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Columbus

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.

 

Crossing lines

 

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.

Twenty-seven seconds.

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.

 
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Posted by on March 5, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Unpopular opinions

I wrote this three months ago as news of the Morgan-to-Orlando trade broke, but I didn’t post it. Today, we got the announcement that the Thorns will host Orlando in Portland’s home opener in April and all the crazy came out of the woodwork again. Yesterday was much more fun. The eye-rolling I’ve done today has given me *such* a headache.

I sometimes have unpopular opinions. Sometimes I utter them out loud, in front of people, occasionally in public places. Sometimes I post words to the internet. Often, I just keep them to myself. I’m wondering if I should keep whatever follows here to myself. Probably.

My most recent foray into unpopular opinions comes on the heels of the Thorns-Pride-Reign mega-trade that ended with USWNT star Alex Morgan leaving the Thorns for the sunnier climes of Florida. And, as I apparently have not articulated this enough times, I wish her the best.

Sadly, because I have not thrown myself upon the ground to worship her, I’ve been accused of not being a fan, of not respecting her, of flat-out being an embarrassment to Portland.

Okay. Let’s go over this so it’s all out in the open.

I was surprised in 2013 when she was allocated to the Thorns. It made little sense to me. She had been playing as a member of the Sounders Women but some sort of weird ownership blip with NWSL and the SW owner and US Soccer meant she would be allocated in the new league and here we are. Everyone I know expected she would stay in Seattle and Pinoe would come to Portland. In hindsight, I’m glad it was Morgan that came here.

Seriously. Read that last sentence again. Here, I’ll put it in bold for you: I’m glad it was Morgan who came here.

She did well here in the inaugural season of NWSL, despite mid-season injury. She scored goals, she tallied assists, she fought back from injury because that’s who she is: a competitor. A fierce competitor.

But, as fierce as she was on the field, we as supporters had little chance to connect with her as a person. Let’s remember how she was used in the marketing of virtually every other team. “Alex Morgan’s Portland Thorns.” She became less of a person and more of a selling point, inaccessible in a city where supporters deeply value their connections to their clubs and players. People would show up en masse at away matches to get her autograph and then complain when she couldn’t get to everyone.

My issue, despite what many will read into these words, is not with her. It’s with the marketing of the league and it’s continued reliance on national team members to sell tickets. You know what will sell tickets in the long run? A good product. You know what else helps? A beer garden, but that’s another post. A third thing that will sell tickets? A thriving supporters culture.

By the time we reached 2014, Morgan was injured again. She struggled with fitness and pushed herself to make a return to the field. Please do not tell me I do not respect that. After her first game back in 2014, I sat in the presser afterward and saw the tears in her eyes as she told us how disappointed she was with her performance, how she’d wanted to be able to do more but just wasn’t quite there yet. Again: fierce competitor, amazing drive to win. I have nothing but respect for that.

It just didn’t come together for her in Portland. Back-to-back injuries, absences for national team duty and – dare I say this? – a general disconnect from Thorns supporters made for an unfortunate situation. Being told she wouldn’t travel to Chicago for a match early this season because of the turf there turned me a bit more. Thierry Henry she ain’t.

So, yes, I respect her as an athlete, but I wanted to love her as a Thorn. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Instead, my imagination was captured by Mana Shim who showed up at an open tryout and won a spot on the team though hard work and determination. It was captured by Vero Boquete who made me cry more than once when she spoke about how her only desire was to win games because the Portland fans deserved it. It was captured by Sinead Farrelly and Kat Williamson who wore Riveters bandanas in their official team mug shots. It was captured by Kaylyn Kyle who was the first of the World Cup players to return to Portland and, though she was given the opportunity to rest after Canada’s WC campaign ended, insisted on playing for the Thorns almost immediately upon her return.

I think I said it earlier today somewhere on Twitter: I feel sorry for Alex. My wish for her is that she somehow finds a way to connect with supporters in Orlando in ways she was unable to here. I think we saw momentary glimpses of who she can be, but they often were overshadowed by her duty to country over club.

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

December 4, 2015.

It’s 8:30 Friday night. I’ve got clothes in the dryer, an open suitcase waits for them in the living room. I’m on a 5 a.m. flight tomorrow for the first leg of a trip that will take me through three airports and as many time zones.

By this time tomorrow, I’ll be in Columbus, OH, home of the Columbus Crew, Mapfre Stadium, and the site of the 2015 MLS Cup final.

Personally, this has been a ridiculous week. Every minute has been four minutes long. Some hours have been two days long. I have sat at my desk at work and cried every day this week. Encouragement from both editors and writers, extreme generosity of friends, a hurried email to a friend’s wife to beg her to let him come with all of us to Columbus.

