It seems like no one played soccer in Portland before 1975. The next year, kids crowded parks and fields to try this undiscovered sport. My middle school was unprepared for the onslaught. "We have one ball," I recall my coach complaining, "and 100 kids trying to chase it."
The difference was the original Portland Timbers, who delivered one of the most successful and startling debuts ever for an American pro sports team.
The expansion Timbers could barely field a full team less than week before their first game at Civic Stadium in May 1975. Four months later, the team was the point leader in the North American Soccer League before losing in the league championship game, called the Soccer Bowl.
That fire burns in this city today, from mighty mites in city parks to the tattooed Timbers Army regulars.
Michael Orr describes the improvised first season in The 1975 Portland Timbers: The Birth of Soccer City, USA. The players—most on loan from British clubs—arrived to find host families, as if the team were a student exchange program, and stayed together at the Tall Firs Apartments. None of the players was a star back home, and the team devoured the sudden and intense adoration, partying with fans at the Benson and Hilton hotels after every home game.
Other expansion teams in the young NASL had won titles, but the fan response in Portland was unrivaled. The first home match, a 1-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders, drew 6,913. The last home match, a semifinal playoff victory over the St. Louis Stars, drew more than 33,000. Orr writes of a near riot at a game in San Jose and how the Timbers' management averted disaster when British clubs demanded their loaned players be returned just before the Timbers started the playoffs.
We also get an account of every one of the team's 46 goals and granular detail about formation shifts and groin pulls.
But Orr never brings any player to life: These young footballers, praised like knights in the newly christened Soccer City, pass by like flimsy cutouts. In old age, a few offer bland quotes about the fine time they had. The best we get is that Coach Vic Crowe was flinty, and one player, then 19, got a fake ID so he could drink.
Even the game descriptions become passive and repetitive. The narrative of the 2-0 championship loss to the Tampa Bay Rowdies—the biggest game any Timbers team ever played—gets less than two pages.
It's a flat ending that fits the team's later life: After that stunning year, the NASL Timbers sank into seven seasons of mediocrity before folding in 1982. A vivid story left lifeless, like the ghosts of great promise that haunt the old Civic today.
GO: Michael Orr reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, March 8. Free.