Every knuckle-dragger who thinks soccer is for sissies should be forced to suck up a shot like the one that split Gavin Wilkinson's chin open late in the first half of Friday's Portland Timbers match--and then, just like the midfielder, take six stitches and return to action.

The crack to Wilkinson's jaw wasn't the prettiest moment of the Timbers' debut at PGE Park last Friday night, but it was emblematic of a fast, hard game that included two lightning goals for the home side, some ill-tempered squabbles, yellow cards and one nasty concussion to a Seattle Sounders player.

As the blood squirted down Wilkinson's chin and 12,295 people rattled the retrofitted park, it was clear: Soccer's back in Portland. It's not always pretty. But it's real. And the fans seem ready.

Portland's Verdiblancos abused the Seattle Sounders like cheap lawn furniture in the first half, daisychaining passes and winning loose balls pretty much at will.

When forward Mark Baena lashed a Darren Sawatzky pass into the back of the Sounders' net for the first goal, the place erupted. It was more of the same after the Timbers knocked in their second, a knifing header from Trinidadian defender Brent Sancho off a Sawatzky corner. A few large men with shaven heads stood near the top of PGE Park's section 107, plastic pints in hands, bellowing at the visiting Scum.

"Go home, ya bums/ Go home, ya bums/ Go home, ya bums/ Go home," they chanted a half-dozen times, the off-key chorus mingling with the desultory sounds of 12,295 people. They trailed off. "Very basic, but a start," observed one, as their seated neighbors looked on in bemusement, many of them busily whacking those devilish inflatable plastic noise-clubs together.

A few rows down, a pair of apparent Englishmen--also holding beers--tried to rouse their neighbors in homage to Portland's spiritual leader, antic lumberjack Timber Jim.

"Timber Jim, la la la!/ Timber Jim, la la la!" the two Englishmen shouted.

However, the most menacing and aggressive noise came from one of the stadium's open club boxes. Slicing through the air, repeated cries of "Portland, Portland!" descended from a green-clad mass. An all-girl uniformed youth team unleashed cries as piercing as the battle-shriek of an ancient female warrior horde. It chilled me to the marrow.

As these little pockets of fervor demonstrated, the Timbers' home opener vindicated Portland Family Entertainment's decision to include minor-league pro soccer in the mix at the retooled PGE.

Marketing soccer in this country is a tricky business, with whitebread suburbanites, ethnic and immigrant communities, mainstream sports fans and dedicated Europhiles all vying for different kinds of attention. This first game offered much to savor, but a true verdict as to the Timbers' impact on Portland's sporting will take time to render.

Appearances can mislead, so take this with a grain of salt: A casual survey of Friday's crowd seemed to reveal many citizens of the Minivan Soccer Nation, lots of to-the-bone fanatics and an encouraging number of casual fans taste-testing the newest entry in the city's sports menu. It would seem, though, that PFE hasn't yet truly tapped a potentially vast Hispanic market.

Of course, opening nights can be deceptive, as the XFL quickly learned. This Saturday, the Timbers play the Northern Nevada Aces at PGE. The Aces play in a lower-division minor league and offered little resistance when the visiting Timbers hog-tied them 4-1 before a throng of 300 a couple of weeks ago. However, it's an important game, part of a series of qualifiers for the U.S. Open Cup, a tournament that could bring Major League Soccer teams to PGE for meaningful games if the Timbers survive.

Will the skinheads, soccer moms, Anglo-Saxon exiles, sandal-wearing hippies, Backstreet Boys-loving distaff hooligans and beer-garden-bound yuppies who crowded last Friday's game return? That will be a true test of this team's potential.

U.S. Open Cup Qualifier Portland Timbers vs. Northern Nevada Aces

PGE Park 1844 SW Morrison St., 224-4400 7:05 pm Saturday, May 19 $6-16

The Sounders beat the Timbers in a return match in Seattle on Saturday, winning in overtime. Wilkinson took a shot to the eye that required three stitches. The 1-2-0 Timbers currently ranks fifth in the A-League's seven-team Western Conference.


U.S. Open Cup

is the oldest national cup competition outside the British Isles. It was first won by the Brooklyn Field Club in 1914. MLS's

Chicago Fire

won last year. The A-League's 1999

Rochester Raging Rhinos

are the only winner from outside MLS since 1996.