But even Paulson has learned the limits of his influence: You don't mess with the Timbers Army.
On May 29, he watched his dejected team leave the pitch, beaten 3-2 by D.C. United. It was the Timbers' first MLS home loss after winning five straight. Team captain Jack Jewsbury and striker Jorge Perlaza had each scored—it wasn't enough—and they and the rest of the team filed into the locker room without stopping to acknowledge the Army.
The Timbers Army is a living force: Thousands of chanting, singing and (often) drinking fans form a raucous choir whose singular voice floods the stadium. In exchange for this passion, the Army demands recognition and respect.
That includes honoring its traditions—some dating to the original Timbers, circa 1975, who played in the original North American Soccer League. At game's end, players typically stand before the Army's sections, known as the North End, and applaud the fans. And players who score must hoist log slices cut by the team's chainsaw-wielding Timber Joey. This is Army tradition—win or lose.
Catcalls and a few obscenities rained down from the North End as the team slipped out.
Paulson rushed to the locker room.
"Guys, you've got to come out, you gotta get your log slices," Paulson recalls saying as he dragged Jewsbury and Perlaza back on the field. "The fans want to recognize you."
Not just any fans. The Timbers Army fills 3,600 seats every game, and that doesn't include thousands more who identify with the beast of the city's soccer subculture. Lawyers and high-tech execs cheer alongside construction workers and waitresses—many waving banners, others beating drums. Some are tattooed with the anti-establishment emblems of the Army. Most wear the ubiquitous âNo Pityâ scarf.
The Timbers' unofficial supporters group grew out of a handful of passionate soccer fans a decade ago. Its founders rejected the slick, team-approved branding that goes along with many booster clubs. Instead, they wanted the Army modeled on support groups that surround soccer in Latin America and Europe. That's antithetical to the traditional American concept of sports fanship. The Army wants an identity independent of the team it loves—like a teenager who rebels but will never move out of the house.
Alexi Lalas, a former star on the U.S. national team and an ESPN commentator, says the Army is on par with many supporters groups in other countries. He says Major League Soccer is marketing itself to younger adults epitomized by the Army—and that means an edgy experience beyond the family-oriented approach of the past.
"Portland has done a great job of tapping into this and making it about the drinking and the fan experience leading up to the game," Lalas says. "It's not G anymore, it's not R—but it's certainly PG-13."
The Army has shown its power and bent the Timbers' front office to its will, from getting stadium rules changed that allow for its smoke-bomb demonstrations to taking a cut of the ticket sales from the stadium's North End. When the team unveiled its official MLS logo last summer, members of the Army shouted it down—many with obscenities—and Paulson quickly caved and changed the design.
Keith Costigan, a former Timber who also played professionally in his native Ireland, says the Army has always been a savvy group—and that the team is smart to recognize its influence.
"In five years, Jack Jewsbury won't be around," says Costigan, now an analyst for Fox Soccer. "Players move on, but the fan bases stay. You need to know that they have a voice and are appreciated."
After years of bad-boy (and bad-girl) behavior, the Army has become one of the most powerful forces in Oregon sports and one of the most influential sports supporters groups in the nation. "The Army is not the first, but they are arguably the biggest," says Zach Dundas, a sports journalist and author of The Renegade Sportsman (and a former WW writer). "They've taken a pioneering role."The Army has turned this power into financial strength. It's taken in more than $200,000 so far this year from a savvy ticket deal with the team, membership dues and its own line of merchandise—all run through a behind-the-scenes corporate structure called the 107 Independent Supporters Trust, better known as the 107ist, named for the stadium section where the Army got its start.
The Army has in some ways eclipsed the image of the team itself and is better known than most of the players. At least one former player tells WW that some members of the current team recognize the Army's clout and question whether Paulson and the front office have granted the Army too much influence.
And not everyone finds the nonstop singing and chanting all that charming. While less profane now than in their early years, Army members still send F-bombs booming through Jeld-Wen. And it can often feel as if the experience at the stadium belongs foremost to the Army; everyone else is just being allowed to sit in.
The question for the Timbers remains how much clout they leave in the Armyâs hands ifâor whenâother fans trail away after the shine comes off the team.
âThe emotional relationship of the fans with the club is primarily a social phenomenon,â says Sean Hamil, a sports business expert at the Birkbeck Sports Business Centre in London. âThe consumer relationship is all a function of this emotional relationship with the team, and you can manufacture that, and thatâs really what youâre doing [with supporters groups].
