There once was a merry band of soccer players. They hailed from diverse lands--from Trinidad and Scotland and Kyrgystan and Federal Way, Wash. They came together to represent the City of Portland, donning green and white to match their mighty name, the Timbers.

The soccer fans of Portland loved them, despite the Timbers' playing in a league most people in the area had never heard of before. The Timbers were theirs. Their mascot was a wacky man in workman's denim who hung from the rafters of their new/old stadium and threatened the bad guys with his chainsaw. Some Timbers fans wore floppy green hats; others shaved their heads; and many times those fans sang songs with words like "wanker" in them. And, at first, it was good. The Timbers scored goals and beat many teams.

But then the Timbers went away for a long time. They went to a very Bad Place.

"You should have called me three weeks ago." Jim Taylor, general manager of Portland's pro soccer team, is remembering a happier time. A time before the team he and Coach Bobby Howe assembled began to somersault down the A-League Western Conference standings. Before opposing strikers began eyeing the goal behind Portland keeper Matt Napoleon with the same look lesser Kennedys aim at B-list starlets.

In late April and early May, the Timbers' inaugural campaign launched with high hopes and a run of auspicious victories that included an exhibition upset of Major League Soccer's San Jose Earthquakes. That game may not have counted in the standings, but it gave the second-tier Timbers bragging rights over a team at American soccer's highest level.

Spring and early summer were great times for the Portland Family Entertainment-owned club, which found itself looking down on the rest of the 21-team A-League a couple of times. The Timbers showed the potential to reach the level Taylor and Howe hoped they would: the class of a highly competitive minor league, equal in quality if not status to some MLS squads.

Now, though, a miserable slump has the Timbers hoping simply to avoid Portland Fire-style oblivion. The Timbers have played seven of their last eight matches on the road, not kicking a ball in anger at PGE Park since a dispiriting 1-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders on July 21. This has truly been a time in the wilderness for the Timbers, no pun intended. They've lost six of their last seven matches, dropping a few squeakers and a few utter shellackings, like Aug. 3's 3-0 blitz at the hands of the Toronto Lynx.

"It seems to happen all too often in sports," says Taylor. "Does anyone want it to happen? No. Can anyone explain it? No. We've had a tough schedule with all the road games in a row, and we've had some problems on defense. But then we go out against Rochester [on Sunday, Aug. 5], play probably our best game of the year, and still lose 1-0. It's been frustrating."

Next Wednesday, the Timbers finally return to PGE for a match against the Minnesota Thunder. Taylor acknowledges that the Timbers' victory-drought makes this a crucial game--but then they're all crucial now, aren't they? The regular season wraps up with a flurry of action in the next three weeks. The top three teams in a noose-tight Western Conference go to the playoffs, as do three other wild-card teams. Right now, the Timbers teeter, en pointe, at the very top of a delicate bubble.

"It's imperative that we win these games, especially the last four home games," Taylor says. "We need every point we can get right now."

Like little kids, when the Timbers are good, they're very, very good; when they're bad, they're wretched. They can be fast, smooth and beautiful (or, sometimes, nasty, gritty and proud). When they string passes together, the lightning ball speed on their home field's artificial surface works to their advantage. They've shown fire in some clutch situations, such as when Napoleon abandoned his goal to make a game-saving play at midfield in the final seconds against Vancouver back in June.

On the other hand, they've turned in too many performances like the showing against Seattle last month, a profoundly indifferent display in front of more than 11,000 home fans. In that match, they punched no-hoper long balls to isolated strikers, surrendering control of midfield and generally playing like they'd never seen each other before.

Portland fans have seen both versions of the Timbers in this once (and future?) fairy-tale season. So as our Heroes in Green return for what may be their final homestand of the year, the question is, whom do we get? The frogs? Or the princes?

Portland Timbers vs. Minnesota Thunder

PGE Park 1844 SW Morrison St., 553-5555 7:05 pm Wednesday, Aug. 22 $6-$14.25

The A-League's Western Conference table at press time:

1. Vancouver Whitecaps (12-5-1, 55 points)

2. Milwaukee Rampage (11-8-1, 50 points)

3. San Diego Flash (9-11-1, 44 points)

4. The Hated Seattle Sounders (10-8-1, 43 points)

5. Your Portland Timbers (9-9-2, 42 points)

6. El Paso Patriots (8-9-3, 39 points)

7. Minnesota Thunder (7-13-1, 31 points)

After next Wednesday, the


comes hot and heavy at PGE. The Timbers face off against the Charlotte Eagles on Friday, Aug. 24; the Charleston Battery on Sunday, Aug. 26; and the Milwaukee Rampage on Thursday, Aug. 30. The club's regular season wraps up with away games in San Diego and El Paso the second weekend in September.