By sports consultant S.S.
We walk into Prost. It’s cold outside, but it hasn’t started raining yet. A twin set of flat-screen-TVs hang on the walls. For some reason, everyone has decided that proper soccer-fan gear for today’s match is scarves and a flat cap. Beards are in abundance, but are surprisingly underwhelming. The space itself is attractive – solid wood floors, a polished bar, simple wooden furniture and, of course, huge tankards of beer. The game hasn’t started yet, but the pregame is in its final stages and things are starting to get intense. On-screen a Seattle fan holds up an enormous sign that bears the Timbers logo and the words “DEEPER THAN HATE.” Clint Dempsey, Sounders forward and (arguably) the best American soccer player of all time appears for an interview. A chorus of boos reverberates around the bar. Portland and Seattle might have the most intense rivalry in Major League Soccer and this is almost certainly the most important match they have ever played.
Given Portland’s almost legendary reputation for apathy it’s hard to imagine it genuinely caring for a sports franchise. Tell that to a native though and they’ll expound Portland’s other staple emotional product – city pride. People love the Timbers. It makes sense when you think about it: a Major League Soccer franchise is the perfect sport to blow up in Portland. Soccer is the one sport in the U.S. that can be both edgy and cultured simultaneously. Tell your U.S. friends from other cities that you’re a proud member of the “Timbers Army” and you’re edgy and different. Tell your cultured European friends that you’re into “football” (even if it is the MLS) and at least you’re better than most Americans. Although, let’s face it, they’d be more impressed if you knew the ins and outs of the Premier League.
In the case of the Timbers, however, the simple correlation between soccer’s emerging ‘coolness’ and Portland’s simultaneously increasing ‘coolness’ would miss the long history the franchise has with the city. Founded in 1975, the Timbers played in the National American Soccer League, and even made it to the title game long before it was cool to like soccer. Timbers fans were rabid before they joined the MLS and the genuine love for the team has only escalated since they were accepted into the league three seasons ago. The history of the franchise and the rise of the city as a hip young place has created a difficult mindset to capture. In an article for ESPN, Michael Orr (author of a recent history of the Portland Timbers) describes this succinctly:
“For most of the 21st century, the experience has been about being in the Timbers Army or going and watching the Timbers Army . . . Portland is at the same time the most open and tolerant place, and the snobbiest, turn-your-nose-up place. There’s a prevailing sense here that ‘the way we do it in Portland is the way it’s supposed to be done.’”
Put simply, it doesn’t matter how many championships the Timbers have won – they’re the best team to cheer for because they have the best fans to cheer. This is one of the reasons why the Sounders are hated: their fans aren’t considered purist, the Sounders play in a football stadium, Seattle has a multitude of other sports franchises to pull for (Portland only has the Timbers and the Blazers, and their seasons barely overlap). The opportunity for success creates the potential for the purity of the Timbers Army to diminish. The casual fan might become the majority of fans and, before you know it, the Timbers are no better than the Sounders and the line dividing Portland from Seattle gets a little bit blurrier – and nobody (including Seattle) wants that.
The game finally starts. The bar is crowded, but not quite packed. We sit outside. People are watching the game attentively, but conversation is still fluid and bubbling. I compare it to the last time I watched a soccer match in a bar: Chelsea vs. Barcelona in a pub in London. The pub was packed around three small TVs and everyone was completely invested in the game – it was life and death, almost. I’m not saying that made the fans better, but I’ve never seen a more interesting one-nil match and it was almost entirely because of the intensity of the fan base. When Drogba headed a goal on a breakaway before the half a huge-blonde German man stood up beside me and screamed at the top of his lungs.
Ryan Johnson scores for the Timbers in the 15th minute. The bar erupts, but the passion is relatively subdued. One man, clearly the self-proclaimed biggest fan, sings: “Portland boys we are here! / Shag your women drink your beer!” a few people join in. It’s harmless, even fun. The rest of the half is defensive entrenchment. Portland sends men back and is satisfied with the occasional counter-attack. The singing man shouts “Best defense in the league!” at irregular intervals. The whole thing is enjoyable, but it all feels a bit forced. Almost like some higher power had demanded that these people like soccer and adopt its penchant for chants and song, even if they don’t like them.
In between halves everyone goes to the bathroom.¹ In line, everyone is joking and drunk. A man notices that I’m scribbling notes. “You’re not a journalist are you? I thought those don’t exist anymore?” he says. I laugh him off; he’s drunk and laughing, too. “I’m gonna have to watch everything I say!” The biggest fan walks by shouting: “Aggregate goals, baby!” He starts singing an almost monotone melody: “Build a bonfire, put Seattle on top!” Another fan looks at me gravely and says, “He’s had a bit too much tonight” – as if to assure me that real Timbers fans are a bit classier. We watch the TV set – the announcer has probably the most atrocious haircut I’ve ever seen. His rocking male-pattern baldness is covered in what appears to be a solid wedge of gel. It’s pretty hilarious and sad, but also surprisingly endearing. It’s almost better that the MLS doesn’t have it’s shit figured out stylistically- it’s more fun to pull for it that way.
