Those last few hours at work on Friday are the longest hours of my life. Each minute is ten minutes. Each hour is four hours. This is how it’s been since the final whistle in Dallas, but by the end of the week, with flights just hours away and bags not yet packed, the tension of waiting has reached a crescendo.
My alarm goes off at 2:50 a.m. Saturday, December 5. And again at 2:55, 3:00, 3:05.
By 4 a.m., I’m in line at the Alaska counter at Portland International Airport and by the time I reach the security line, the airport is awash in green and gold: scarves, hoodies, Timbers kits in green, red, white. Never has PDX been so festive.
There are roughly a dozen of us on the 5 a.m. flight to Seattle, where we’ll catch a connecting flight to Detroit. None of us has ever been so excited to head north to the Emerald City.
We talk about how lucky we are to be making this trip, how we never thought we’d be so excited to be going to Ohio in December, and once we’re on the plane, we apologize to non-green-clad passengers who are not nearly as awake or as excitable as we are. The woman seated to my right is having none of it.
I’d been apprehensive about going through Seattle on the way to the Final. Superstition, maybe, or perhaps memories of unfortunate results at Centurylink Field. But there’s a certain beauty to be seen when flying over the home of your closest and most heated rival on your way to a cup final, especially when their field is lit with green lights and the streetlights surrounding it cast a golden glow.
We’re met by even more Timbers faithful in the Seattle terminal. There will be at least two dozen of us on the flight to Detroit, but there are many, many more waiting for flights to other locales. Everyone is aiming for the same final destination: Columbus, Ohio.
Columbus, Ohio. In December. It’s a thing we’ll repeat to each other in disbelief over and over. “Remember that time when we all got really excited to go to Ohio? In December?!”
Slowly, over the course of several days, this feeling has been gathering steam: we are, one or two people at a time, moving Portland to Columbus.
One of my travelling companions has been tasked with making sure I’m okay on the plane. He thinks it’s because I’m not good at flying but, in reality, the nerves of going to a cup final to see my hometown team play for hardware far outweigh whatever travel anxiety I might have. Nonetheless, when he moves and a stranger is seated across the aisle from me, the stranger is given a lecture. “You might have to hold her hand if she gets nervous,” he’s told. The stranger agrees.
Before we take off, I look back at the passengers seated behind me. There are people I know, or people in Timbers or Timbers Army gear, in nearly every row. There’s never been an away day quite like this.
Nine hundred tickets were sold through the 107ist, the organization behind the Timbers Army, but an estimated 2,500 people made the trip to Columbus from across the United States and from as many as seven different countries. As a point of comparison, the Timbers Army’s biggest organized away day was to Seattle in October of 2012 when the supporters group sent seventeen buses and 1,500 people north on Interstate 5 for a match against the Sounders.
An hour into the flight, I look over to see the stranger across the aisle flip a page in his magazine and land on a double page spread about the Hurst Edition Trans Am, a retooled Chevrolet Camaro outfitted to resemble Bandit’s car from Smokey and the Bandit. Smokey and the Bandit, from which we get the Jerry Reed classic “Eastbound and Down.”
It takes me a minute for it to register. I lean over and ask him if I can take a picture of his magazine and then smile to myself for the next several hours. There’s no way that’s a real sign of anything, I try to tell myself. But I know.
When we touch down in Detroit, we still have a three-hour drive ahead of us. Twitter tells us our friends and fellow supporters have spread out across Columbus to make it their own.
A meet-up is set at Columbus’ Three Legged Mare, an Irish-themed sports bar in the arena district. What started as a Facebook invitation from one of the Timbers Army’s regional subgroups has turned into a gathering of several hundred people who spill out onto Ludlow Street and across to Gordon Biersch where, by the time I arrive, they’ve run out of Jameson.
I’m separated from the friend I’ve arrived with almost as soon as we’re out of our taxi, but it doesn’t matter. Everyone here is family.
Pushing through the door into the Mare, the first pair of eyes I see are those of Timber Jim, who cuts through the crowd to greet me. He’s in his element, surrounded by Timbers fans. Someone starts a chant and the bar takes it up. Glasses are raised, hugs are offered and accepted. It’s like a family reunion for people who are not related by blood, but by sport.
Phone buzzing in my pocket, I make my way across the street to Gordon Biersch to catch up with the Scot and the Irishman and, miraculously, the bar finds one last hidden bottle of Jameson. We toast the season, we speak of vanquished foes, we plan for game day.
Sunday morning dawns. It’s like any other game day, only more so. I’m a bundle of frayed, raw nerves. This is for all the marbles.
I take a taxi out to Mapfre Stadium. “Where do you want me to drop you?” the driver asks.
“Just look for a bunch of people wearing green.”
There are probably 500 people gathered for the Timbers Army tailgate, but the number will double before it’s time for the group to march in. We don’t tailgate in Portland; there just isn’t space for it. We gather in bars and restaurants around Providence Park, but this feels so much different. There’s something communal about it. There’s a line set up for barbecue, and tables set out with what I can only guess is several hundred pounds of sub sandwiches.
