3590 days ago in Kent
It was April, 2001, and the third incarnation of the Portland Timbers were about to begin their first season in the second division A-League. Timbers news in those days was sporadic at best, with OregonLive and the recently launched Portland Tribune with the occasional article, and the super Timbers blog Timberlog giving great coverage of the training camp. A few dozen Timbers supporters kept in touch on the OregonLive Timbers discussion board and USLDiscussions.com, and at a few pre-season meetings at the Bitter End Pub and the Horse Brass Pub. The original version of the Timbers Army (then known as the Cascade Rangers) began to form, but little was known about how the team would shape up for the 2001 season, with only about half of the eventual roster on hand when training camp opened on April 3.
A scrimmage at the University of Portland that first week gave a few Timbers fans who snuck in their first look at the new Timbers squad, but the first ticketed pre-season match for the Timbers would be following Saturday against the Seattle Sounders, held at French Field in Kent, Washington.
Out of the eleven starters for the Timbers that day, six would never earn a spot on the Timbers roster, and out of the 21 players who saw action for the Timbers that day, only eight would eventually earn a roster spot. It was also on that day that I first met Timbers General Manager Jim Taylor, who I chatted with during the second half, as we had been exchanging emails for several months.There were a few Timbers fans scattered around the crowd of 1,475 on that day, but it would be another month until Timbers traveling fans first organized a traveling supporters section, for the second match of the regular season at Seattle’s Memorial Stadium.
The Timbers would lose 1-0 that day on a late goal by future Timber Rees Bettinger, but considering the fact that the Sounders were not able to obliterate a team of largely Timbers trialists with their regular players, it was a good sign that the first year for the Timbers in the A-League was going to be a competitive one. The Timbers would in fact finish ahead of the Sounders that year and kept them out of the playoffs.
One phrase that appeared in the media (first officially seen in Willamette Week) was “Rochester of the West”, as the Rochester Raging Rhinos were the elite team in the league back then, having won four titles in the previous four years (including the US Open Cup in 1999), but mostly it was a reference to the Timbers hope to be able to match the Rhinos in attendance, who had led the league in attendance with 11,628 per home game in 2000. Though the Timbers would not pass the Rhinos in attendance until 2008, the Timbers and Rhinos would have very different fates after a decade in the United Soccer Leagues.
Fast forward ten years (minus a few months).
The Rhinos attendance fell by nearly 50% in the course of the decade, and despite a new stadium in 2006 that was going to be their launching pad to MLS, they find themselves in division three for the 2011 season.
Seattle struggled with attendance for eight more years in the USL, but won two titles before emerging re-born in a fluorescent lime green version in Major League Soccer in 2009, where 30,000 more fans presumably sprouted out of the Qwest Field seats themselves.
And though I haven’t mentioned them yet, another Timbers traditional rival, the Vancouver Whitecaps, also come up to Major League Soccer in 2011, having won two league titles as well.
What a difference ten years makes, especially since during the decade since the Timbers entered the USL in 2001, all three Pacific Northwest teams tiptoed on the edge of extinction at least once.
And in the case of the Timbers, the team was within a single vote of the Portland City Council of looking for a league to play in for the 2011 season.
But it’s February 5, 2011, 3590 days since I made that trek up to Kent, and I’ve made a similar trek to the one I made back in 2001, but this trip finds me in sunny Ventura, California. The big difference this time is there are a lot of familiar faces, on the team and in the front office, and it’s not the big unknown factor that was there in 2001. But to me that game in 2001 was the launch of the USL Timbers, and 10 years that changed soccer in Portland in a way we never could have expected.
Here’s hoping I can come back 10 years hence and say the same thing.