Rip City vs. No Pity: Timbers

Don't stop believing.

As always, Timbers fans will be hoping for a lot of log slices from this guy.

I went to my first Timbers game in 2002. I recall little except they lost and it rained.

My father took me when I was 13, riding MAX from the Sunset Transit Center. I loved the game but knew little more about it than my experience playing kick-and-chase matches—with orange slices, minivans and muddy Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation fields.

I soon became a regular at Timbers games in 2005, in the days when you could show up five minutes before kickoff and stand somewhere in Section 107, home of the nascent Timbers Army. My nerdy friends and I relished the opportunity to unleash profanity in public, and light smoke bombs left over from the Fourth of July.

Soccer, the sport we loved, had repositioned itself in our lives from our suburban experience to a gritty, raucous, urban expression of the hip lives in bigger cities to which we aspired.

We lived through the Timbers’ sordid history of embarrassing losses to amateur clubs (no really, this happened last year; we lost a competitive match to a team of dudes who park cars for a living), devastating injuries to key players during promising seasons (Cameron Knowles, the original Greg Oden), and annual fear that whatever minor league we were playing in pre-Major League Soccer days would fold.

You can imagine my guarded caution about getting too excited for the results of a team I love.

To an unprecedented degree—including our promotion to MLS in 2011—this year is different. Coach Caleb Porter’s fluid system has breathed life into a young roster. After a 15-game unbeaten streak that included late-game heroics to steal a point from Seattle, our once-lowly Timbers are suddenly within striking distance of trophies, shields and opportunities to win berths to continental tournaments.

Look, I love the Trail Blazers. I still have my autographed 1999 Jermaine O’Neal poster. Yet attending Blazers games increasingly feels like an act of conspicuous consumption. Stand up and shout when some disturbingly peppy cheer-squad goon blasts a corporate-branded T-shirt into your section. But don’t cheer too loudly, lest you interrupt the daughter of a Lake Oswego dentist as she plays Candy Crush.

The stands of Jeld-Wen Field still show the difference between being a consumer and a supporter. Comparatively, standing in the Timbers Army is increasingly an act of performance, in which your presence, vocal contributions, flag-waving and participation in the spectacle of coordinated, choreographed chaos actively contribute to the result and atmosphere of the game.

Two dozen volunteers in February spent an entire weekend in a North Portland warehouse to paint an acre-sized banner to be unfurled for a total of 2½ minutes at the March 3 home opener against the New York Red Bulls. The banner read “Rain or Shine Since 1975,” and featured umbrellas, blue streamers and a painting of the Morton Salt girl wearing a No Pity scarf—an implicit nod to our history of atrocious weather on opening days.

What Blazers fan would spend five minutes on such an effort?

The Timbers aren’t in the basement of the standings or culturally inconsequential anymore, and, honestly, that annoys some soccer fans.

Gone are the days of cheap tickets and matches against clubs like the Rochester Rhinos, who used a piece of Microsoft clip art for a logo. Stadium beers nearly cost what I make in an hour, insufferable drunken tourists (alas, often from Beaverton) crowd the Army hoping to be on television, and the growth of Timbers fandom from a niche, Keep Portland Weird activity to a mainstream entertainment has prompted numerous accusations of “selling out.”

And therein lies the cultural moment of the Timbers Army, circa 2013. While every city in America seems to be fighting for bigger, more global, more shiny, Portland indifferently shrugs and asks for better, preferably local and hand-crafted. If you want to sit out rainy winters penning songs that you and your friends can unveil at a minor-league match against the Utah Blitzz, well, go for it.

There’s been plenty of existential soul-searching among Timbers fans about our identity as we grow up, a crisis intimately familiar to Portlanders skeptical about The New York Times’ preening attention. “I miss the USL-league Timbers” is the new “I liked the original Tarkio album but can’t get into the Decemberists.”

But some things have remained mercifully consistent over the last 10 years.

As I did in 2002, I attend matches with my parents, although I hang out with them by choice, having matured enough to enjoy their presence for reasons beyond the occasional free beer. I also attend with friends, many standing beside me and many more across the country, watching on illegal Belarusian websites. I help out, joining the Timbers Army in Oregon Food Bank drives, soccer-field maintenance sessions and marching in Pride parades, No Pity scarves and all.

And I sing, blistering my tonsils and larynx with sharp invective and appropriated 1940s Italian anti-fascist songs.

We believe—believe beyond reason, as a Timbers Army tradition tells us—that what we have going here is not just this funny little soccer club but our funny little town and the funny little people who open food carts and ride bikes and live here. We believe all of it might culminate in the very best place on Earth, or at least, our place on Earth.  

That’s worth singing for—rain or shine. 

[All Rip City Vs. No Pity articles are collected here.]

Aaron Brown is a transportation and social justice advocate based in North Portland.

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