Of all Portland's nicknames—from the Rose City to Stumptown—there's only one that inspires passion, arguments and singing: Soccer City, USA.
The nickname's most impressive manifestation is the Timbers Army, the serenading clutch of 3,000 supporters at Providence Park's north end for every Portland Timbers' home game. When the TV networks cover Timbers games here, they refer to Portland as Soccer City USA as they pan across the Army's ranks.
But even the Army—seen by many as overly choreographed and self-absorbed—is a pale reflection of the spontaneous excitement that forged Portland's soccer identity.
In May 1975, the original Portland Timbers of the North American Soccer League first took to the ratty turf at the old Civic Stadium. A new pro team, in a league few had ever heard of, was a long shot. Soccer was an afterthought at most schools, and many of the 6,913 curious spectators who showed up to watch the first match, a 1-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders, didn't understand the rules.
In his history, The 1975 Timbers: The Birth of Soccer City, USA, Michael Orr describes how the Timbers endeared themselves to a small but growing base of fans. The team brought in young players, mostly from the U.K., who bunked in an apartment complex called the Tall Firs and partied with supporters at the Benson Hotel after home games.
Mostly, the Timbers won and the crowds grew. The team sold out Civic for the first time on July 26, 1975, for a rematch with Seattle. The day before the game, Don Paul, the Timbers general manager, coined the city's new nickname: "Tomorrow, we'll really be able to call Portland 'Soccer City.'"
Timbers striker Peter Withe, the team's top scorer, buried two goals in the 2-1 win in front of 27,310, the biggest attendance in the league's history. Afterward, the players took an impromptu lap around the field and waved to the crowd—establishing what is now a tradition.
The Timbers reached the league championship match and lost 2-0 to the Tampa Bay Rowdies. After that, the Timbers slogged through losing seasons, the crowds turned away, and the original team folded in 1982.
By then the soccer phenomenon was long underway. The explosion of youth leagues, the dominance of the University of Portland's teams—especially the women's squads, coached by legendary Timbers defender Clive Charles—and the Major League Soccer version of the Timbers today all rise from this time.
Orr says the Timbers' victory over Seattle before its first sellout crowd was the turning point.