With the helmeted gladiators of our two largest educational institutions vying to establish themselves as national powers (or, at least, as peers of Fresno State), Oregon has discovered an appetite for pigskin. I am not immune, so I set out in search of the finest college football readily available to a Portlander last weekend.
Of course, with Portland State's gridiron Vikings exiled to Texas for a season-opening duel with Stephen F. Austin, the only futbol played in the metro area was the kind in which players actually use their feet. Fine with me, especially since the weekend offered a panoramic tour of college soccer in Portland--and a veritable tale of two cities.
To the north, University of Portland coach Clive Charles has constructed a shining colony in the genteel Catholic seclusion of the Bluff. The Pilots' women are a perennial power, and their dominance of last weekend's Wake Forest/Nike Invitational in North Carolina hints that talk of this year's team being the school's best-ever may be justified. And the men's team graduates player after player to the pro ranks.
If UP is the gentry of Portland soccer, with its boutique on-campus stadium and national rep, then you have to hit I-5 South to see how the other half lives. The Portland State women's team (there is no male squad) plays on the fake grass of Tigard High School's soccer field, a crowd of dozens lounging in a small, shady grandstand, pieces of paper taped to a four-foot-tall scaffold platform tracking the score.
You could say that PSU's Vikings are rebuilding, except that would imply an august past the 8-year-old program simply lacks. Portland State hasn't yet really tapped Portland's high-school talent pool, which coach Tara Bilanski says is largely siphoned to California's allegedly greener pastures. Much of the youngish squad comes from Washington state, where Bilanski's history as an assistant at the University of Washington gives her recruiting roots.
The Viks do have the fresh, hopeful energy Bilanski brings to the first year of her first head coaching job. Still, they entered Sunday's game against the Purdue Boilermakers in search of a victory to cure a 26-game winless streak.
"We are definitely fighting an uphill battle," says Bilanski. "I certainly don't expect huge things this year. But I think we already have some ingredients in place, and I think we'll surprise some teams."
Indeed, despite being comprehensively outplayed by a faster, bigger, tougher team, the Viks nearly stole a draw Sunday. Down two-zip at the half, they snuck an ambush goal by Tara Bennion, a 25-yard stealth bomb that hit the back of the net before the Purdue 'keeper, or anyone in the cozy little crowd, really appreciated its danger.
The goal awakened something fierce in the Vikings, who suddenly sensed the possibility of an upset. A screamer from frosh Julie Edmonds smacked the crossbar of Purdue's goal--had it sailed an inch lower, the Vikings could have dug a defensive trench around a crafty little draw. It was not to be, however. Portland State goalkeeper Gretchen Pietras decked a Purdue striker to prevent a breakaway goal a few minutes later, earning a red card. The Vikings sank 3-1.
The day before and far away at UP's Merlo Field, the male Pilots, a true rebuilding project, showed promise. While last year's team was capable of being brutally bad, the 2001 outfit looked downright stylish in a 4-1 dismantling of William & Mary on Saturday.
Moving the ball practically at will, the Pilots racked up the Tribe with endless jabs along the flank, Canadian import Josh Simpson dancing nimbly out of numerous tight corners and opening the scoring with a nifty, looping header in the first half. Forward Nate Jaqua, designated BMOC, got himself a pair of scrappy goals. In all, it was a spectacle to warm the hearts of the Pilots' loyal following, which includes numerous young players and coaches who go to Merlo to absorb the game's finer points via osmosis.
Could Bilanski turn PSU into a more streetwise, more ghetto-fab version of UP's private dynasty? It would be nice to see the leading public institution of a soccer-rich city step up, but there's a long way to go.
"Clive and I have a good working relationship," Bilansky says of her cross-town counterpart. "I'm not going to be unrealistic--I don't view them as a hurdle, because it would be a long time before we could even think about hurdling them."
True enough. Still, it's something to shoot for, ain't it?
A big week for soccer in Portland:
University of Portland Pilots
4:15 pm Friday,
vs. Fresno State
11 am Sunday,
vs. Alabama- Birmingham
2:15 pm Saturday, Sept. 15
1:15 pm Sunday, Sept. 16
All games at Merlo Field on the UP campus, 5000 N Willamette Blvd., 943-7911
Tigard High School Soccer Complex
9000 SW Durham Road, Tigard,
5 pm Monday, Sept. 17