Sam Younie, Timbers training, 2.11.19
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

The True Constant | What Sam Younie means to the Timbers, on the brink of game no. 300

BEAVERTON, Ore. – The same intensity Sam Younie puts toward jerseys, shorts and boots can be seen on the field every Wednesday or Thursday, running the sidelines of the grass pitch at the Timbers Training Facility in Beaverton, Oregon.

With a level of focus that would alleviate any concerns we had with actual linesmen, the Portland Timbers’ equipment manager dominates the west side of the team’s training ground, doing his best to make the trainings’ 11-on-11s as realistic as possible.

“Sometimes, players don’t like it,” head coach Giovanni Savarese concedes, alluding to the dynamic between the group’s marquee names and one of its most-enduring presences. “Even when they’re on the breakaway, he keeps his head up and says, ‘I saw the offside.’ That’s Sam Younie.”

Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Portland Timbers

The week he arrived, the Timbers’ new, record signing found this out hard way. It was his first full training in Portland, and Brian Fernandez had been played into the space between defense and goal. After a touch to settle the ball, the 24-year-old Argentine had the goalkeeper set up, finishing with a curling strike released too quickly for his opposition to leave ground. As onlookers buzzed with regard along the near sideline, Fernandez turned to his right to see the audacity of a raised hand, with Younie unwilling to compromise for the sake of the moment.

Kevin Christiana, Younie’s assistant equipment manager, is tasked with patrolling the opposite sideline. He always takes the line near the spectators. Younie doesn’t like to be distracted. Christiana, though, has a slightly different approach.

“We both take it seriously, because it’s important,” he explains, “but you can tell by the way he moves up and down and gestures, he’s trying to be an AR. I’m trying to get the call right and get as close to being correct as possible, but if Gio doesn’t call it, then (I) move on and catch up to the play.

“It’s fun to watch (Younie) and how technical he gets with it. It’s all technical and by the book. That’s the perfect example of the way he is.”

Younie’s been applying that same focus to the Timbers’ equipment room since 2010. Be the task managing the team’s apparel and equipment, processing the related purchases, or serving as a resource to the near-decade of institutional knowledge, the 2015 MLS Equipment Manager of the Year has become the most consistent presence within the Timbers’ setup. Having never missed a competitive game in the MLS era, Younie has been on the sideline for 299 straight kickoffs – the only person in the organization to do so.

Friday will be 300. Across regular-season and postseason play, Younie has been on in attendance, on the sideline, and in his chosen uniform for every game that’s mattered since Portland returned to the first division.

It won’t be obvious when the team takes the field at BC Place, but against Vancouver Whitecaps FC (7pm PT, FOX 12 PLUS (KPDX)), the Timbers will be celebrating a milestone.

* * * * *

“We’re a hard-working club, with a lot of dedicated people,” team owner and chief executive officer Merritt Paulson explains. “We have a lot of people putting a lot of time and effort into this club. With that said, there’s nobody harder working around the Portland Timbers than Sam Younie.”

It sounds like hyperbole until you know what an equipment manager does. Younie and his staff are often among the first people at practices and games, airports and hotels. Every item of clothing, equipment, baggage and incidentals is under his purview. When players and coaches arrive, it all has to be not only ready but laid out to specifications. Everybody has preferences, and once those preferences are met, the whole process starts over.

First in. Last out. This is unseen life of an MLS equipment manager, one that’s augmented by ordering all the equipment, keeping it in inventory, pressing letters numbers and patches onto kits, while doing it all in the background. The equipment manager position isn’t designed as a center-stage role. The job description is long hours, little recognition, with on-call demands.

“Without him, we probably could piece it together and be somewhat of a well-oiled machine, but nowhere near what we are with Sam,” team administrator Spencer Childs says, himself recognized last year as the best at his job in MLS.

“Honestly, he is so invaluable to everything we do here. Just to not have to think about any problems in terms of equipment. People think it’s just washing jerseys – that’s the thing with an equipment manager – but no, he’s actually the one building them.”

Childs is constantly sharing texts and stories with other team admins. He hears stories of peers going into the stands, taking shirts from supporters and having them prepped for players, the team’s equipment manager having left one bag at the hotel. “I have never once in my life had to think about equipment,” Childs marvels. “Never once.”

“Do you know how many small requests players have?” he asks, rhetorically. “Different sort of socks, or the lining of their shorts being removed – or staying in there. Or, some people, he used to tell me this all the time, want fresh socks. A fresh pair of socks, everyday …

“And Sammy, he knows all that. You can ask him about any player and the underwear they wear, the kind of socks they want to wear, and the undershirt they want to wear. Whether they change or not at halftime. All this stuff, and he can tell you like the back of his hand.”

Not that he ever does. While Younie’s longevity and importance would justify being more demonstrative in his role, there’s a clear pride he has in being direct, efficient, and devoted. No undue modesty in the way he goes about his job, and in the focus he brings to his tasks, you see he knows their importance. But the values with which he’s defined his job demand the respect for your time the way he wants others to respect his.

Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Portland Timbers

The best way to do that, his approach implies, is consistency: consistency of performance; consistency of mood. Any highs, any lows would only draw attention to himself.

“Even if he gets low, he just gets back up and goes about his work day,” Christiana says, describing “Sammy” as, “a robot in the best way possible.”