She said yes. I cried when I wrote the email and I cried when she replied.

There was the part where I sat in my car in the driveway and talked to the first Timbers beat writer for The Oregonian, a man who covered the team in ’75 and ’76 and later went on to be the director of communications for US Soccer.

There was the part when a friend put up his hotel points so I could have my own room because, as he put it, “No one over the age of 26 should sleep in a room with six strangers.”

There was the part when my TA coworker got to leave work today an hour and a half before I could. Still kinda mad at him.

And there’s the realization that we are going to experience history. Me and something like two thousand of my closest friends will be there in person. Thousands more will watch on tv here in Portland, as well as across North America and around the world.

A friend, the one who’s putting me on a plane in the morning, sent me a message today: “Write something positive regardless of the outcome, k?”

Regardless of the outcome, we will have had one more game together before the darkness of the offseason. We will have seen a magical playoff run. We will have seen history made.

 
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Posted by on December 4, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Refuge

It’s Halloween night and I’m sitting at the dining room table in a friend’s house in inner NE Portland. I didn’t expect to be here, but here I am.

That’s maybe the truest statement of the entirety of my sports fandom and my connections to the Timbers Army, the Rose City Riveters, RangersFirst, ProstAmerika, WATP Magazine and TheCup.US. I didn’t expect to be here, but here I am.

Seated at the table are people I know pretty well and people I’ve just met. The two that I know well are soccer people: both TA, one a player with Old Growth FC.

As it always does, the conversation over dinner eventually turns to soccer. But this time, it’s not about the game itself, but about how we ended up so engrossed in the community that surrounds it.

It’s a thing I think about a lot. How did we all end up here? How did we get so lucky to stumble into this ready-made family?

My story is simple enough. A ridiculous number of you have probably heard it before. I was a baseball fan. I went to Beavers games. The hotel where I worked got Beavers tickets from Jack Cain and, occasionally, Timbers tickets, too.

When the announcement was made that Portland had been awarded an MLS franchise, I put down a deposit for tickets. I did it on a whim, not knowing if I’d actually use the tickets or not. And when it came time to wholly buy in, I did that, too. On my birthday in 2010, I bought two tickets, the cheapest I could get: section 221, row R, seats 1 and 2.

I took 17 credits at Portland State that fall. I worked 40-45 hours a week. I was exhausted. And then I was done with school in December, lost my long-term job the first week of January of 2011, and felt utterly lost. I no longer felt like I was me. I was adrift.

But I knew I had these tickets. And I knew the season was going to start in a few months. At least I had that to look forward to, though I had no idea what it would mean to me in the long run.

I talked a friend into buying my other ticket. We went and got our axe pictures taken in a little pop-up store a couple blocks from Pioneer Courthouse Square (we’re both on the poster and on the councourse at Providence Park). We stood in line in the rain opening day.

Walking into the stadium, feeling the crowd around me, it was like coming home. I felt like me again. I felt again.

My story isn’t as dramatic as some. I’ve heard stories of newly-single parents buying tickets so they knew they would have something to share with their kids, stories of grief and loss and sadness. These stories become stories of a search for refuge and companionship, of a desire for community that is nothing short of tribal.

They find it in the North End of Providence Park. They find it among the Timbers Army and the Riveters. We find friendship and love and acceptance and support and so much more.

“My soccer family in 107 for Thorns got me through a break-up and a brief couch-surfing period last summer,” one friend tells me. “For me, getting involved with this particular group of soccer fans meant more than having soccer friends; it was a support network.”

Another says simply,”The TA made Portland my home.”

These are common refrains. People are lost, they take a turn somewhere and find themselves in the midst of this thing where we hold their hands, help them through their break-ups, their divorces, their sadness and despair. We help them find their voices and, with a little luck, the teams give them something for which to cheer.

We saw this again today when a newly-minted Timbers fan posted an open letter to the Timbers on her Facebook page:

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 12.01.26 AM

As it turns out, Allison and her mom will be at Providence Park. They will be there because someone in the TA posted this on Twitter and someone else made sure that Merritt saw it and, if it wasn’t clear before, Merritt’s a pretty emotional guy. Now it’s on the Timbers to make sure they get the win for Allison and her mom.

**

Regardless of the result, this is the last home game of the year. This is one last chance to be together as a group, as family. One last chance.

For all the things this team has given us, chiefly this common focal point around which we’ve all come together, we will rally to give them all we have.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

So long and thanks for all the fish.

So, the Thorns are back where they were two years ago, only without the hardware.

It was announced today that the out-of-contract Paul Riley will not be invited back for a third year at the helm of the Portland NWSL team. Is it a good choice? Was it the necessary choice? What happens now?

No idea. I’m not even entirely sure what happened.