The second half starts and it’s a lot more fun than the first. The Timbers go up 2-nil, but, like all good sports fans, this only makes the Portland fans more nervous. Seattle scores late, and while it still seems unlikely for a draw, the tension escalates. A Seattle player goes down trying to draw a foul. More boos and indictment from the fans: “Get up you pussy!” a man in the back yells. Portland wins and the singing starts again: “I just can’t help / falling in love with you!” If Orr is right, this is sung at the end of every match, win or lose – and that might actually be the problem. The win feels flat, anti-climactic even. Blame part of that on the MLS’s confusing elimination rules, but it’s on the fans as well. Everyone just want to get on with his or her Saturday night, they aren’t interested in extending the party.
And that’s part of the problem with American soccer – no one wants to party. Everyone just wants to struggle.
The best Soccer viewing moment I have ever had came in the 2010 World Cup. The U.S was playing Algeria and needed a win to advance to the round of sixteen. I had just finished a workout in the Macalester College gym and I stepped out to find that, unplanned, about sixty people had stopped to watch the last 30 minutes or so of the match. In truly spectacular fashion, Landon Donavon scored in the 91st minute to send the U.S. to the next round. The crowd erupted in complete, spontaneous joy.
The reason everyone loved that moment wasn’t because of the soccer – it was because of the struggle. Let’s face it, there are only a handful of things that the United States is bad at (at least in the sporting world) and soccer is the single biggest one. Everyone gets to root for the United States against Algeria because the United States isn’t supposed to be good; if anything, it’s supposed to be embarrassingly bad. The last World Cup seemed like a turning point. People were out watching in droves, but the reason for their fascination may have been misguided – less about loyalty and love of the game and more about America’s love of the underdog manifested in its favorite mythological circumstance: the U.S. against the world. People celebrated the victory against Algeria because the U.S. was supposed to lose. That might seem obvious, but it’s pretty incredible that the USMNT was responsible for a larger social moment than, say, the U.S. Olympic basketball team, which is mostly fun to watch for its complete domination. But that feeling of struggle can only be satisfying for so long, which is why Prost isn’t absolutely rocking in the self-proclaimed “soccer-city U.S.A” after a Timbers victory. Portland wants to be reminded of the struggle of being a soccer fan, not the thrill of a victorious soccer team. It makes it easy to want to hate them, but you shouldn’t – they’re really trying to make it work.
The MLS has come a long way the last few years, largely because of the USMNT World Cup run. In the interim it’s attracted players like David Beckham and Thierry Henry (albeit not in their prime) and it’s slowly bringing more and more legitimate international talent into the league as it starts to make more money. But it’s hard to see the distant, maybe impossible point where U.S. soccer moves from the joy of the struggle into joy for the game or love of victory – something that American football, basketball and, to some extent, baseball currently monopolize. It just isn’t built into our DNA. I think this might have to do with the fact that U.S. soccer doesn’t turn struggle into victory. How many kids are playing basketball in the hood right now to try and make it big in the NBA? It’s a struggle, but it can lead to real fame and fortune – victory – and that sells well to the American public. Right now, the closest thing U.S. soccer has to that narrative is someone like Dempsey, who came from a trailer park and managed to succeed in the Premier League while making rap albums on the side.²
As the bar settles down and people start leaving, the post-match coverage begins. The goals in the match weren’t particularly beautiful or interesting and it seems as though, despite the intensity of the rivalry, there isn’t much to say. As the camera pans out to an aerial view of the stadium a telling image appears on screen: an enormous rendition of the Seattle Seahawks logo peering up from midfield. It’s a visual reminder of which kind of football reigns supreme. The coverage ends quickly, replaced by highlights of the Premier League season that has just started and already commands more presence. We leave Prost and I’m thinking about the biggest fan’s song and it becomes more apparent that the real goals for the night are in his words: shag some women drink some beer.
1. This phenomena is not restricted to soccer matches, but if you’ve never been in a crowded bar during a match it takes almost the entire half to take a piss—mostly because there are no commercial breaks during play so no one ever risks missing a moment.
2. Dempsey was very close to becoming a legitimate star in the Premier League and if he had become one it probably would have been the best thing possible for U.S. soccer. Star power is something United States has truly never had, although Jozy Altidore might be able to fit this mold. On a side note, it was incredibly satisfying to see English fans begrudgingly pull for Dempsey when he went on loan to the Tottenham Spurs.