“He has a unique personality,” president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson offers, also making clear he “[means] that in the best way possible.”

“With Sam, originally I brought him on as an intern …,” in the last year of the USL Timbers, Wilkinson remembers. “For me to see the growth in that position and also the pride he takes in it and the desire to be the best – and maybe a lot of people overlook that.

“He manages a lot of personalities, from the coaching staff to the players, to the owner to myself. Everybody’s different, and he has a unique way of striking a balance with it.”

The robotic consistency Christiana describes is a big part of that balance. So is Younie’s “commitment, first and foremost,” according to Wilkinson. But there’s also a palpable respect between equipment manager and team, one that makes the relationships in Portland unique. As much as Younie’s demeanor speaks to the regard he has for the athletes and coaches, their sentiments show an awe they share for the kit man’s contributions.

“He’s the best kit man in MLS,” Paulson explains, “but calling him a kit man undersells him, because he does so much and he means so much to this club.”

“He’s a legend,” Savarese says. “To be here from the beginning, when the club became part of MLS, work so hard, to do everything that he has done. The level of detail, the way he does things, is unbelievable. He’s incredible …

“Hard-working person. Class act. Honest. Loyal. I [don’t have enough] complements for him.”

* * * * *

In Savarese’s words, you see another quality that bonds Younie to his club: affection. It’s evident when the head coach says, “his 300th game is going to be a big celebration, because he deserves it,” as well as in the collection of stories that, kept close at all times, become currency around athletes and locker rooms.

For instance, take Younie’s attire, perhaps the most obvious example of his metronomic consistency. Black, short-sleeved training top. Black shorts ending just above the knees. Winter or summer, rain or shine, Younie’s attire around the field is unwavering, something that came into focus when the Timbers faced a blizzard this March in Colorado.

“There’s an ongoing joke about the fact that he wears shorts in the coldest of cold weather,” Paulson says. “When we were talking ahead of the Colorado Rapids game, this year, and the inhuman conditions, people had to plan, and the number one item was Sam even had to wear pants. That was the descriptor that everyone used. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. It really must be awesomely cold for that to happen.’”

At first, it didn’t. For a game that was eventually played over a field of white between shoveled lines, Younie initially took the field in his uniform: black on black; short sleeves above shorts.

Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Portland Timbers

Then there was last year’s season opener in Carson, California, where an errant shot during prematch warmups caught Younie flush in the head. It was a scary moment turned humorous when, shortly after the blow, the kit man was on his feet, running to his next task, even if it wasn’t clear he knew where his next task was.

“I’m not sure we went through the proper concussion protocol on that,” Paulson remembers, “because he was trying to run and get something else, and he was running like a chicken.”

The best memories are the earnest ones, though. Sometimes, they’re the most mundane. The way Younie loads an equipment truck when the team is on the road. It feels like there’s an art to it, even if few truly know what he does. The way he always pops up at Providence Park, even when he’s off the clock, when somebody needs a uniform. He’s come to intuit those needs.

The respect he demands in his intense attention to detail – in its robotic precision – can be intimidating. But it’s unfailingly admirable. It’s also what makes the rarest of moments, the vulnerable ones, more valuable.  

“My favorite Sam Younie story is on the field after we won MLS Cup,” Christiana says, remembering the 2015 final in Columbus, Ohio.

“I’d only worked for the team for six months. Obviously, it was incredible for me, but it didn’t mean near as much for me as it did for him.

“By the time I found him, he just had tears rolling down his face. And this is a dude who never really shows emotion … But when I saw him, he was inconsolable. It was incredible. It was one of the best things I’ve ever seen.

“People were mobbing around. He was looking for his girlfriend to give a hug and a kiss, and finally, she came out. He was as emotional as I’ve ever seen anybody, and this is a guy who stays even keel, never shows emotion in a normal day.

“It was awesome. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.”

* * * * *

There are people who have been around the Timbers forever – going back to the A-League and USL; going back to when baseball was still part of the organization’s umbrella. People like Wilkinson, vice president of communications Chris Metz and vice president of operations Ken Puckett have seen the organization evolve into an entirely different animal, ushering in new training grounds, multi-million-dollar stadium makeovers, and moments like 2015 which represent the highest honors for their club.

Yet none of those fixtures are close to Younie’s milestone. Three hundred games. Home and away. Good health and bad. Since the moment the Timbers joined MLS, he’s been there for them all, becoming an icon of consistency that’s transcended players, coaches, and results.

“It’s remarkable that somebody can be as good as he can in that area and be that focused, and continue to get better,” Wilkinson marveled, with Savarese initially saying, “I don’t think you have enough time” for him to explain how important Younie is to the club.

And here, we don’t have enough space. Even on a page that could extend forever. Even in a medium where text can flow, unbound. Spend enough time around the Timbers, and it becomes clear that, without knowing what it’s like to bring that level of dedication, performance, and reliability to that job, it’s impossible to describe what Sam Younie does.

All we can do is marvel at the numbers: nine years; 300 games; never been absent for one. For almost everybody reading this story, there’s nothing we’ve done that can approach that level of consistency and professionalism.

“He is so involved in everything …,” Childs says. “He just knows every little thing, every facet, every detail.

“And to have a guy who has made 300 straight games is incredible, but I’m telling you, I would be beyond shocked if that doesn’t get to 600.”

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