The scene was what every soccer fan in Portland dreams of: nearly 12,000 people streaming into PGE Park, flying the team colors and blowing horns in support of their squad, and begging players for autographs after the game.
Too bad the team getting that fanatic love wasn't the home side.
On Thursday, July 3, Portland's Timbers, of United Soccer League's First Division, were outscored on the field (2-0)—and their fans were outnumbered (about 2 to 1) in the stands—by a team from more than 2,000 miles away: Mexico's Monarcas Morelia. Still, Timbers owner Merritt Paulson calls the evening "a successful event."
"Putting on a good show for a large audience, that's what we're trying to do," he says. "A match like this brings out a whole new demographic for us."
The Timbers host another Mexican Premier Division team, Tigres, on July 15 at 7 pm. Timbers head coach and general manager Gavin Wilkinson says the team chose Mexican teams for its two July home exhibitions because it's cheaper than a European team (the Timbers pay all expenses plus an appearance fee), and he echoes Paulson's emphasis on the "whole new demographic."
"If you look at the general make-up of our crowd," Wilkinson says, "there's not a lot of Hispanic people. But they have a sincere love of the game, and it would be good to tap into that."
The Timbers' average attendance for a USL contest is 7,804 people (up 14 percent from last year). The question becomes, do the new fans who lifted attendance to 11,932 people for Monarcas Morelia return when the Timbers' opponents are low-watt USL teams like Rochester or Carolina?
Conversations with more than a dozen red-and-gold-clad Morelia supporters turned up only two who had attended a Timbers game before: Dion MacLain, who grew up in Portland when the Timbers were in the North American Soccer League in the '70s, and his wife, Brenda, who is from Morelia. The couple travels to Morelia— the capital of the state of Michoacán—twice a year to see games.
Brenda MacLain, who has lived in the U.S. for 20 years, embodies the Timbers' marketing challenge: "We come out whenever there is a Mexican team," she says. "It's a lot more fun, the people are more expressive, and they enjoy the games more. I don't think Americans like soccer much yet."
Referring to the tens of thousands of Mexicans who live in the Portland area, Dion MacLain put it bluntly: "If there's not a Mexican star [on the Timbers] who's actually from Mexico, they won't come."
Not that the Timbers aren't trying to lure Latino fans: In addition to the exhibitions, the Timbers have sent coaches and their two Spanish-speaking players (Ricardo "Kiki" Lara and Miguel Guante) to schools and soccer clubs. And this year, for the first time, Timbers games are also being broadcast in Spanish on KPXD-AM 1040.
The play-by-play man on those broadcasts, Fernando Sobrevilla, thinks the radio exposure is helping. "Every broadcast I do, after the game I see more Hispanic people," he says.
Sobrevilla says the Timbers' biggest challenge is convincing older Latinos that backing the Timbers isn't soccer treason because "you can still support your Mexican team," and that the U.S. game has come a long way.
"Some people are thinking about the U.S. in the '70s and '80s, when it wasn't good at all," he says. "Then, it was a lot of players at the end of their careers. But soccer here has evolved a lot."
Still, the contrast July 3 was striking: the largely Anglo Timbers Army at one end of PGE Park being nearly drowned out by a sea of Morelia fans; and the visitors controlling play during what, for them, is an early preseason game.
Wilkinson, who credits his Timbers for playing hard, offers one more reason to consider a 2-0 loss successful.
"We keep talking about Portland being a [Major League Soccer] city, so this is an experiment," he says. "We get to see how we handle this kind of attendance, and we give everyone a taste of what it could be like day in and day out."
: The Timbers' next regular-season home game is Thursday, July 10, against Puerto Rico.