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July 6th, 2005 Cliff Pfenning, Zach Dundas | Cover Story
 

HOMETOWN HOOLIGANS*

*(And we mean that in the nicest way!) - The Portland Timbers' die-hard fans prove that in soccer, Army life is grand.

     
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If your head is ringing from the pounding of drums...if you shredded your larynx screaming "Burn, destroy, wreck and kill/ Portland Timbers fucking will"...if your $8 "NO PITY" scarf reeks of spilled Budweiser and a smoke bomb's stink is wafting your way...if you're surrounded by up to 1,000 other flag-waving maniacs at the north end of PGE Park for whom the names Antoniuk and Alcaraz-Cuellar mean much more than Stoudamire or Randolph...

Then, my friend, you're in the army now. The Timbers Army.

By day, the Army includes accountants, freelance carpenters, nannies, phone clerks and nanotechnology engineers. By night (or at least game night) the fans of Portland's 5-year-old minor-league pro-soccer franchise are the most rabid, entertaining sports fans Portland has seen in decades. And in a city deeply estranged from its once-beloved pro basketball team and jilted by big-league baseball, the Timbers Army is bringing sports fandom back to the grassroots.

Timbers fans make and distribute their own paraphernalia: a catalog of stickers, scarves and T-shirts that would do any NASCAR driver proud. Army troops travel as far as Puerto Rico to cheer on their team. Via cyberspace, the Timbers Army has forged alliances with soccer fans from Chicago to Sunderland, England. (Some of those Sunderlanders will have a chance to test Timbers Army hospitality when their English Premier League team visits for a July 23 exhibition game.)

Most importantly, when the Timbers-who compete in the United Soccer Leagues' First Division, one tier below Major League Soccer-take the field, the Army celebrates in a blur of beer, blue chants, drums and weird outfits. It's part Europhilia, part Latin American rhythm and part subcultural strangeness that's pure Portland.

"I love the vibe of it,'' says Noah Stroh, a 29-year-old insurance agent. "It's a lot different than being at a Blazer game. Nowadays, everyone just wants to cry about the Blazers."

Yeah, what he said. Last Thursday, when the Timbers took on the Montreal Impact, we sent our writers and photographer Martin Thiel into PGE Park's Section 107, the Army's stomping round. Here's what they found.

