Timbers fans and Portland soccer newbies who haven’t been able to get tickets for MLS regular season games are taking matters into their own hands. Ten thousand fans are expected to show up at JELD-WEN Field at noon on Sunday August 21 as the Timbers reserve team hosts the Vancouver Whitecaps Reserves.
That’s right: 10,000.
Many MLS first teams would be glad of getting that many fans at a home game. New England and Columbus have the lowest averages this season 11,997 and 11,061 respectively. Moreover, most reserve games are played at small venues such as Seattle Sounders’ Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila and Toronto’s Cherry Beach.
But in Portland, the games are big, the tickets only cost $10, and the fans show up and sing.
The MLS Reserve League—after a two-year hiatus—was re-launched by the league this year to provide additional playing and developmental opportunities for more players on the newly expanded rosters.
Amos Magee is an assistant coach for the Portland Timbers and the head coach of the Portland Timbers Reserves. Magee says the Reserve League is great for development of younger players and others trying to get back after injury.
He added, however, “The one thing most reserve games don’t do is emulate the pressure and excitement of playing in front of a rambunctious crowd. The fact that we are going to add that into the mix on Sunday is unbelievable.”
The Portland Timbers Reserves (3-2-1) compete in the West Division of the MLS Reserve League. There are three geographical divisions: West, Central/Mountain and East. The three champions of each respective division plus one wild card enter the playoffs.
Magee has watched the Seattle Reserves (7-1-0) run away with the West Division this season. “To get the wild card spot we need a bunch of wins and one tie and we’ll be in the mix, but it’s a long shot.”
But the team will be fighting for every ball on Sunday against Vancouver (1-3-2).
The coach reckons crowds are coming because they want to see an old rival and because the game has been marketed well.
“People are really embracing soccer in Portland,” said Magee. “Reserve games tend to be buried at the back of web pages, but not in Portland. Coming out at noon on a Sunday into this beautiful stadium is money well spent.”
It’ll be a sunscreen day in the North End, mind. With the KeyBank LTFC (Little Timbers Fan Club) running around (membership gets you Reserve League season tickets), it’s an affordable family-friendly atmosphere.
Magee sits down with Timbers head coach John Spencer and fellow assistants Trevor James and Adam Smith before each reserve match.
“We talk about who’s healthy and who we need to get minutes for, but my goal is to keep guys humming along,” said Magee. “I keep them prepared if they get called into the first team, and that means the same tactical ideas, the same expectations.”
The style is handed down by Spencer, who was himself in charge of the reserves during his time with the Houston Dynamo and led them to a 2008 Reserve Division championship.
“John Spencer and I talked about that at the beginning of the season, the energy of the team, the way we’re going to attack and defend, the mindset,” said Magee. “I take his ideas and expound on them and put them in my voice.”
For defender Chris Taylor, who has made multiple appearances for Timbers Reserves this season, it’s all about grabbing opportunities to impress.
“For a reserve game if there’s fans there it makes it that much better, but we have to go out and do our job no matter what,” said Taylor.
Team spirit runs high. “You’ve seen Bight [Dike] comeback from injury and broken into the first team and scored a goal this week, and that’s fantastic,” Taylor added.
The Reserves usually travel with the first team when they have a game in the same city playing the day after, when the first team has flown back home. Unused substitutes from the first team match sometimes stay over to get some minutes with the Reserves.
Goalkeeper Jake Gleeson often shares Reserves minutes between the posts with fellow stopper Adin Brown. Gleeson filled in with the first team impressively early in the season when both Brown and first team starter Troy Perkins were injured, so he’s tasted the atmosphere of JELD-WEN in full voice.
“It’s good for us young players, good experience when you jump into the first team,” said Gleeson.
He confirms the playing style is Timbers DNA.
“The whole way we play is sent down from the first team: we work hard, we get back, we track,” said Gleeson. “With different players, the individuality comes out, but the same thing’s going on: the work ethic, run hard for 90 minutes and we’ll get a good result.”
Although there’s a core group of reserve players who play together regularly, because the whole squad trains together every day there’s no us-and-them vibe.
“We’re all pretty much a team,” said Gleeson. “From the first team down to the reserves.”