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April 20th, 2011 JONATHAN CROWL | Sports
 

Cutting The Ribbon

Five things we learned from the Portland Timbers’ first two home games in Major League Soccer.

news6_timbers_3724WINNING ARMY: Portland soccer fans celebrate the team’s 4-2 victory against the Chicago Fire in the home opener. - IMAGE: nataliebehring.com

Portland’s initiation into Major League Soccer played to sellout crowds last week and produced the Timbers’ first wins of the season.

For those who weren’t among the 18,600-plus fans to pack Jeld-Wen Field on a rainy Thursday night and a sunny Sunday afternoon, here’s a recap.

As promised, Portland has the potential to become one of the jewels of Major League Soccer. MLS commissioner Don Garber said as much when he said the Timbers franchise would will help raise the profile of the 18-team league. Television ratings are paramount to the 15-year-old league’s continued success. And a raucous sellout crowd of 18,627 at Jeld-Wen Field translated well during the national ESPN2 telecast of the April 14 home opener. One of the challenges facing MLS is matching the game intensity found in European leagues. Timbers coach John Spencer, who’s been in MLS for eight years as a player and assistant after spending parts of his career in England’s Premier League, said the Timbers’ home-field atmosphere is unmatched in the United States and surpassed that of some European franchises.

Timbers Army seating is packed and competitive. Almost every seat in the 16 sections was filled an hour before Thursday night’s 8 pm game. Some fans started arriving several hours early to wait in line and get seats in the first few rows. “I’ve been going to games for years, and me and my friends are always in the fourth row,” said Dan Schaefer. “We got our spot, but we had to fight for it. We had people waiting in line at 4 o’clock.” And despite Boston Globe sportswriter Bob Ryan dissing the fans’ a-cappella rendition of the national anthem on opening night, the singing marked one of the stadium’s cooler moments so far.

Fans have a big off-field crush on owner Merritt Paulson. During the opening ceremonies for the inaugural game, much of the stadium participated in a chant of the team owner’s name. The adulation was in sharp contrast to the Timbers logo unveiling last June, when fans blasted what they considered a cartoonish design by chanting “you fucked up” to an onstage Paulson. Now he’s the toast of Timbertown. But the crowd had a harder time remembering Mayor Sam Adams’ role in bringing Major League Soccer to Portland—he was booed loudly when introduced during pregame festivities.

Timbers fans have their on-field darling. Every player had the backing of the crowd, but no opening-night cheers were as loud as those for 20-year-old Darlington Nagbe. Though the Timbers’ top draft pick didn’t enter the game until the 82nd minute against Chicago, his arrival set off a thunderous roar from a crowd that had been depressed by two straight Fire goals that narrowed the Timbers’ lead to 3-2. Though not yet a starter, the forward/midfielder is considered the top prospect on the Timbers squad and was making just his second MLS appearance after returning from a hernia injury last month. On Sunday, the crowd gave strong acknowledgment to midfielder Kalif Alhassan as he left the game in the 72nd minute. Alhassan had two assists in the 3-2 victory and displayed mesmerizing footwork that frustrated the F.C. Dallas club.

Transportation and parking outside the stadium weren’t the headaches some feared. TriMet, which ran frequent bus and train service to the stadium, estimates about 6,600 fans—more than one-third of the crowd—used mass transit for the home opener. Wait times to board buses and trains were obviously worse before and immediately after the game, but crowds dispersed quickly. Parking around the stadium wasn’t hard to find, but it came at a steep price: Meters charge $3.50 an hour during games, and some parking lots were selling spots at $20 a pop. Riding express buses was the cheaper alternative, costing $2.05 each way. 

 
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