My girlfriend and I had planned on seeing the Portland Beavers baseball game at PGE Park last night, until I read the marquee outside of the stadium correctly on Friday and realized it was a Portland Timbers soccer game.
Preface: I’m the average American sports fan. I pledge allegiance to National Football League, Major League Baseball and National Basketball Association teams. I follow a handful of athletes who play individual sports, as well. Soccer grows on me every World Cup, but I find it one of the most difficult professional sports to follow. Soccer gets pooled in with auto racing, hockey and tennis in the Sports For Which I Have No Particular Interest bin.
It’s not you, soccer. It’s me.
I’d been told about a massive fan following known as the Timbers Army. I’m not sure if there’s declared membership or just loose association based on where you sit for the game, but friends and co-workers warned it’s one of the wildest, most devoted groups I would ever witness.
And it was.
Dressing the part is nothing. Most devotees have a whole wardrobe dedicated to their team. Forget knowing the names and backgrounds of players — that’s for sportswriters, broadcasters, coaches and general managers. Getting tanked before, during and after is requisite for any college sports venue, so that’s not what I’m getting it.
Top this: These people have a hymnal — hymnal! — with a dozen or so songs, including some parodies, dedicated to the Portland Timbers. And sing they do. By my count, they sang for nearly two hours last night, and through all the balladry, cadences, and clapping, they were the first (and loudest) to react to every play in the game.
Flags waved, beach balls bounced and streamers flew, and while it looked like all of Mardi Gras had been sentenced to a minor league soccer game, this was one of the most rapt crowds I’ve ever witnessed. These people, clearly, gave a shit. These people, most likely, need throat lozenges this morning.
I started thinking, I wonder if these people have always been so passionate about sports. I don’t see it. It’s stupid to stereotype a crowd of 3,000 or so, but they seemed like late-comers to the pantheon of diehard sports fanaticism. They look kind of like the kids from high school who passed on any and every sporting event in favor of punk rock shows. Years later, they would don facepaint, green hair dye and enlist in the Timbers Army like nothing could be more natural.
Better late than never, I say.
I won’t be joining the Timbers Army any time soon. (I’m not so sure they’d have me.) I’m already too emotionally attached to my Minnesota Twins and Vikings and my Orlando Magic. I can’t sympathize with another cause and set myself up for further heartbreak. It’s brutal being a sports fan. That’s why it’s great to have fellow fans, the camaraderie, people with whom you can share the revelry and agony that’s synonymous with sport.
The Portland Timbers join Major League Soccer next year, and before last night, I had my concerns. I wouldn’t call Portland a major sports town and the MLS has already failed in Miami and Tampa Bay, which are, by comparison, much bigger sports markets. Still, I think the Timbers Army alleviates any concerns over whether the MLS will work here.
It doesn’t take millions of people in a city to make a professional sports franchise successful. (Look at Los Angeles’ time in the NFL.) All you need is a dedicated fan base who will endure losing seasons, ticket price increases and the occasional proposal for public funding, and still show up in droves.
For that reason reason alone, I’m sure the Timbers will be fine. They’ve got an Army.