Illustration: Kyle Stecker

Howler X Timbers | Collecting the Splinters: A fan's history of the Portland soccer wilderness, 1983-2001

Editor’s note: This season, Timbers.com and Howler Magazine are collaborating on a special series that explores soccer in Portland and the city’s influence on the game in the United States. Presenting our third story in the series, we journey back to a darker soccer time in between the heady NASL years and the return of the Timbers to the A-League. This is the story of Dennie Wendt and his of coming of age as a soccer fan in the soccer wilderness of the Rose City.

------------

The 1982 season didn’t feel like the end, at least at the beginning. The Portland Timbers traveled to Seattle for the first game and won 1–0. The home opener was even better: five to nothing over the Vancouver Whitecaps, including a hat trick by Ron Futcher. But then the losing—and the rumors—started. The Timbers dropped eight of their next 10 games. I was a 13-year-old kid, and from my seat in the stands at Civic Stadium, it sure felt like all the talk was affecting the team. It sure was affecting me. First we heard that the team was for sale; then that no one wanted to buy it. I read, somewhere, that my Timbers might move to New Orleans. By the final day of the season, we were out of playoff contention, and the rumors didn’t feel like rumors anymore.

Nevertheless, August 22, 1982, was a nice evening to be nestled beneath Civic Stadium’s ancient wood-beamed roof. The sun was out, the Sounders were in town, and a hoppy aroma drifted over from the downtown breweries as it often did back then. From my bench seat at the back of the stands, smooth even where coat after coat of paint had chipped away, I remember looking out at the threadbare pitch where a soccer field had been drawn over the fading lines of baseball and football.

Professional soccer had arrived in 1975 in the form of the North American Soccer League (NASL). The locals didn’t know much about the game, and the men brought in to play for the Timbers, mostly from Great Britain, had probably never heard of Oregon, either. But they took to the town, and Civic Stadium’s artificial turf, and Portlanders took to them. By mid-July of that first season, the new team was 12–3., After a trip to the East Coast, where they beat Pelé’s New York Cosmos, a crowd of 27,000 people showed up for the next match, against the Sounders. There were people watching from the rooftops across 18th Street, and they managed not to fall off amid the excitement of beating Seattle.

For the rest of the ’70s, the Timbers were as Portland as Henry Weinhard’s Brewery and the Christmas tram at the old Meier & Frank department store. I went to Timbers soccer camps with my sisters and friends. Before games, the players sometimes came into the stands and handed out roses to young ladies. My youngest sister got one from Mike Flater and never forgot it. Timber Jim came along with his chainsaw. By 1977, the league recognized what was happening here enough to choose Portland to host the NASL Soccer Bowl, and 35,548 people crammed into the stands and temporary bleachers to watch Pelé’s Cosmos beat the Sounders in the great man’s last real game. 

Soccer was here. The soccer was good. Nobody in that stadium could have imagined that soccer wasn’t here for good.

Five years later, on the final day of the 1982 season, as the final light faded on that fine August evening, the Sounders beat us in a game that marked not just the end of the season, of a rivalry, or of the team itself, but of professional soccer in Portland. 

There would be no 1983 season for the Timbers, in New Orleans or anywhere else. For those of us who had learned to love the game by loving the Timbers, we were on our own, kicking about in a soccer wilderness, unsure if we’d ever find our way back to the place we’d come to call Soccer City.

------------

One morning in the summer of 1984, The Oregonian ran a photograph from a game between the San Diego Sockers and the Tulsa Roughnecks. I was between my freshman and sophomore years in high school, working soccer camps, playing in the odd weekend tournament, and missing the Portland Timbers. In a sad act of desperation and longing, I cut it out and kept it. 

One morning the following April, I opened the sports page and saw that the U.S. Men’s National Team had played Canada on Civic Stadium’s worn-out rug. A crowd of 4,181 showed up, but I wasn’t one of them. How had I not heard about this? I remember thinking. I read the sports page almost every morning back then, always with the single purpose of locating the word “soccer.”

