With the advent of Major League Soccer coming to Portland in just a few short months, we reached out to a number of current MLS players who have some tie to Portland either having played here in the United Soccer League days, or in college, or via U.S. Open Cup clashes. We wanted to know what they remembered about the city, the fans, and also see what players and coaches are talking about for Portland next season.
Today we visit with Houston Dynamo striker Brian Ching. Originally drafted by the L.A. Galaxy to become the first Hawaiian native to play in MLS, Ching played for two years with the A-League/United Soccer League Seattle Sounders from 2001-2002. While with Seattle, Ching often broke the hearts of Timbers fans with key strikes in classic league derbies and U.S. Open Cup matches. He was picked up by the San Jose Earthquakes in the supplemental draft in 2003, won the MLS Golden Boot in 2004, and moved with the team to Houston in 2006 becoming one of the Dynamo’s original players. Part of Houston’s back-to-back MLS Cup winning teams in 2006 and 2007, Ching had the game winning penalty kick shootout goal in the 2006 edition and picked up MLS Cup MVP honors as well. It was also in Houston where Ching was introduced to then-Dynamo assistant coach and now current Portland Timbers head coach John Spencer. While his A-League Seattle days are long past, Ching remembers those Portland clashes vividly and also talks with great reverence about Spencer’s impact on his career.
Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.
You had a short but exciting career with the Seattle Sounders in their A-League/USL days and played a number of games in the I-5 derby. What do you remember about playing in Portland along with the fans and the environment?
Brian Ching: I thought Portland was a great city. I thought that they had a tremendous amount of fan support especially at the USL level. I remember having some great rivalry games when I was playing with Seattle against Portland. I think that’s going to be one of the best rivalries in the entire MLS. And you throw in Vancouver, I think all three cities really go out and support their teams. And it’s not just that, I think there’s a real dedication and a real loyalty that these teams are going to have. I’m excited to go up there, even though I won’t be a part of those rivalries, but to go up there and play in Portland. If I’m not mistaken, I think they probably had the best—outside of Rochester—fan support for USL.
They’re renovating that stadium downtown, right?
BC: Awesome. With that, I think it’s a tremendous location. It’s right in the middle of downtown and it’s one of the few stadiums in our league that are going to be downtown. I think that’s going to be one of the highlights of Portland. I also think that Portland got extremely lucky with landing John Spencer as a head coach.
I was going to ask you about him. He has an incredible amount of loyalty and love for his players and I was curious to hear what it was like playing for him.
BC: I thought it was a treat. I was fortunate enough to be able to play under him and just to get to know him. I think he’s somebody I consider as a friend. As far as a coach, I think he has a tremendous amount of desire to win and succeed and do the things that it takes to be successful. He’s a tremendously loyal guy. He believes in his players and he has a vast wealth of knowledge when it comes to soccer.
I spent countless hours just talking to him about the way I play and the way he played and his perspective on the game. I can’t tell you how valuable that has been for me over the past years. You look at where he’s played. You look at the way he’s played when he’s played the game and as a player, you have to respect that. You’re coming into to a situation where your coach has done it, been there, you know what the players have been through and he knows how to treat guys and get behind them and get the most out of them. I have nothing but great things about the way he’s helped me in my career and what he’s done here in Houston and I wish him nothing but the best of success.
I’ve got to envy the fact that the players in Portland are going to be put into a situation where the coach is fantastic. From what I hear, the ownership group is extremely supportive as well.
Spencer is a very charming guy and he’s been very busy charming the whole city.
BC: One of the things that impressed me the most, he is probably the funniest guy in the locker room. He brings that excitement, that lightheartedness to the locker room. I think we miss that a little bit here in Houston. I think the he’s going to create a great atmosphere for players to succeed. I think the challenge is—the challenge for all coaches in the MLS—is can you go out and get good players in. But I have no question about his ability to get the most out his guys.
You mentioned earlier people talking about the Northwest rivalry. Are players and coaches talking about Portland’s arrival into the league next year?
BC: Well, I just think that people are excited about the rivalry that’s going to be developed in the Northwest between those teams. Seattle obviously has a leg up in being in the league a little bit longer and having success. I definitely feel that those games aren’t going to be easy games for any one of those teams. And that’s what you need and what you like to see in the league.
Everybody always talks about the Yankees-Red Sox and I definitely feel that that has the potential to be that type of rivalry within the MLS. So it’s good. It’s excitement.
Having spent time in the lower divisions and then working your way up to MLS, what do you think will be interesting both for fans that they’ll be seeing in MLS that they may not be expecting or may not have seen before; given the jump in level of play?
BC: I think that when I was in the A-League and with my time there you’re playing so many games in such short of time there. There were times when guys were going into games and they’re just playing tired because of the schedule that they’ve had. I think that with the step up in level you definitely see a speed increase, the speed of thought, the movements both on and off the ball. But I think Portland’s had a good program there for a long time. So has Seattle. I think that kind of base of fan support and that base of players helps out new teams coming into the league more so than teams that haven’t had a base.
But, you know, I think the fans of Portland have seen every level of soccer. They had the World Cup there with the women, I think they’ve seen a tremendous amount of MLS teams come in and out of there, and they’ve seen how Seattle’s doing so I think they’re a knowledgeable fan. I think they’ve seen it all. I think the excitement that’s been building is good and hopefully they get off to a good start.
Hopefully, they’ll beat Seattle a few times.