I’ve missed the wedding, but not the giant pink fluffy unicorn, who is seated in a place of honor on a sofa (why do we have a sofa in this parking lot?) near the PA. There’s beer from Widmer that I assume we’ve brought across the country, Smokey and the Bandit-style.
I run into Shawn Levy and, for approximately the ninth time today, I cry. “You know that phrase, ‘I can’t even’?” he asks. “I am the walking embodiment of that phrase. I can’t even.”
The sentiment is repeated with nearly every person I talk to. No one can believe we’re here, in a parking lot in Columbus, Ohio, in December, with so many of our friends. We know how lucky we are. We know how the stars had to align to get us all here. We know the work put in behind the scenes.
We’re still stunned the ball hit both posts.
Someone hands me a sandwich and I realize I don’t remember the last time I ate. We’re all nerves and nervous energy. Thankfully, come of us are caretakers and it’s one of these that makes sure I have a sandwich. I’m still thinking about the guy with the magazine on the plane.
Then comes the part that’s hardest for me. I cross a lot of lines. I’m a supporter first, a writer second, but on game days, the line between the two is sometimes blurred beyond recognition.
I hug everyone within arm’s reach four more times and set off by myself to see if they’ll let me into the stadium.
Over the last year, I’ve been credentialed in four different MLS stadiums as well as Seattle’s NWSL stadium and Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila, Wash., for a US Open Cup match. Each time, when it’s my turn for someone to check me off their list, I hold my breath because surely this will be the time when I’m found out, when they realize I have absolutely no business being in many of the places I find myself.
But they check my name off the list, and I’m given a credential and a fuzzy blue blanket embossed with the MLS Cup logo along with some sketchy directions about how to get to a temporary press box that’s been set up for overflow media.
This is my favorite part of any game day, this quiet time before ticketed spectators are in the park, when it’s just media and staff. There’s a quiet buzz of people going about their jobs, performing the thousand tasks necessary before the game can be played.
I find where I’m supposed to be, in the back row of a temporary press box directly over the Nordecke, the Columbus supporters section, and directly across the stadium from where the Timbers Army will be.
The stadium is starting to come alive. The flag and drum crews for the Timbers Army trickle into the visiting supporters section and I make my way toward them, unable to stay away. Everyone has a stunned, almost shell-shocked look, as though, despite our pre-game banter and our Twitter bravado, we’re still surprised that we’re here, that this is real, that this game is going to happen.
Banners are hung, some for some of our brothers and sisters no longer with us. This whole thing has been an emotional whirlwind and a common theme has been the collective desire to honor our history and to carry the fallen with us to the end.
Fans from both sides begin to fill the stadium and the Timbers Army section fills within minutes. Flags, drums, capos, songs: so long as there is a traveling Timbers Army, the Timbers will never play a true away game.
I’m an absolute mess by the time I make it back to the press box.
The anthems are sung and the Timbers Army tifo goes up in two panels: one a semi truck emblazoned with the Cupbound logo the TA has carried through the playoffs, the second a line from the Jerry Reed song. “We’re gonna do what they say can’t be done.” A Smokey and the Bandit tifo.
There are Ohio guys to my right and to my left, Prost’s founder, Steve Clare. To his credit, Steve has done his best to keep the Portland team on track in the week leading up to this game. “Enjoy it,” he tells me as the game begins. “I know your heart’s over there with the supporters, and I know you want to cover this in the best way possible, but take a few minutes and don’t be afraid to watch part of the game as a fan-“
And this is when I miss the Valeri goal.
Yup. I missed the Valeri goal. Instead, I see the reaction of the corner of the Nordecke to my left, then the dancing of the Timbers Army across the stadium, then the celebration of the Timbers on the field.
Steve is still talking when the second Timbers goal comes in the seventh minute. “It might be okay to chant a little under your breath,” he says.”
I’m crying, head in my hands. This can’t be happening. How is this even possible?
The rest of the game is a blur. There’s a Columbus goal, there’s a missed handball, the whistle blows. I’m standing, typing, trying to capture the moment, but I’m not really seeing. Steve, hand on my arm, says simply, “Watch this. You’re going to want to remember it.”
I see the players on the field – my players – celebrating. I see the stage being set for them to lift the Cup. I see them Tetris on the field as the Timbers Army Tetris’s in the stands.
And I see Columbus’ Kei Kamara sitting on the field. He’s done everything he can to get the win for his team including scoring the Crew’s only goal. He’ll be quoted later as saying he stayed on the field because he wanted to see what it was like to lift that trophy but now, it seems he’s overcome by the loss. Timbers midfielder Will Johnson takes a moment to give him a pat on the back before rejoining the winning side for the trophy presentation.
I watch as the Cup is lifted. I watch the reaction of my friends in the Timbers Army and, though I know I’m where I belong, I’d much rather be at the other end of the stadium with them.