That I’d missed it, and that only 4,000 people in Soccer City, USA, had shown up to see the United States play, gives some indication of how vigorously the game had been marketed. The match had been played within the narrow dimensions of gridiron football, marked out for the United States Football League’s Portland Breakers. These days, the U-12 State Cup wouldn’t be played on a field like that. 


The Oregonian, circa 1985

The event’s opening act had been a game between FC Portland, “a club less than a month old,” according to The Oregonian, and FC Seattle. “I was surprised to see so many talented players in the first match,” said U.S. coach Alex Panagoulias. “I saw a sign that said ‘soccer is back,’” he continued. “It will be.”

In the summer of 1985, FC Portland joined FC Seattle, the San Jose Earthquakes and a team from Victoria to form the Western Soccer Alliance. The team drew its roster mostly from the University of Portland and Warner Pacific College. They were coached by Bernie Fagan, a former NASL Timbers player, and played their games on Civic Stadium’s carpet. Going to those games was like eating at a restaurant that had once been popular: Everything was where it used to be, and they served the same food, but it wasn’t quite the same. Dundee United FC visited that summer from Scotland, beating FC Portland 7-0 in front of 2,022 people and me. The old building gave off a scent of faded glory, regret and melancholy, like a grand old empty house bereft of its once-vibrant family. The Scotsmen, I remember thinking, would have been saddened to learn that this Winchester Mansion of a stadium had been the venue of Pelé’s final competitive match.

FC Portland changed its name to the Portland Timbers and played the 1989 season in the Western Soccer League. In those days, anyone could start a league. I had no sense of what the WSL was—and I didn’t care. Once again there were soccer standings in the morning paper, and that was enough for me. These Timbers had a link to the past in player-coach John Bain, an original member of our beloved NASL squad. And they had a link to the future of American soccer, too: a young goalkeeper named Kasey Keller, borrowed from the University of Portland, who was named league MVP for 1989.

In the summer of 1990, the new Timbers joined the American Professional Soccer League. For the first time in nearly a decade, Portland had a team in a league that sounded national, even though the word “professional” in its name made it seem amateur. A match against the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks brought nearly 10,000 people to Civic Stadium. It was a placid summer evening, and with the familiar beery haze hovering over the stands. You could squint your eyes, breathe in, and almost convince yourself that the good times were back. But the Blackhawks won, and we stalked out of the stadium in gloomy silence.

I was there for the last game that edition of the Timbers played, too, in 1990. There weren’t too many of us. I don’t remember the opponent, but I do remember the feeling, like that night in 1982, that it was all over, all over again.

------------

When I was a freshman at the University of Portland in 1988, I played soccer for the junior varsity squad and we played the varsity team in a preseason scrimmage. It was an unremarkable game, but this memory stays with me: I took a shot, the shot was on target, and not a single varsity defender looked toward their own goal—they just started running back up the field. I’d never seen that. Their goalkeeper, that same kid named Kasey Keller who had been part of the WSL Timbers, was a freshman like me, but his teammates had already seen enough to know that it was going to take something very special to get the ball by him.

Our men’s soccer team went to the NCAA semifinals at the end of that 1988–89 season. The basketball team finished 2–26. I’m pretty sure that’s the year UP moved homecoming festivities away from basketball to soccer. Clive Charles, also a former NASL Timbers player, was building the program with the help of his assistant, Bill Irwin, yet another former Timbers player. Drawing his squad almost entirely from the Northwest, Charles composed a team as good as any in the country.

The Pilots started the season unranked. Early that fall, a UP soccer game might have drawn a couple hundred people to the rickety wooden bleachers alongside the old field. But as the weather got colder, excitement—and the crowds—grew. They beat Santa Clara on a penalty the referee and his assistant must have talked over for a good five minutes before awarding. 