Green haze from a smoke bomb (which attracted PGE Park security) wafts over Section 107 during a tense moment. After a scoreless, evenly matched first half, Montreal records a remarkable goal: a heat-seeking 45-yard free kick that snookers Timbers 'keeper Josh Saunders. Things turn ugly when Montreal goal-scorer Sandro Grande races half the length of the field to taunt Saunders-and the Timbers Army. Timbers midfielder Hugo Alcaraz-Cuellar gets in Grande's face, the teams mix it up, and Section 107 boils with anger.
Many of the TIMBERS Army's banners, signs and scarves are the work of "Pong," who hoists the skull and crossbones above. One of the fan corps' few booze-free members, Pong says, "Ask me a question at midnight, and I'll be one of the only people who can still tell you what's going on." In his role as a ringleader of the Army faction known as the Urban Crew, Pong hosts banner-painting "craft nights" and orchestrates many of Section 107's massed chants and songs. He also brews his own caffeine-enriched root beer.
Fan-produced "No Pity" scarves often blossom when a rival player hits the turf or tension flares. Injured opponents are typically serenaded with sympathetic chants of "You're going home in a Portland ambulance." Or, as was the case against Montreal, the more direct "Let him die/ Let him die/ Let him die."
Before games, the Timbers Army congregates at the Bullpen Tavern, a small bar a few hundred yards from the park, for warm-up drinks-and to make sure everyone has a supply of mock red and yellow cards to brandish when opponents commit a foul.
In the Army, he calls himself Dark Man. In real life, he's Damien Webb, a 25-year-old graphic designer. Dark Man says he recently wounded his right hand while defending a young lady's honor in a tavern altercation. We don't know why he wears the mask.
After a final desperate flurry from the Timbers, the referee's whistle blows to seal a 1-0 Montreal victory. Timbers fans Alex Speaks and Robin Parker console each other. Speaks, who began attending matches this year, tore his larynx during an earlier game and says he is defying his doctor's advice that he shouldn't talk, let alone cheer. While following a Timbers road trip to Vancouver, B.C., Parker fell ill with a kidney infection; Army members have raised several hundred dollars to defray her medical expenses.
In honor of the Timbers' French-Canadian guests last Thursday night, Tim Chamberlin hangs an innocent Kermit the Frog. A few customized chants also greeted the Montreal Impact, the undefeated defending champions of the Timbers' division. WW's favorite: "You'll never be a country."
Kurt Schubothe-a.k.a. Drumman-is one of the Army's founding fathers and one of the few current fans whose soccer fanaticism dates back to the era of the original Timbers, who played in the long-defunct North American Soccer League from 1975 to 1982.
Elijah Blackwell, who claims never to have missed a Timbers home game since 2001, tries some cradle indoctrination on his infant daughter, Lily.
Timbers players salute the Army after every game-win or lose.
Even after the 1-0 defeat to Montreal, the post-game scene at the Bullpen is festive. Timber Jim (in suspenders) leads a round of song. Timbers players frequent the Bullpen's post-match festivities (after the Montreal match, forward Byron Alvarez and winger Hugo Alcaraz-Cuellar [not pictured] stop by), exemplifying the close ties between the team and its fans. "This kind of thing hasn't happened in this town since 1977, when Bill Walton used to ride his bike to Blazers games," says one Army trooper.
The Timbers Army favors a robust mode of self-expression, particularly when its members take exception to an official ruling on the field. Army regular (and occasional WW freelance writer) Abram Goldman-Armstrong evinces his displeasure.
Members of the Timbers Army produce an extraordinary line of quasi-official Timbers merchandise, including T-shirts, scarves, stickers, patches and a heavily satirical 'zine titled Ax to the Head. Many items are given away or sold for cost, while others raise money for pet Army causes such as a trust fund for mascot Timber Jim's granddaughter (her mom died last year in a car accident) and Habitat for Humanity.

The next Timbers home games are Tuesday and Thursday, July 12 and 14, against arch-rivals Seattle and Vancouver, respectively. The Seattle Sounders game is part of the U.S. Open Cup, an annual knockout tournament featuring teams from all levels of competitive soccer; the winner is likely to face a Major League Soccer team in the next round. Both games are at 7 pm at PGE Park. See www.portlandtimbers.com for ticket information.

The Timbers Army has no official leadership or membership role. ("It's an anarchist collective," says one member.) But it self-organizes on a number of hopping Internet forums-in fact, many members know each other only by their online aliases. Take a sample at www.talktimbers.com .

For more insights into North American soccer-fan culture, check out the Army's allies in Chicago (www.section8chicago.com ) or the very fancy, very French-y site maintained by the Montreal Impact's supporters' club (www.ultrasmontreal.com ).

Oh, the team? After the loss against Montreal and a 1-1 stalemate with the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday, the Timbers are 5-5-4, in sixth place in the First Division. The 12-team league is roughly the soccer equivalent of Triple-A baseball. Unlike hardball teams like the Portland Beavers, the Timbers are independent of Major League Soccer and control their own player contracts, though the team has an informal relationship with MLS's Los Angeles Galaxy. To learn more about the league, see www.uslsoccer.com .

Timbers Army chants and songs tend to emphasize simplicity over nuance. A sample lyric sheet:

Go home, ya bums

Go home, ya bums

Go home, ya bums

Go home, ya bums

Go home... (to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne")

When I root, I root for the Timbers (clap, repeat)

There's no pity in the Rose City (clap, repeat)

Portland boys, we are here, whoa-ho, whoa-ho

Portland boys, we are here, whoa-ho, whoa-ho

Portland boys, we are here

Shag your women and drink your beer

Whoa-ho, whoa-ho, whoa-ho....

 
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