âIt makes sense [for clubs] to develop that fan equity because it means youâll build a loyal fan base, but you lose a certain amount of control as well.â
âThatâs been part of the identity the whole time, the whole punk-rock aspect of it,â Goldman-Armstrong says. â[Now] I think thereâs a lot of aspiration to it by some of the newer fans who donât necessarily come from the music scene at allâitâs just part of what they associate with going to a soccer game.â
Heâs originally from a farm outside Yamhill. But a slight Irish accent colors Goldman-Armstrongâs words even 13 years after he studied abroad at University College Cork, where he fell in love with supporters culture by following Cork City F.C. of the League of Ireland. He works salvaging building materials and writes a column for Northwest Brewing News.
Goldman-Armstrong has anchored his spot in the front row of Section 107 since the Timbers joined the United Soccer Leagues 10 years ago. Heâs easily recognized by many Portlanders from being featured in the Timbersâ billboard campaign this year promoting the teamâs move to MLS.
If its antics cut against the grain of Portlandâs famous politeness, the Army reflects a subculture of the cityâs young who could easily be walk-ons in Portlandia. (One Army leader says heâs heard the IFC series that spoofs the city is eyeing an episode about the group.)
Goldman-Armstrong says soccer in America has long suffered from family-friendly marketing campaigns that misjudge the demographic most likely to embrace the sport.
âBasically, your typical American ownership group looked at [soccer] as, âOh, thatâs for soccer moms and suburbanites,ââ he says. âWe didnât fit into what they had in mind.â
Goldman-Armstrong and seven compatriots were banned from the stadium for a year after protesting the teamâs lousy 2006 season by lighting flares at the final home game. He watched the following season from atop ladders across Southwest 18th Avenue.
Thousands of people who perhaps had never been to a Timbers game before now call themselves members of the Army. Many flock to Section 107 behind the north goal, which Timbers Army veterans refer to as the tourist section.
âThereâs definitely a little bit of, âWho the hell are these people?ââ Goldman-Armstrong says. âAll of these people, they seem to think that they can just show up and come right down in front and save seats.â¦ Itâs like, no, Iâve been standing here for the last 10 years.â
That sums up many Army membersâ views of the fans only now discovering the Timbers: We were here first.
They feel that way about the owners, too.
The original hardcore supporters in 2001 numbered less than a few dozen. They called themselves the Cascade Rangers and gathered in Section 107âlater renaming themselves to dispel association with the Glasgow Rangers of the Scottish Premier League.
Everything about the Army got bigger: its size, volume and renegade attitude. Timbers owners tried to squash it. They failed.
Take the way past owners tried to deal with what the Army calls âYSA.â When opposing keepers strike goal kicks, the Army would yell, âYou suck, asshole!â
The protest emboldened many Army leaders. It taught them they had more power than they realized, and they used it to influence the current owner, Merritt Paulson.
Paulson arrived in 2007 with two things every sports team owner should have: a love for sports and a lot of money. A Harvard MBA, Paulson worked for the National Basketball Association for five years before forming Peregrine Sports LLC with his father.
That would be Henry âHankâ Paulson, former CEO of Goldman Sachs and U.S. Treasury secretary under President George W. Bush. The elder Paulson is best known for trying to fend off the nationâs 2008 financial meltdown. According to a 2010 Forbes article, heâs worth $700 million.
It took a few good bruisings before Merritt Paulson learned his lesson with the Army.
Roger Levesque plays for the rival Seattle Sounders and is widely reviled by the Army. But Paulson saw no problem inviting Levesque to play for one match in a Timbers jersey during a friendly against Toronto FC in October 2007. Army members spray-painted a huge sign that read, âReal Fans Hate Levesque.â Security officials tried to take it down; it just reappeared elsewhere in the North End. After the game, Paulson ran toward the Armyâs sections and yelled, âWhatâs the matter with you guys?â
This failure to understand what the Army considers to be tradition at the games has caused the most problemsâand strengthened the Armyâs muscle.