In the NCAA tournament, Portland got a home game against UCLA, whose coach was Sigi Schmid. UP had been beating teams like Pacific Lutheran, Puget Sound and Evergreen State. When UCLA appeared at the campus soccer field, people were shoulder-to-shoulder in the makeshift stands, the smallest kids sitting right on the sidelines. There were maybe 5,000 people there, likely one of the biggest crowds for a soccer game anywhere in the country that year. 

The home team played with an uncool, unbridled enthusiasm that rattled the visitors. The Bruins, you could tell, hated playing on our soft, muddy field. I seem to remember Sigi complaining about the muck, but he might have just been frustrated by the score: 2–0 Portland.


Tiffeny Milbrett (University of Portland)

Two years later, the university completed construction on Merlo Field, a 5,000-seat gem of a college soccer stadium. Its debut in 1990 coincided with the arrival of another world-class freshman named Tiffeny Milbrett. She was a pre-internet folk legend of the local Portland soccer scene, having scored 54 goals in a single season for Hillsboro High School. People told stories about her—the time she scored seven, eight, nine goals in a game—that could only contain traces of the truth. Whatever she had, it translated to college, where she was a threat to score from 50, 60 yards, where she put her foot on the ball. The UP women were precise and fluid and explosive. Like UP’s’s men, they won. Shannon MacMillan showed up in 1992; she and Milbrett together were close to unstoppable. The national championships didn’t come until the early 2000s, thanks to players like Christine Sinclair and Megan Rapinoe, but in those early years, when they were just getting good, and Merlo Field was still new, UP women’s soccer was electric and unpredictable, and a fall men’s/women’s doubleheader at the University of Portland—the air nice and crisp, the smoke rising from the grill over by the baseball field, the West Hills in the distance—transported us back to Soccer City, USA. When they played Mia Hamm and the North Carolina Tar Heels in 1992, more than 5,000 people showed up to set an all-time U.S. women’s soccer attendance record. North Carolina won 6–1, and we still left with grins on our faces.

------------

In the summer of 1993, I sat high in the seats of Portland’s otherwise empty Memorial Coliseum with a handheld tape recorder pressed to my chin. I was calling the play-by-play for an intrasquad scrimmage of a new team called the Portland Pride. It was a tryout for a job calling the Pride games, a field in which I had no experience. Whenever I couldn’t think of anything to say, I threw to Hannah Storm down on the sideline, waited a few moments, and and picked the commentary back up with, “It seems we have lost Hannah Storm.” I didn’t get the job, but Portland, like a lot of other cities hungry for the game and willing to compromise, got indoor soccer.

The Continental Indoor Soccer League (CISL) was on a summer schedule, something to fill the dates in basketball and hockey arenas. The Pride had Jim Gorsek, former Timbers player, in goal. John Bain was back to coach and play. The Pride found a few jobless Tacoma Stars and other refugees from the recently defunct Major Indoor Soccer League and loaded the rest of the team with former collegians, most of them from UP. They played with a size-four ball.

I had just graduated and my tryout for the play-by-play gig conceived one night over beers with a few friends on the team. When the owner heard my tape, he said, “This is pretty funny, but we’re hiring someone who’s done this before. Have you ever done P.A.? We need a P.A. guy.” I lied and said that I had, and for two summers I was the public address announcer for the Portland Pride.

I arrived early on the night of the opener and tried my voice out on the loudspeaker. It didn’t carom around the cavernous arena as I thought it might but filled the vast, empty space with a sound I hardly recognized as myself. As I repeated my mantra—“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Portland’s Memorial Coliseum!”—I suddenly realized that I had no idea what I was doing, and began to hope that no one would come. Some of my former classmates played for the team, and when Roger Gantz, Jules Boykoff and Scott Sager jogged past my position down by the field, they shook their heads and laughed. Then people started filing into the Coliseum. I was sweating more than my friends who were warming up. The people kept coming. It was a sellout, or close to it. The sound guy cranked heavy metal from the loudspeakers. I concocted nicknames on the fly and exhorted the crowd to be “LOUDER!!!” 

