It’s a warm evening in April, and once again every one of the 21,444 seats in Providence Park, home of the Portland Timbers Major League Soccer franchise, is full, making this evening the Timbers’ 89th straight sellout. In fact, every home match in the Timbers’ five plus years of existence has been a sellout. The crowd is singing, dancing and waving their flags with smiles on their faces as their club enjoys a two goals to nil lead on the visiting San Jose Earthquakes deep into the second half.
I’m with the the Timbers Army, stationed in section 107 at the North End. It’s is a good-natured and generally harmless group—but one with an obvious affinity for drunkenness and mischief which, when combined with their unbridled passion, gives the match experience a little bit of an edge.
I find this out in earnest when things fall apart.
San Jose’s frustration at losing devolves into chipiness, and suddenly
Timbers team captain Diego Valeri and a San Jose defender tumble to the pitch in a tangled mass of flying limbs. The Quakes’ goalkeeper David Bingham charges toward Valeri—a fan favorite —and suddenly all hell breaks loose as players from both sides hurriedly sprint from their positions to inside the visitors penalty box, directly in front of the Timbers Army.
This sparks a roar from my spot on the field behind the goal, twenty feet from the fight. I can feel the heat of the Army’s rage on the back of my neck, and with every push on the field it grows a little louder, a little more vicious. The constant pounding of drums that had once sounded rhythmic and celebratory now feels like the marching of the Orc army from The Lord of the Rings trilogy; the fans—accountants, guitarists, lawyers, cooks— that were singing clever anthems and sipping locally brewed beer only a moment ago are now a throbbing mass of 5,000 would-be Incredible Hulks. I feel a jolt of adrenaline in response to the calamitous upheaval around me.
Meanwhile the opposing keeper Bingham’s face remains stoic, but I’m close enough to see his eyes, and they betray a look that says “Holy shit these animals might storm the field”. I don’t blame him; for that brief moment, I had the impression the Timbers Army would kill for Valeri, if he asked them to.
This is Portland’s secret weapon at home, the advantage of a team having an army at its back.
The City of Roses is the home of hard working, blue-collar people who prize their individual identity. And The Timbers, the Army and even team owner Merritt Paulson—the only MLS owner to also own an NWSL franchise—proudly reflect these values in spades. Every color, shape, size and background is represented in the North End, and flags symbolizing everything from LGBTQ rights to Hunter S. Thompson to the countries of Ghana and Argentina to Prince to any number of clever Timbers-related puns are waved proudly and passionately throughout the match.
“The identity of the club and the city are wrapped up in each other—you can’t have one without the other,” the spectacularly bearded defender Nat Borchers told ESPN at the start of the season He couldn’t be more right. Portland has been the home for professional soccer for 40 years spanning three leagues. The Timber’s unlikely 2015 MLS Cup championship was the city’s first, bringing with it the kind of city-wide joy that’s usually reserved for the “big four” American sports. The Timbers Army meanwhile once numbered in the hundreds and banged on makeshift drums made from pickle jars, but now count their members in the thousands, and were one of the main reasons MLS awarded Portland a franchise.
While looking up into the impassioned faces in the stands it occurs to me more than once that the Timbers Army—much like Portland itself—is an environment where levels of passion and creativity this intense are something to be celebrated and nurtured, not labeled as strange. The punks, the hippies, the queers, the freaks, newcomers to America—they’re all up in section 107 arm-in-arm with the “regular” types. They’re representing their team, sure. But the members of the Timbers Army represent a desire to belong to be a part of something unique and larger than themselves as individuals.
This is never more apparent then when the Army sings “You Are My Sunshine” in the 80th minute of each match. The tradition started with Jim Serrill, aka Timber Jim, was the Timbers first mascot and the man who started the tradition of sawing off a timber slab whenever Portland scored.
In 2004, while Serrill was at his post cheering on the Timbers, his 17-year-old daughter Hannah was tragically killed in a car crash. Though wracked with grief, Serrill returned to his post weeks later, which had been covered in flowers by Timbers fans. When Portland scored he went into his ritual, but as Serrill raised the slab aloft he looked out at the Timbers Army and saw it was filled with crying faces.
Completely overcome, Serrill began singing his daughter’s favorite song, “You Are My Sunshine”. As he stood there, tears running down his face, cradling his granddaughter, something magical happened: the Timbers Army sang along with him. And so now, at the 80th minute of every match, the Timbers Army sings “You Are My Sunshine”, while some in the crowd hold up sunflowers—Hannah’s favorite flower.
While I stood among the Army’s for their hair-raising rendition of “You Are My Sunshine”, I noticed an empty seat with a handmade banner and a woman’s picture on it. Because seats are so coveted that people wait outside the stadium overnight for the best ones, I was taken aback. It took me a moment to realize I was looking at a memorial for a long time member of the Army who had recently passed away. Almost as if on cue a random fan walking down the aisle stood in the area of the seat for a moment to watch the action. Once he realized what was behind him, he said something to the ladies standing next memorial—who were clearly strangers—and gave them both a bear hug and some kind words before moving along.
The atmosphere the Army creates at Providence Park is special and unrivaled—especially in the U.S.—one that undoubtedly spurs the players on. And unless they’re unfeeling robots, it undoubtedly gets in the heads of the Timbers’ opponents from time to time. The appreciation on the players’ faces when they look up at the Army is unmistakable.
The story of the Timber’s Army—whose members frequently spend the night outside the stadium before early matches in order to score the choicest seats—earned another chapter during the Timbers’ enchanted and unlikely 2015 playoff run. In the an epic 7-6 victory on penalties over Sporting Kansas City in the playoff quarterfinal that saw the teams attempt a mind-blowing 22 penalty kicks, the Timbers prevailed when goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey converted his PK before dramatically stonewalling SKC’s keeper Jon Kempen’s attempt in front of an exultant section 107.
The harrowing shootout made it to all the way to the goalkeepers, but only after SKC’s Saad Abdul-Salaam’s shot miraculously found both posts, keeping the Timbers’ improbable playoff run alive. When I ask a member of the Army about that night, he smiles and says simply and with the earnestness of a devout believer “We willed that ball out of the goal.”
After my experience at Providence Park, I think he might be right.