For us civilians, known to resort to the Sportscreme-and-Bushmills cure after routine two-mile runs, the numbers tell a sobering tale.
Eight days in June. Four pro soccer games. Three hundred and sixty minutes of no-mercy action.
Such was the most recent week in the short history of the Portland Timbers. If I were running a first-year franchise, this obstacle course would look like a marathon through the nether regions. When I suggested as much to Timbers coach Bobby Howe two days before the madness began, he couldn't help but laugh.
"The week of hell," Howe chuckled over the phone. "Well, your words, not mine."
Howe played for London's West Ham United in the '60s and probably saw sights more formidable than the Timbers' schedule just walking from his locker to the field. Still, Howe admitted that the congestion posed certain challenges, especially considering his small 18-man roster.
"Oh, ideally we'd be Manchester United, have 50 players on the payroll and play different squads in each game," Howe said breezily. "At this point, though, our players are about as fit as they're going to be."
Yes--they're active and vigorous young men, after all. But what about the fans? How would they hold up through this brutal jag? Midway through the ordeal, while investigating the PGE Park beer garden, I ran into Abram Goldman-Armstrong, who writes about hops and music for WW and learned soccer fandom cheering on Cork City in Ireland. He spoke in raspy tones. "I just hope my voice lasts through the week," he said.
The four-game run indeed showed the Timbers and their fans at their best, as well as in the throes of some troubling wobbles. The Timbers won three of four, including an exhibition upset of Major League Soccer's San Jose Earthquakes. By beating league rivals San Diego Flash and Minnesota Thunder, the Timbers vaulted into first place in the A-League West.
Meanwhile, a grand total of 16,730 turned out for the four games. Any crowd over 4,000 keeps PGE buzzing, and the passionate Timbers crowd stands in contrast to the placid gatherings at many PDX sports events. Section 107, behind the north goal, attracts a knot of drum-beating, loud-singing, hardcore fans who favor several chants not suitable for publication in a family newspaper--not even a Tommy-Has-Two-Mommies sort of family newspaper like this one.
This contingent enjoyed its finest moments of the week against San Jose on Monday, June 4. In a ragged drizzle, anti-California sentiments cascaded from the stands ("We can turn our lights on!" emerged as a particular favorite of mine). The Timbers went after their supposed betters from MLS like blood-starved mastiffs, taking a 1-1 tie deep into the second half.
Finally, Keith Costigan sliced through San Jose's left flank, an Irish knife making short work of rancid Bay Area butter. Costigan whipped a cross at a severe angle through the smoldering ruins of the Quakes' defense. The ball found midfielder Kevin Legg's seaweed dye job, and Legg nodded the rock home for the clincher. Section 107 erupted like a bomb had gone off in its midst.
If that was the Timbers' high point of the week both on and off PGE's plastic grass, the display in last Saturday's Open Cup match against the Utah Blitzz was less edifying. The Blitzz, a scrappy bunch from the bush-league pro division below the A-League, repeatedly punched holes in a shaky Timbers D. The home team looked fuzzy-skulled, managing just one goal by Darren Sawatzky.
As the game sputtered to a close with two late Utah goals, a grubby little spat flared between PGE security and a few fans in 107. With a group of fans determined to climb on the roof of the baseball dugout in front of the section, and security equally determined to keep them off, a somewhat ugly and definitely pointless scene emerged.
The Timbers will play their fifth game in 12 days when they meet regional rivals the Vancouver Whitecaps at PGE Park Wednesday night. Just as I'm sure Howe will have the Timbers' mental house back in order after Saturday's disheveled showing, I'm hopeful cool heads will prevail in the stands and security corps. Representatives of the Cascade Rangers, a Timbers fan club, met with team officials over the weekend to discuss concerns raised by Saturday's incident, according to club member Jim Lenhart.
The Timbers and their fans are an oasis of rowdy cheer and excitement in an often sterile sports scene. As last week's sweatfest made clear, it would be a shame if the party didn't last.
G! F! W! Xtra!
In the midst of last week's demon ride, the Timbers' attendance stats got tongues wagging across town. Okay, maybe not-but on mega-popular KPAM talk radio, no less! The Pamplin media empire's designated sports grumpasaur Dwight Jaynes, whose soccer credentials are, we're sure, impeccable, took the team to task for drawing an announced crowd of less than 3,000 to last Wednesday's game against Minnesota. Jaynes apparently has a theory that soccer is not a good spectator sport, a theory undeterred by global stadium attendance in the millions each week. For the record, the Timbers averaged 5,608 per game through this week, compared to an A-League average of 2,551. Meanwhile, Major League Soccer averaged 13,797 through last week.
The deathless debate over stadium bux takes to the cyberwaves this week, as the website Politalk.com hosts a forum on public ballpark financing. The moderated email debate, which began on June 11 and runs through June 22, includes four Portlanders: Business Journal editor Dan Cook, Drew Mahalic of the Portland Oregon Sports Authority, Tim Marttala of the Oregon Baseball Campaign and Ron Paul of City Commish Charlie Hales' office. Noted sports economist Andrew Zimbalist is slated to take part, as are sports journos Neil DeMause and Jay Weiner, both of whom have written books on the subject of stadium financing. According to Politalk chieftain Tim Erickson, the debate will likely deal with Portland's stadium controversy at some length. To sign up for the forum, visit Politalk.com.
Zimbalist, the Smith College policy wonk who brings a dose of the dismal science to the jockbiz world, has become a semi-ubiquitous figure in the Sporting Press in recent years. Zimbalist has authored a bunch of books on topics ranging from the plantation economics of college sports to the big leagues' stadium shell game. Shameless diamond slut Rudy Giuliani, who seems to have promised new ballparks to everyone from the Yankees to the Brooklyn Cyclones (look it up), has denounced Zimbalist by name. Which makes him a pal of mine, I figure. I called ol' A-Z this week to get some insight on the issue of baseball "contraction," the proposal to lop off a couple of big-league teams to cure competitive and financial woes. MLB commish Bud Selig has been talking up this auto-amputation option in the run-up to baseball's forthcoming, and surely gory, labor negotiations. Even though Selig is almost certainly using contraction as a red herring, there are those who take the idea seriously enough to wonder if dropping teams would jeopardize the Majors' curious exemption from U.S. antitrust laws.
"It most certainly would," Zimbalist said. "And, by the way, Portland could bring the lawsuit. So could fans or would-be owners in Virginia, or any city that loses its team to contraction." Gotcha. I'll have my lawyers standing by.
I have to declare a temporary halt to the bashing of the NBA and NHL's idiotic playoff structures. The Stanley Cup Finals series between the New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche was sheer dynamite-playoff hockey at its bloody and emotional best. Yes, the Ray Bourque-finally-get-the-Cup story was overplayed, but his career-capping triumph was a truly great moment. As for the brewing brouhaha in the NBA Finals: Did you see the terrifying 1000-yard stare Allen Iverson threw on at the end of Game Two? Jesus Christ. For all of the Blazers-induced misery in PDX this year, we can thank our guardian gawds this year's soulless Portland team didn't collide with Iverson's gritty Sixers. Philadelphia will probably lose to the Evil Lakers in this series, but they would have feasted on the empty hearts of the Blazers, Temple of Doom-style.
Portland Timbers vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
1844 SW Morrison St., 553-5555
7:30 pm Wednesday,
The first meeting
of the Timbers and 'Caps revives a rivalry from the
old North American Soccer League's "Northwest Triangle."