BEAVERTON, Ore. – From Wednesday’s early moments, when he first was called on to play the ball, the chant within The Independent bar’s downtown Portland location grew, initially cutting through the viewing party chaos with the help of a conscientious few. Eventually, the simplest of supporter chants enveloped the room, taking hold among a crowd that Timbers staff estimated to number between 200 and 250 people.
“Jeff!” “Jeff!” “Jeff!” From an initial reminder to a call that would define the room. Come the final whistle, the chant had won over the bar, and even came back to life postgame, when cameras caught Portland Timbers goalkeeper Jeff Attinella tending to responsibilities on the club’s social media.
“It’s cool to hear that it’s been happening at the bars,” Attinella said, slightly embarrassed, when told the local fans’ reactions after his team’s 2-1 triumph. “That’s funny.”
The Timbers were playing over 2,400 miles away. It was mid-week, with the team’s Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Knockout Round game handed a 6:50 p.m. PT kickoff. Even with a strong turnout and a playoff’s stakes, it would have been easy for the crowd to define itself by the weeknight commitment or the excuse that the game wasn’t at Providence Park.
Instead, the chant won out.
“That’s so cool, man,” he said. “I think the Timbers Army only gives chants like that to people they like. It’s been cool to be embraced by them, and any time you hear it, it’s encouraging, and definitely uplifting.”
It’s the beauty of a chant that only has one word. Repeat until exhausted. Repeat so everyone knows. When the Timbers No. 1 goalkeeper is having a night like Wednesday’s, one in which seemingly every part of his body – hands, right leg, left leg, face – was called upon over five saves, a simple chant makes it easy for everyone to get involved in Attinella’s support.
“Jeff!” Anybody who can speak can do it. It doesn’t take time to explain. There are no allusions to figure out. Call out his name to show your support. Keep yelling until we’re done.
The 30-year-old hasn’t been in Portland long, having arrived before the 2017 season after a trade with nascent Minnesota United FC. But as evidenced by the ubiquity of the his personal chant, the former Real Salt Lake backup’s second stop in Major League Soccer is proving a fruitful one. In his personality, his off-field life and his fight to establish himself as an MLS No. 1, Attinella’s profile has struck a chord.
Though he started last season as Jake Gleeson’s backup, Attinella eventually claimed the team’s No. 1’s gloves, helping the Timbers return to the MLS Cup Playoffs after the team missed the 2016 postseason. This year, an injury-plagued preseason in Arizona left Attinella, come the start of the campaign, again cast in a backup’s role. Since the sixth game of this season, though – when Attinella joined the XI and kept a clean sheet against visiting New York City FC – the Florida native has held down the starting job in what’s become the best season of his career.
Stopping 74.2 percent of the shots he’s faced, Attinella ranks second only to Seattle Sounders FC’s Stefan Frei in save percentage among goalkeepers who’ve played at least 2,000 minutes this season, while only Atlanta United’s Brad Guzan and Frei have a lower goals allowed per 90 minutes than Attinella’s 1.06.
It’s the resume of somebody whose value goes beyond mere shot-stopping, even though that skill defined his highlights from Wednesday’s 2-1 triumph. “Versus Dallas, it felt like our backline needed to sit deeper,” he remembered, “so coming out for crosses and through balls wasn’t really in my gameplan.” But at the Major League Soccer level, goalkeepers need to make athletic saves. It’s the top-line, minimum requirement for the job.
Where goalkeepers truly distinguish themselves is in preventing shots that others wouldn’t – by being someone who can accurately read play as it’s coming into the penalty area, before speculation becomes opportunity. Like other goalkeepers, Attinella has been aided by a team that plays to his strengths, but with those strengths, the Timbers’ starter has now proven he can excel.
That skill will come to the fore Sunday as Portland hosts archrival Seattle Sounders FC at Providence Park in the first leg of the Western Conference Semifinals (2:30pm PT, ESPN | Match presented by Carls Jr.).
“For me, I’m all about trying to limit shots,” he explains. “The fewer shots I see in a game, the better for me. If I can read the game, then I know I am going to try to do that.”
Still, while all his statistical markers are important, the emergence of the “Jeff!” chant may have more lasting value, perhaps because, in its simplicity, the call can also feel so visceral. There is an intellectual value to being able to say you had a 1.06 goals against average or that you saved 74 percent of the shots you faced, but a chant from your team’s supporters hits at a more lasting, emotional cord; especially when, in its single syllable, it implies a level of intimacy that transcends any need to be clever.
“It’s funny, because when it’s one person saying it,” he explains, “I want to turn around and say, ‘What? What? What?’ Because I think that they’re trying to get my attention …”
That levity, after a pause, allows Attinella to find the words describing how he feels.
“I know what an honor and a responsibility it is to be a goalkeeper for the Timbers and to play for this fanbase,” he says. “It means the world to me to hear the chants, hear stories like [the fans reaction at the bar], and know that those supporters have my back.”