Stop me if you've heard this one before.
A precocious, talented 20-something Ohio kid moves to Portland in 2011 after college in Akron to follow his long-shot professional dreams. He settles in with a small startup. He's slow to register the expected success. The transplant hears the doubts but doubles down on Portland, proposing to his girlfriend on Council Crest, posting adorable photos of his family on Instagram, and persuading friends and mentors to move to town to join him. He still faces whispers that he's just too passive-aggressive to make it anywhere other than the sleepy Pacific Northwest.
And then, mere weeks from another disappointing year, the adopted Portlander's dedication to rainy winters and practice is rewarded with national acclaim.
Timbers midfielder Darlington Nagbe is the ur-Portlander circa 2015, and it's fitting that his late-season breakout has sparked Portland's improbable run to the Major League Soccer Cup final Sunday.
As recently as early October, the Timbers were perilously close to missing the playoffs, probably ensuring coach Caleb Porter and his players would be stripped from the club to new destinations, like spare parts on a wrecked Subaru. Even when playing well, the team couldn't find the back of the net any easier than a Portlander could find cheap rent on Southeast Division Street.
Not unlike Portland landlords, the Timbers front office announced the price of a Timbers Army ticket would be hiked by up to 30 percent in 2016. In a particularly boneheaded move, the club apparently hadn't considered the optics of cutting the TriMet discount for season-ticket holders at the same time it rolled out a gimmicky partnership with Uber. Many fans asked themselves what values the badge on the jersey actually stood for if owner Merritt Paulson didn't seem to share them. It was, in short, a little too much like rooting for a professional sports franchise.
Two years ago, I wrote an essay about growing up with the Timbers. It discussed how the rise of Timbers fandom from anomalous minor-league Portland freak sideshow to internationally recognized and commodified lumberjack chic echoed the uneasy surge of Portland from the backwater home of Katherine Dunn's "fugitives and refugees" to a shiny, gentrified Northwest technopoly. The narrative still holds. The spectacle of attending a Timbers match in the past 15 years has kept pace with the sprouting of condos along either direction of the No. 4 bus line.
But there's another side to those growing pains. They brought us Darlington Nagbe.
Nagbe was born in war-torn Liberia, and obtained American citizenship this year. On the ball, he glides past defenders like he's wearing speed skates. The first cracks are showing in his humility: He's got an ever-grateful grin of self-awareness that he's realizing his potential, and there's not a damn thing defenders can do to stop him short of fouling him (and they do). Nagbe logged his first minutes with the U.S. national team last month. He serves as a rejoinder to our nation's current vitriolic xenophobia.
And while Nagbe is easy to root for, each of the players suited up in Timbers green are clearly as excited to be in the final as the fans, all with their own stories of making sacrifices to end up in Portland. Jorge Villafaña got his professional start by starring in a reality television show. Fanendo Adi was the one Nigerian kid out of 400 who caught the attention of international scouts. Dairon Asprilla rode the bench without speaking much English for an entire year a continent away from his Colombia home, only to score arguably the greatest goal in Timbers history—a deviously curling strike past the FC Dallas keeper.
Naturally, the biggest match of Nagbe's career this week sends him back to his old stomping grounds in Ohio. But as we cheer for a championship Sunday, we're not just cheering for the home team. We're supporting the idea that Portland is still a place where transplants can find fertile ground. We're cheering for fugitives and refugees.
(Photo: Andrew Koczian)
SEE IT: The Portland Timbers play the Columbus Crew SC in the MLS Cup final at Mapfre Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, at 1 pm Sunday, Dec. 6. TV on ESPN. Local viewing parties include Beulahland, 118 NE 28th Ave., 235-2794, beulahlandpdx.com.