Portland Timbers management brought Chris Agnello to town to make their minor-league soccer team work.
Agnello, hired in December 2005 as the Timbers' coach and general manager, has achieved that goal before with another franchise in a lower division of the United Soccer League. He started a USL team in Salt Lake City, ran it at a profit, coached it to two championships in the league's second tier, and attracted more fans than any other team in its division.
In Portland, the 37-year-old Agnello inherited a first-division USL team that last year could barely put together a winning record, couldn't get out of the playoffs' first round, had stagnant attendance, and was tied up in PGE Park's chaos at the ownership level.
So can Agnello make the Timbers work? And is soccer really going to "happen" in America, like we've heard it will since the 1970s? With the Timbers midway through Agnello's first season here and World Cup interest raging globally (and simmering locally in multiple hot spots where fans gather to watch the games), WW cornered the coach-GM.
WW: Getting even 6,000 people feels like a big crowd these days for the Timbers. Is that really enough?
Chris Agnello: At this point, that fits in with what we're doing. Is that something that we'll rest on? Absolutely not. We would love to see as many people as we can possibly get in here. I think in the years to come you'll see that 6,000 increase steadily.
Looking around town, there seems to be no Timbers marketing going on: no billboards, no TV ads, etc. What gives?
We're doing a lot of things that people don't see, like a partnership with the Oregon Youth Soccer Association and extending our deal with Nike and the lease here at PGE Park. Will we look for more creative ways to get out there in the community? Absolutely. It takes a while to ramp up certain things, and in time we'll get to those things.
How do you see the team's relationship with the Timbers Army, given that its faithful members largely ignored your recent request at a game billed as "Family Night" to keep their cheers obscenity-free?
They're very loyal and dedicated to our franchise, so I made it a goal of mine to be as accessible as I can to them. As far as any of the chants or cheering or songs, I addressed that by appealing to them to do their very best to keep it appropriate for all of our fans. The letter was nothing more than a notice to have them make sure what they're doing is positive for soccer. We absolutely love the Army. But we also see the rest of the fans. We just want to make sure everybody's happy and in an environment where they are able to enjoy soccer.
Anything more you can do than write a letter?
No. We can't control what our fans do. They pay their money, they come in, and they get to cheer.
We've been hearing for 30-plus years that "soccer is going to be big in America." Yet here we are with the Timbers averaging crowds much smaller than lacrosse got in its first year in Portland. Is soccer actually growing?
No question. I was one of the first generation of kids playing in the late '70s and early '80s, and when you see people like myself who have come through this game and are now coming back to it, that's what it's all about. It's no longer Joe Schmoe having to step in and administrate a game or a franchise and doesn't understand it. You see former players coming back and contributing to the game, soccer-specific stadiums being built, and things like the Timbers Army.
How much has soccer beaten the perception among the mainstream sports media that nobody cares about it?
To some degree, that still exists. I remember that 10 years ago, it was brutal. An editor wouldn't let you near the newspaper at all. Now you're starting to see that soccer is everywhere. There are still the old-school, traditional-sport reporters out there, but those things are being broken down. We might be on Page 6 of The Oregonian, but at least we're in it. Attendance for the Timbers so far this year averages 4,931 fans, about 9 percent lower than last year at the same point, when crowds averaged 5,422.
The next Timbers home game at the 20,000-capacity PGE Park is at 6 pm Sunday, July 2, against Miami FC.