'75 Timbers laid groundwork for MLS incarnation

NASL champions attracted crowds, brought success to Soccer City

1975 Portland Timbers

Photo Credit: 
Portland Timbers

PORTLAND, Ore. – There is precedence in Portland for a brand new soccer team entering the top league and being an instant hit.

And no, that’s not a reference to the Timbers’ 2-0-6 preseason record.

As the latest edition of Timbers prepares for its ascension to MLS with Saturday's season opener, the idea of being successful out of the gate is not new. It has happened here before.

In 1975, the city was introduced to professional game for the first time and the quality of the play was immediate. Portland lost their very first NASL game that spring, 1-0 to the Seattle Sounders.

But the “lads” assembled by manager and coach Vic Crowe, a former Aston Villa manager, won five of their next six games and the interest in the team took off like a brushfire.

Courtesy of Portland Timbers

“It was really a stroke of genius,” former Timbers player Mick Hoban (at right) said. “He limited recruitment to our neck of the woods in England. The players on the team all came from about a 45-mile radius, all from the midlands.”

That ensured the team all spoke the same language and shared a similar temperament and perspective on the game. The players, all of them on loan for the summer, bonded easily and many of them already knew one another from playing with and against one another in English leagues.

They lived in Beaverton, a suburb west of Portland, in the same apartment complex. There were about 10 cars among the entire team and carpooling was common.

And the players saw themselves as soccer players and soccer missionaries. They played the game and sold it to a community that was hungry for a winner.

Portland in 1975 was still two years away from seeing the NBA’s Trail Blazers win a title. The state of Oregon was also stung by the May 30, 1975 death of homegrown hero and distance running legend Steve Prefontaine, who died in an auto accident in Eugene less than 24 hours before the Timbers played their sixth game as a franchise in Portland.

The Timbers began as a curiosity but turned into a phenomenon in the summer of 1975, part of the state's healing process.

“I knew we were becoming important when Bill Walton came to our practice,” Hoban said.

The attendance, 8,131 for the first game against Seattle, rose above 14,000 in June for back-to-back games against Dallas and San Antonio.

The next time Seattle came back, on July 26, 27,310 showed up to see the Timbers win 2-1.

After games, the players would gather for post-match parties at the Benson Hotel in downtown Portland and greet fans.

“I don’t think we realized it at the time, but that accessibility was key,” Hoban said.

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The team’s first star was Peter Withe (at right), who scored 16 goals and had six assists while leading the Timbers into Soccer Bowl ’75, the NASL championship game.

“Peter made his name in Portland,” Hoban said. “He hadn’t made his name in England yet and he was out-of-this-world (in Portland)."

Withe later found fame with Aston Villa, scoring the game-winner in the 1982 European Cup final.

In Portland, Withe became known as the Wizard of Nod.

“He was almost unbeatable in the air,” Hoban said. “I’ve rarely ever seen a better header of the ball than Peter.”

Wingers Willie Anderson and Jimmy Kelly were also fan favorites, as were midfielder Tony Betts, defender Graham Day and captain Brian Godfrey.

Kelly, a pint-sized Irishman who dazzled crowds with his crosses, became so popular that fans began to promote him as a candidate for mayor.

“He was our little Irish leprechaun,” Hoban said. 

Hoban, who later worked for Nike and became the shoe giant’s first soccer employee, has been in touch with some of his 1975 teammates over the years.

Some of the players, such as goalkeeper Graham Brown, have called that season the most enjoyable of their careers.

Part of that had to do with the atmosphere in Portland. The game was so new and the fan base was still grasping the fundamentals. If a player made a mistake, he would hear about it from English fans and the English media would magnify it.

In Portland, fans understood that goals won games. They didn’t understand enough about the nuances of the game to point out criticism. At the post-match party, no one brought up the mistakes.

The Timbers made the playoffs with a 16-6 record and played host to Seattle in a first-round playoff game on Aug. 12. In front of a record crowd of 31,523, the Timbers beat the Sounders 2-1 in overtime. Fans rushed the field when it was over.

Five days later, 33,503 were in attendance at Civic Stadium for the semifinals against St. Louis. Withe’s goal held up for a 1-0 victory.

And with that, Portland was dubbed Soccer City, U.S.A.

The euphoria crested and the run of success was halted in the championship game.

Tampa Bay beat Portland in Soccer Bowl ’75, 2-0, on Aug. 24. And suddenly, the summer was over.

The Timbers packed up and returned to England to re-join their teams there.

Hoban recalls that many of them were not eager to leave.

“I remember people crying like babies leaving Portland at the airport,” Hoban said. “They were sobbing. It was an extraordinary day, but they were torn apart because they had a wonderful time.”