The Timbers won promotion to MLS in 2009 and unveiled their official logo at a team-sponsored celebration in June 2010 at Director Park; the stylized ax sent Army members into paroxysms. The design looked too cartoonish and fancified, and violated the sense of history and humility of the simple, dignified logos of the past. The event was a fiasco: Scores of Timbers Army members drowned out everyone else by chanting, âYou fucked up! You fucked up!â
Paulson at first responded defensively and defiantly. But he quickly gave in and settled on a plainer logo.
The Army went corporate in 2009. It might seem a contradiction in terms for an anarchistic group that for years rejected the idea of having a hierarchy. âSome people wanted to mold the fan culture [in the early days], but we let the group grow organically,â says Steven Lenhart, a founding member. âAfter the MLS announcement, people knew it was time to have something directing the path, making sure [the Army] stayed true to its roots.â
The nonprofit corporation, 107ist, is run by an 11-member board (like the 11 players a team fields on the pitch). The Armyâs corporation finds itself in an unusual spot: In the past, the Army rarely had more than $1,000 in a checking account and had to pay for its inventory of scarves and merchandise by charging membersâ credit cards.
No longer. Officials of 107ist say their ticket deal with the team, membership dues and other smaller revenue streams brought in more than $100,000 between March and December 2010. This season the Army got a 2.75 percent commission on $360 season tickets sold for its North End sections. Army officials say the 107ist has seen its revenues top $200,000 this year.
The 107ist also earns modest revenue from its merchandise van, which is set up across the street from the stadium on game days. This includes items like âNo Pityâ scarves, which are considered a rite of passage for new members and are sold at cost.
Paulson says any merchandise bearing the Timbersâ name could be claimed by the club under the teamâs trademark. But his comments show the Army has made its impression on him. âIâm not getting into any unnecessary legal pissing matches,â Paulson says. âIt seems petty. Those scarves have a lot of history behind them.â
The 107ist has donated $11,000 for soccer equipment at Jefferson, Madison and Franklin high schools. The 107ist also started Operation Pitch Invasion, which is restoring and building soccer fields throughout the Portland area.
Despite its growing influence, the Army has found its relationship with the players has grown more complicated. As recently as five years ago, players routinely gathered and drank with Army members at the Bullpen, a half block from the stadium on Southwest Taylor Street. (The Bitter End Pub, at the corner of West Burnside Street and Northwest 20th Avenue, is now the preferred game-day Army bar.)
The onetime closeness between the Army and players sometimes spelled trouble. The night in August 2004 when the Timbers clinched their first United Soccer Leagues A-League Western Conference championship, goalkeeper Josh Saunders was treated to free rounds at the Bullpen by Army members. According to news reports, he was arrested hours later for reckless driving and driving under the influence when Beaverton police clocked him at 102 mph on U.S. Highway 26.
Team rules now prohibit players from interacting with fans in such a manner, and the collective bargaining agreement of Major League Soccer further restricts how and when players can make appearances. The team sponsored a barbecue at Jeld-Wen earlier this month for 107ist members and players. But even the 107ist would have to jump through several hoops to get a player to appear at an event.
âTo be honest, even if we did that we wouldnât get Darlington Nagbe,â says Army spokesman Garrett Dittfurth, referring to the star midfielder from Liberia. âThey would send someone like Rodrigo Lopez.â
Ryan Pore spent two full seasons playing for the Timbers, plus much of this season, before being loaned to the Montreal Impact. Pore was the unofficial liaison between the players and the Army.
Pore says he has nothing but praise for the Army, but some of his former Timbers teammatesâespecially those new to Portlandâdidnât understand the Armyâs traditions and the expectations of the players to follow them. When Paulson pulled Jewsbury and Perlaza back onto the pitch to acknowledge the Army, it rankled some players.
âI think some guys still werenât happy with the fact that after the game they donât have the right to do whatever they want,â Pore says.
The team roster saw lots of turnover this year and added players who didnât grasp the Portland soccer traditions, let alone the Timbers Army rituals. Pore says there was some discussion in the Timbersâ locker room about the extent to which the Army influences the team and Paulson.
âI can tell you that itâs come up in conversations among players,â Pore says. âSome people think maybe the Timbers Army has too much power and the fans almost think itâs more about them than the players.â
Timbers Army regulars say the step up to MLS has created some distance between them and the playersâa reality when paychecks, and egos, get bigger as the stakes increase.
âNo one had support in the USL like Portland did,â Pore says. âThings have changed. Once players become bigger household names, itâs going to be tougher to get them to appreciate the fans and raise the log slices.â