TUCSON, Ariz. – Two flags fly high on a temporary flagpole in a remote corner of the Kino Sports Complex. The highest bears a crest amid an all green background, displaying the name Portland Timbers across an axe’s handle. On the flag below, green, white and blue stripes rest behind a Douglas fir – a connection to Cascadia in southwest Arizona.
It’s still almost three hours before kickoff, but Henrik Nielsen and Matt Walls, are all set up. Donuts, bagels and empanadas await the coming crowd, as do refreshments in two separate coolers. For a noon Timbers preseason kickoff against FC Dallas beneath overcast skies, the group will be slow arriving, but there’s little doubt they’ll come. The Timbers Army Desert Corps–the Timbers Army supporters group of the Arizona area–have been doing this for four years, now.
“None of [the Oregon-based fans] are coming down this time,” Nielsen explains, alluding to the annual pilgrimage some Timbers Army members completed two weeks ago, when the Portland faced Seattle Sounders FC. This year’s two-part preseason has broken things up for the Corps, giving the Timbers’ second trip to Tucson the feeling of a denouement.
“This year, because of the split, it’s [different], but in previous years, they’d be down here for a solid week, [the team] would play one weekend and then the next, and they’d play one or two midweek games,” Nielsen says. “I always tell people up there, ‘Take the whole week and come down here,’ but nobody can take the whole week.”
This is the third time this preseason the Desert Corps have assembled, continuing a tradition that began in 2014, the year after the Timbers defeated the Sounders by an aggregate score of 5-3 in the 2013 MLS Cup Playoffs. After that, Nielsen wanted to take his supporting experience to a new level and approached other fans about potentially making tifo for the next preseason. The result was a display that fully launched the Desert Corps.
“It was actually during a supporters’ match between FC Tucson and what was then the Phoenix Wolves,” Nielsen remembers about the Corps’ origins.
“After we beat Seattle in the playoffs, I talked to [my friends],” said Nielsen. “I was like ‘Let’s just make a sunburst, and it will have 5-3 in the middle of it.’ So we got together, we made it, and the next year, we did it again.”
The Desert Corps have made tifo a preseason tradition ever since, with members from both Tucson and Phoenix, as well as surrounding areas, coming together to take part. Some are supporters of FC Tucson; others support Phoenix Rising, or the clubs that came before. When it comes to the Timbers, though, those local divides disappear, leaving one point of focus.
“We started organizing watch parties in Tucson and Phoenix and finding bars that would accommodate us,” Nielsen explains, describing how the group went from tifo and tailgates to developing a year-round culture. “[A friend] started organizing people in Phoenix, in particular. From there, we also started getting blocks of tickets to Timbers 2 games when they come down and play whenever entity Phoenix is at a given point of time.”
The group now has active Facebook and Twitter presences, where the group’s tifo can be seen. Matt Walls maintains each and has printed business cards for the group, which seems to get a new form of media attention each spring.
Last year, smoke set off before an evening game combined with the Tucson sunset to create a violet haze, one reminiscent of a Blaze Runner landscape. A photograph of a Timbers’ huddle before the late-evening kickoff dominated the next day’s papers, highlighting the atmosphere the Desert Corps can produce.
On this Saturday, a woman from Prescott is the first to arrive, though she isn’t necessarily looking for the tailgate. Her son, she explains, is a big Timbers far, one that’s converted her. She recognizes the flags Nielsen has flown.
“Are you going to have merchandise?” she asks, unclear of what, exactly, the group is about. Within moments, a box of merchandise is pulled from Wall's car, from which a green Corps scarf is sold. Soon, the guest decides to stay until kickoff.
“If you want to be a member of the Army, you are,” Walls explains, relaying the mantra to their next convert. Over the next three minutes, amid incredulous texts back-and-forth with her son, their guest gets her first lesson in Timbers’ supporters’ culture.
Through the years, the numbers have grown steadily, and the renown the Desert Corps have earned throughout Timbers fandom has made their tailgates a destination experience. The 107ist, who plan around the Sounders game in Tucson, have made the occasion a minor convention, one that’s left its mark among others at the Kino Sports Complex.
“They came from over in that direction,” a venue worker said, pointing to the ramadas and picnic tables where the Desert Corps assemble. “They had flags and drums, and were singing the whole time. That was definitely our biggest group. I remember them.”
It’s part of the tailgate experience the Corps organize before every match, albeit one that’s taken a different form this preseason. Before, the group used to setup in the parking lots along the entrance to Kino’s North Complex, often bringing kegs of beer and arranging for tacos to be made onsite via a caterer. Last year, though, according to Nielsen, a separate group of fans started some small fires in the parking lot. Since, Pima County (who administers the complex) has cracked down on gatherings. Hence the move to the ramadas.
Ninety minutes before kickoff, the crowd truly starts to roll in. Two people from California who camped overnight at a KOA come over, their small children engaged by the adjacent playground. A father and son who have flown down for the weekend seek the group out and are immediately invited to a free meal. Another person with Portland roots playfully uses her background against Nielsen, though she seems suspicious of his empenadas.
By the time the group rolls into Kino, it’s big enough to occupy the better part of two stadium rows. That’s modest by Desert Corps standards, but with the Seattle game on the first end of the preseason, it’s not entirely unexpected. It’s rained for three days straight, and a noon kickoff against FC Dallas isn’t the easiest tailgate sell.
Nielsen and Walls were still there, though. Ready with Desert Corps scarves. Ready with cactus-laden badges for those who turned out.
It may not have been a preseason derby, but in that way, the Dallas game still showed the Corps’ staying power. It still showed why they’ve carved out their own place in the Timbers Army’s force.
The Timbers play their final preseason game in Tucson on Feb. 24 against Sporting Kansas City (3pm PT/4pm MT | Webstream at Timbers.com) in the Mobile Mini Sun Cup at the Kino Sports Complex. Kickoff is set for 3pm PT/4pm MT and the Desert Corps is organizing a tailgate to celebrate. Join them.