Even recently, Riley espoused his love of Portland and her soccer culture, but tempered his enthusiasm with a good measure of what might best be called homesickness. His home is on Long Island, where his wife presumably has stayed over the last two seasons.

The post-season presser with GM Gavin Wilkinson a few weeks back told us the possibility of bringing Riley back was being evaluated. Oddly, it felt to me that it would be more Riley’s decision than the team’s, but the team dropped the news today in a short-but-sweet news release. Here is a very fuzzy screen cap as I am completely devoid of any technical prowess:

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 9.58.23 PM

Okay. The team has stepped up and made the decision. And I’ve been through a range of emotions and opinions since the drop.

First:

Well, okay then. The team faltered for two years under his guidance, failing to make the playoffs this year after struggling through the World Cup absences of eight players. The team was disorganized and never quite came together the way you’d hope a team full of international-level players might. There was little spark, little motivation among the players, even knowing (and, as I’ve said before, I’m 96% sure they did know) that the championship game would be played at their home ground.

Second:

I dunno. Maybe the Keep Riley folks are right. Maybe he just needed that third year of his three-year plan to get things settled and to play the game he wanted to play. What’s the saying? Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.

Third:

This is serious. This is a team with infrastructure and atmosphere envied by women’s clubs worldwide. Proper facilities, complete staff, full stadium. Fans that chant and sing and travel to follow the team. A front office that is organized and professional. Running water.

And, with this major change, this is them stepping up and saying, okay, we’re going to get the on-field part right starting now.

***

It’s this third part that has me a bit shaken. Third coach in four seasons. The Timbers are on their second in five years of MLS and, if some folks are to believed, this one’s on shaky ground. With five games left in the season, three of which are on the road, the Timbers are one point above the red line, tenuously holding onto sixth place in the west. This is a far cry from where we were in Caleb Porter’s first season here.

He got here and seemingly turned things inside out. He had a bit of a smolder, a fire deep within him that pushed him to create a winning side. Everyone was on notice from that introductory press conference. The sentiment? Earn your keep. Work for your place in the XI, in the eighteen.

Both the sentiment and the smolder have been replaced with excuses and defiance. The company line, despite the denial of Merritt, seems to be that sliding into the playoffs in sixth place is good enough and Porter has gone from Sunday night’s disappointment in his team’s performance to taking the blame for their lack of execution.

I’m usually right on the edge of about seven different conspiracy theories when it comes to Portland soccer, and this has me wondering what’s going on behind the scenes. I’ve said it a couple times on social media: Porter’s lost this team. I just wonder what triggered it.

It certainly isn’t the first time a Portland soccer team has walked away from its coach. There’s a bigger issue at hand.

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

What to do about the Championship….

The 2015 NWSL Championship will be held in our city, Soccer City, USA, and, in all likelihood, it will feature two teams not from Portland.

So, what happens here? I know there are some loyal Thorns fans who won’t be there if their team isn’t there to support. That’s fine. There are some who will be up on the Bluff, taking in the University of Portland match at Merlo. Nothing wrong with that, either.

I’ll be at Providence Park.

People are discussing what role, if any, the Riveters should play. Should we take this as an opportunity to express our displeasure with the league, our coach, our underperforming players, with…what, exactly? Do we use it to elevate the other supporters groups in the league? Or maybe just those whose teams are still playing October 1st? There’s no true consensus.

A couple of us talked yesterday about taking up residence in section 223 for the Championship game. Visitors in our own home.

But meh. Let’s go to the South Deck. It’s nice to have a change of scenery once in a while.

 
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Posted by on August 25, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Game day

It’s a little after 8 a.m. and I’m the only one awake in the house.

A week ago, that I should even be here was unimaginable. A near-frantic Tuesday morning text message changed that.

“If I got you a ticket to the WWC, a ride, and a place to sleep, will you come with me?”

Hold please. Let me think on that.

A World Cup final.

Yes. I’ll go.

We didn’t have a confirmed place to stay until late Thursday, roughly the same time we realized my traveling companion’s passport had expired. Her wife, who we think may very well be a wizard, found her birth certificate late Friday night and, when we got to the border Saturday morning, the border patrol guard didn’t look at the expired passport long enough to even notice it was out of date. So, we may or may not be in Canadaland illegally.

Everything has just fallen into place (including walking into a very crowded Doolin’s in downtown Vancouver just after the ENG/GER match had started and finding a corner table with two comfortable wing-backed chairs.

So, to sum up, I lucked into knowing someone generous enough to give me a ticket. We lucked into a last-minute Air BnB house in a pretty convenient location. And, though less important, we lucked into a table in a crowded bar.

I’m wondering what we’ll luck into today.

 
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Posted by on July 5, 2015 in Uncategorized