How we got here, part 3 (of 5)
With the Timbers going to the MLS Cup Final this Sunday in Columbus, Ohio, I thought it would be fun to give a rundown on how we got here. And not just a basic rundown of the 2015 season, or even the five years in MLS, I wanted to give a 15 year rundown of the re-emergence of the Timbers in 2001 to how they got to MLS in the first place, and how many times the team almost didn’t continue on to the following season during that time. It’s been 15 seasons since that rebirth, so I’ll do three seasons per day all week. This is part 3 of 5:
If you look back to when the push to MLS finally started to happen for the Timbers, it really all starts in 2007. After a disasterous 2006 (for many reasons), the Timbers started 2007 with a new coach and GM in Gavin Wilkinson, and other good signs in that the USL announced all matches would have a video webcast, PGE Park got a nice new video scoreboard, and the Timbers website got a major upgrade as well.
Early in the season, there were more MLS-to-Portland rumors, with several groups apparently expressing interest in bringing MLS to the Rose City. There was even talk for a time for an MLS team going to Hillsboro Stadium, which didn’t go over well with many Timbers faithful.
But the ownership issues that had plagued the team since 2001 finally stabilized in May when Merritt Paulson was announced as the new owner of the Timbers and Beavers. Merritt had a history of successful ventures, mostly related to the NBA, but he was also perceived at the time as more of a baseball guy. But that would change.
But the reality of life in the USL reared it’s ugly head again when the Virginia Beach Mariners folded just before the start of the season, and as a result the Timbers ended up playing the expansion California Victory five times (resulting in five victories).
The match that may have first shown the Timbers and their fans were ready for bigger things was on August 23, when the Timbers smashed their USL-era attendance record when 15,833 showed up to see the Timbers beat the Charleston Battery on a spectacular Justin Thompson one-timer in the 79th minute. The crowds were growing noticeably, and the Timbers nearly reached the final that year, finishing in second place and knocking out Vancouver in the first round before falling on PK’s in the semifinals to Atlanta.
After the season there were more MLS-to-Portland rumors, but also the detractors started to show up who never thought MLS would work in Portland, including John Conzano, who famously pissed off Don Garber by calling MLS minor league and hanging up on him on the air.
And I won’t even mention BoJack and his campaign against MLS-in-Portland because, well, nobody remembers who he is anymore and who knows if he’d ever admit he was wrong.
After the season the Timbers showed their MLS worthiness with a 4-1 win over new MLS side Toronto FC, just to make the point.
Big things were about to happen.
Oh, and yes, it was a Wicks House in 2007.
Timber Jim retired at the first match of 2008, after having climbed the pole, sawed the log, and hung from the rafters since the 1970s. He had intended to retire years earlier but the loss of his daughter Hannah in 2004 had kept him around for a while, drawing strength from the adoring crowds, but Jim was suitably honored when he hung up his chainsaw at halftime of a 1-0 win over Puerto Rico. Later that season, Timber Jim officially handed over the chainsaw to Timber Joey Webber.
It was also the season when Japanese megastar Takayuki Suzuki brought the limelight to the Timbers, as his spectacular goal against Seattle made him a legend to Timbers fans, and tour groups that were showing up from Japan to see him play re-enforced that image.
It was a season of extreme highs and lows, with the lowest low of the Timbers USL era coming on June 10 when amateur side Hollywood United knocked the Timbers out of the US Open Cup at PGE Park.
But on July 31, the first official move towards bringing MLS to Portland took place when Merritt Paulson submitted an application to bring MLS to the Rose City. For Timbers fans it was now a question of how to show the support was there to make this happen.
In September, as the Timbers were fighting for their playoff lives (which they would later miss), the official MLS-to-Portland push started with a press conference to show that the effort to take the Timbers up to the next level had alot of support from MLS and the City of Portland. A specific plan to make this happen was presented, including renderings of a renovated PGE Park. Plans to build a new baseball park for the AAA Beavers were also presented at that time, since PGE Park would become soccer-specific.
Then at the last home game of the season vs. Charleston, and another 13,000+ crowd at PGE Park, Merritt got up on the dugout in front of the Timbers Army at the end of the match to thank them for the enormous support, to the thunderous chant of “We want MLS! We want MLS!”.
The push for MLS in Portland in early 2009 was happening at a rapid pace. There were MLS2PDX websites popping up, and it was clear MLS wanted Portland, and Merritt Paulson wanted MLS in Portland, but they had to come up with a deal that worked for the city, and the devil was in the details.
A major sticking point was the AAA Baseball Portland Beavers. They needed a new place to play, and Merritt tried very hard to give them a nice stadium, but while the attendance at Timbers matches had been growing steadily over the past few years, attendance at Beavers games was flat, and when options to build the Beavers a new stadium at various sites in Portland were met with no enthusiasm, it became clear the Beavers may have to have to be dropped from the plans.
In February, Timbers fans made their case at a Portland City Council hearing, and a few days later, Timbers fans had a major march to City Hall to show their support for bringing MLS here. A week later, the Portland MLS Task force gave unanimous approval for a proposal to renovate the stadium and bring the Timbers here, as well as proposals for a new stadium for the Beavers.
It was amazing how quickly things happened after that.
On March 12, there was the most important vote in the Timbers to MLS process, when the City Council approved the funding deal by a 3-2 vote, which included Amanda Fritz famously showing how much of a soccer fan she was by donning her Liverpool scarf before putting in a resounding “NO” vote. But the plan passed, and though there were funding details to be worked out, we all felt a major hurdle had been passed.
But we had no idea how quickly things were happening, because only eight days later, on March 20, at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Portland, Don Garber came to town and announced the Timbers as MLS’s 18th franchise, just two days after Vancouver had been announced as the 17th.
Shortly after the start of the season, we lost another Timbers supporter legend when General Timber Howie (aka Harmut Bless) passed away. I had been with Howie during the MLS announcement and it deeply saddened me that he never got to see the Timbers play an MLS match.
Howie’s spirit carried the team through the season, and the Timbers would go 24 matches unbeaten after a 1-0 loss in Vancouver to start the season. Notable matches also included over 16,000 seeing the Timbers lose to Seattle’s MLS team in the Open Cup, and a 1-0 win over Vancouver in August that secured the Cascadia Cup for the first time.
The Timbers did take home the Commissioners Cup for the second time (the first being in 2004) but faltered late in the season and lost in the first round of the playoffs to Vancouver in a dramatic 3-3 draw at PGE Park after losing 2-1 in BC in the first leg.
But 2009 was when the dream of MLS-to-PDX finally came true. Now we just had one year left in the second division to prepare ourselves for (pseudo) promotion.