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August 31st, 2011 JONATHAN CROWL | Cover Story
 

Gang Green

The Timbers Army is rowdy, raucous and rebellious. It also wields enormous power.

lede_3643(main)NO PITY: Behind the scenes, the Timbers Army is run by a nonprofit corporation with revenues of $200,000 this season. - IMAGE: Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers
No one should have more power when the Portland Timbers play at Jeld-Wen Field than Merritt Paulson. He bought the team in 2007, built it into a Major League Soccer franchise and turned the team into a local phenomenon.

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.”

IMAGE: Jacob Garcia

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 “No Pity” 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.”

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