though the Timbers lack a curious story or a singular moment of failure from which all future failure seems to spring, there's undoubtedly a sense that when things are going right for a club whose history stretches back to the ancient (by American soccer terms) year of 1975, something is bound to go wrong. If you need some evidence, consider that the Timbers have exactly one appearance in a final through three different versions of the club -- and it came in that first North American Soccer League season.

Even when they're good, the Timbers invariably come up short.

As the Timbers stand on the precipice of a potential MLS Cup run -- they have the talent and the confidence to get it done, no doubt about it -- it's worth delving into the club's rich, but ultimately championship-less past. More than just a town without any soccer championship trophies (and only one major professional sports championship at all), Portland's relationship with the sport is a strange brew of unequivocal support strained through a cheesecloth of civic pride, murky stop-start history and 21st-century hipster attitude.

Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesRenowned for their passion and support, Portland's fans might find club support will be altered if the Timbers finally win.

First, the history. While it's easy to toss the Timbers in with the other two Cascadia clubs, considering all three hark back to teams in the freewheeling NASL of the late 1970s, the Timbers are something of a different beast. In Vancouver, the Whitecaps possess a direct link to that bygone era in the form of club president Bob Lenarduzzi. In Seattle, figures like Alan Hinton remain part of the region's soccer scene, connecting the modern-day Sounders to their NASL forebears. Yet the MLS Timbers lack for any ties to their past, and the Timbers as a team lost the community's only real NASL legacy when legendary University of Portland head coach and former Timber Clive Charles died in 2003.

Charles played a few seasons with the Timbers but wasn't part of the original team that gave Portland its lone shot at a league title. In 1975, the Timbers burst onto the American soccer scene, averaged more than 14,000 fans a game and went all the way to the Soccer Bowl before losing to the Tampa Bay Rowdies with a thrown-together collection of pros who met each other for the first time just a few weeks before the season began.

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Michael Orr, author of a book chronicling that inaugural Timbers season called "The 1975 Portland Timbers: Birth of Soccer City," when Portland first earned that sobriquet, points to the long gap between the original Timbers and the revived A-League/USL version that appeared in 2001 (there was another Portland club somewhat connected to the Timbers legacy that existed from 1985 to '90, but it had little impact) as part of the reason for the natural disconnect between the current Timbers and their 1970s predecessors. If Timbers fans are scarred, it's not because of those original Timbers. Rather, it's a phenomenon built on the back of modern-day disappointment.

"People are absolutely terrified right now," commented Orr. "People aren't used to the Timbers being good. The tagline has always been 'believe beyond reason,' which sounds ridiculous when you're the No. 1 team in the Western Conference. But for much of their history it has been beyond reason to expect them to be competitive at the top of the league."

Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesCaleb Porter has worked wonders as Portland manager. Can he and his club handle the added attention as top club in the Western Conference?

The Timbers phenomenon, at least from the outside, looks easy to understand. When the revived Timbers started in the old A-League in 2001, soccer fans in Portland finally found an outlet for their love of the game and created a vibrant atmosphere to support the club. There's an element of truth to that simple explanation, but then, this is Portland; the growth of the celebrated Timbers Army is not just about soccer but about being different. Success on the field has never really been part of the recipe.

"In some ways, it's almost because they've never won anything that the support is almost stronger and better," Orr contends. "For the people who have been around -- and it sounds cliché -- it's not really about whether they win or lose, and part of that is because they've never won.”

The NASL Timbers lost that '75 Soccer Bowl and didn't make it back before the league folded. The 21st-century Timbers, the team that truly set the stage for the MLS sensation we see today, claimed a couple of regular-season points titles, only to fall flat when the playoffs came around. A series of stunning failures -- losing in extra time to the hated Sounders in 2004 and going 24 games unbeaten in 2009 only to lose to Vancouver in the semis stand out in particular -- inured the new generation of fans to the pains of losing. Quite often the Timbers weren't even contenders.

Orr pinpointed the dynamic. "There's a real sense of 'We were soccer fans before soccer was cool.'" he said. "That's really the sense -- people in Portland cared about soccer because it was soccer, not because the team was good. We didn't jump on the bandwagon because the team won championships; it's because we cared about soccer when people didn't realize how cool soccer was."

The "soccer" Portlanders cared about, as Orr identifies it, is soccer in the wider cultural sense. It is everything surrounding the game, especially the standing, singing and tifo displays that came with Timbers fans casting themselves in a European-style mold.

"For most of the 21st century, the experience has been about being in the Timbers Army or going and watching the Timbers Army," explained Orr. As long as the team wasn't winning championships, Timbers fans could maintain an air of supreme authenticity about their support, something that very much fit the character of Portland itself. "Portland is at the same time the most open and tolerant place, and the snobbiest, turn-your-nose-up place. There's a prevailing sense here that 'the way we do it in Portland is the way it's supposed to be done.'" As such, the Timbers Army was support the way it is supposed to be done.

With Caleb Porter and the Timbers flying high and showing all the hallmarks of a possible MLS Cup champion, the obvious question is what winning a title might mean for everyone involved. That includes the city of Portland, the Timbers Army and the team itself.

AP Photo/Alex GallardoPortland's rise is hard to fault given the quality in attack; Jack Jewsbury, Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri have all been key contributors this season.

Naturally, an MLS Cup would bring more attention to the club and the sport in the region. For all the success the Timbers have had, this is still soccer in America. In a place that still clings to the Trail Blazers' 1977 NBA title, winning a championship would be noteworthy and perhaps transcendent. "It would be a really big deal in Portland," said Orr. "It would make a big dent. People would say 'Oh this is not just soccer for hipsters, this is something we can be proud of in Portland.'"

As for the Timbers Army, one can't help but wonder if cheering for a winning team makes them just a little less special. It's not that they don't want their Timbers to win championships, but considering the pre-MLS history of the group was built on setting a new support standard for a second-division team that never won, some of what makes them unique would naturally fade.

"That's sort of the irony," Orr said. "Actually winning would take a lot away from this fan base. At least what makes it internally referred to as 'unique.' Everybody wants to win. Everybody wants to have the ability to gloat about trophies. Nobody wants an empty trophy case. But as long as [the Timbers] are on zero, there's a sense that the fans can say they care more."

Orr cited last year's U.S. Open Cup loss to amateur side Cal FC when fans chanted "Care like we do!" at the players. The message seems clear. In Portland, they don't do bandwagons.

Now the Timbers are good. Not just good, but top seed in the Western Conference good. With good teams, and especially championship-winning teams (should the Timbers get there) come bandwagon jumpers. As any Boston Red Sox fan will tell you, bandwagons change everything -- from the number of people suddenly claiming to be part of what was formerly a group of truly committed individuals to the perception of the team's fans by others. Can the Timbers keep up their "authentic" support, support that has lasted through poor soccer and heartbreak alike, if a new wave of fans jump on board? Do the Timbers and the relationship with their fans remain "special" if people who weren't there before MLS came calling latch onto the team?

"You don't support the teams in Portland because you're expecting the team to win the title every year and to have the MVP every year," opined Orr. "You do it because it's Portland and because the team is supposed to be a reflection of the people and of the city."

Up to this point in history, at least when it comes to their professional sports teams, Portland has very rarely been a city of winners. If the Timbers win, will it change anything? Or will it change everything?


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