This summer, the eyes of the soccer world will be focused on South Africa. World Cup fever is already growing with the tournament only a few months away, and football fans the world over already have turned half an eye towards the competition. But for fans in the area of Portland, Oregon, another eye is already turning with excitement to an even bigger endeavour for them, larger even than the World Cup. For in 2011, Portland will be welcoming their own soccer powerhouse, the Portland Timbers, onto the national stage in the Major League Soccer competition.
Football, or soccer to the people who see it under that moniker, is the one truly global sport. Whereas sports such as American Football, Ice Hockey, or Cricket, are hardly heard of in certain corners of the world, soccer triumphs. Whilst in Europe soccer is rife, America has for a long time fallen behind in its development of the sports foundations. But the winds of change have been blowing, and the expansion of the MLS in the Pacific north-west is finally giving the football loving fans of the region an avenue for their voices, and passion, to be heard.
Portland already have a rich history in the sport, one in which may not be known to those who have not heard about the team bar their entry to the league next year. Many in fact may be surprised to know that this city has a love for the game so deep, that the city has an unofficial title as “Soccer City USA.” That name was earned in the glory days the club enjoyed in the old National American Soccer League, in which it joined as an expansion team in 1975. These were the days in which such players as Pele and Franz Beckenbauer graced the league with their magical skills, and the fans turned out in force. Portland immediately set the league alight in their inaugural season, drawing crowds of 20,000 or more as they marched to a meeting in the 1975 title game against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, and immediately forming a dedicated supporter base which lead to the aforementioned title for the city. Following that brilliant first season were two more playoff appearances in which the team continued in having highly dedicated fan support, before the team eventually ceased to exist in 1982 as the NASL began to fail, resulting in the whole league ceasing in 1984 after financial problems due to rapid over-expansion, and partly as well due to the USA's failed 1986 World Cup bid.
However, the Portland Timbers were not dead. In 2001, the team returned in the United Soccer Leagues First Division with fans immediately returning in force to support the team, and again show why the city was known as “Soccer City USA.” The team also has proved the same force on the field, winning the title as regular season champion in 2004 and 2009, and amassing a 24-game unbeaten streak in 2009, one of the longest in US Soccer history.
The long unbeaten streak was not to be the most rewarding thing of the year 2009 for the Timbers, however, as even bigger news was announced that would change the entire future of soccer in Portland. For on the 20th of March, MLS Commissioner Don Garber, along with Timbers and Portland Beavers owner Merritt Paulson, announced that the Timbers were to be part of the MLS expansion to 18 teams in the year 2011. Plans were also announced to upgrade PGE Park in Portland for the MLS team, reporting that it will be able to facilitate between 22,000 and 23,000 fans.
Fans will not only be looking forward to competing with the best America has to offer, but also the opportunity to renew their fierce rivalry to another recent addition to the MLS, the Seattle Sounders, and fellow 2011 expansion club, the Vancouver Whitecaps. With those two teams also fielding a rich history in soccer, the league will be salivating at the financial gold mine that could be the rivalries that unfold in the Pacific northwest region. Seattle have already proven to be one of the best supported clubs in the league, with 30—35,000 loud and passionate fans packing out Qwest Field every week for the Sounders games, and the team coming within one win of the Championship game. Portland will no doubt be the recipients of similar support from the “Timbers Army,” the teams main supporter group, as the team vies to have similar instant success as Seattle did. When the two teams meet, the vocal battle in the terraces will no doubt be as fierce and hard-fought as the ones on the field.
Though the initial announcement of the expansion plan in Portland was made almost 11 months ago, the final deal was only recently announced on the 21st of January, as the city finalised the agreement to bring a MLS team to Portland and thus begin the renovation of PGE Park, and the new stadium for the Portland Beavers baseball team.
With the deal now finalized, fans will be now focusing full attention on the inaugural season for the team. Although still over a year away from kicking a ball in anger, the excitement of what is to come will undoubtedly not be quelled by the time between now and kick-off. Just as when the Timbers entered the old NASL in 1975, fans will be hoping instant success greets them, and further enhances their claim to be known as "Soccer City USA." But this time, the whole nation will know.