People seemed to have a pretty good time.

Portland fell for indoor soccer. The team marched in the Rose Parade. The Oregonian covered the Pride as if they were the Blazers. I loved working for the team. I wrote for the program, got to games early to help set things up. One afternoon, someone at the the front office called me and asked if I’d go to the airport in a van they’d rented to pick up our next opponent, La Raza de Monterrey. (The CISL included two teams based in Mexico, none in Canada.) One night, the team filled the field at halftime with as many mascots as they could find, 10 or 15 anyway: Oregon’s Duck. Benny the Beaver. Chester Cheetah, the Cheetos mascot. In the melee that followed—picture a swarm of large, fuzzy, functionally blind people trying to kick a soccer ball—the head of Barney (the purple dinosaur) popped off and rolled across the turf. Wally Pilot picked it up and started running. The poor guy in Barney’s body gave chase. Wally ran to one of the goals and punted Barney’s head into the back of the net, I yelled “GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL!” and the crowd roared. 

It was that kind of summer. 

Nevertheless, late in the ’94 season I was replaced by a country-music D.J.

Preki visited with San Jose. Tatu came to town with the Dallas Sidekicks, who won the league that season. A young Mark Chung showed up with the San Diego Sockers. I have a fuzzy memory of being at one of those games and seeing Jeff Betts and the Pride’s lion mascot being driven out onto the field in a Jeep. It was nice to have a team, but I thought to myself that no one would have ever driven former Timbers like Jimmy Conway or Stewart Scullion onto a field in a Jeep. The CISL was a good league—but it folded rather suddenly after its fifth season amidst some squabbling between the owners and the commissioner. A shell of a team called the Portland Pythons carried on for a few more years in a couple different leagues, but this version of the dream was dead. Soccer might once again have a home in Portland, but it wasn’t going to be indoors.

------------

It was still summer on September 7, 1997, and everyone on the downtown sidewalks seemed to be walking toward Civic Stadium. The old park buzzed and shimmered in the heat. The abominable turf had been covered in beautiful, green grass; temporary bleachers had been erected in left field and behind the south goal; the tarps hung over the advertising customary to any minor-league stadium. The crowd showed up two hours early, and it seemed as if people were cheering for the field, cheering for the very idea of a big game being played in the same place where Beckenbauer and Cruyff, Clyde Best and Peter Withe and Mick Poole and Tony Betts had once kicked a ball. There were no empty seats. 

The U.S. Men’s National Team was playing here in a game that mattered. They were to battle Costa Rica in a World Cup Qualifying match.

I went with my friend Lee Brunz, a bad-ass defender I’d played with in high school. Lee and I had traded VHS tapes of Bundesliga games in the ’80s, played Subbuteo with NASL teams on his basement pool table. Now, we couldn’t help but keep gawking in disbelief. For all those years, we’d believed that perfect soccer days in downtown Portland were gone forever, and now, out of nowhere, we were living through one more. We asked ourselves why Major League Soccer was bouncing around in big, lonely stadiums when it could have this every weekend. But we didn’t worry much over the answer.

In my memory, the smell of hops and barley again descended over us, but I can’t be sure of that. When Tab Ramos scored the only goal, in the 79th minute, there was nowhere else in America a soccer fan would rather be. I yelled, but I couldn’t hear myself yell. Lee Brunz was yelling too, right next to me, but I couldn’t hear him either. We didn’t have our own team, but Portland was still Soccer City, USA. 

------------

On May 11, 2001, the Portland Timbers came back for good. It wasn’t MLS, not yet, just the A-League, but we most certainly did not care. We had the Sounders and the Whitecaps, and we wouldn’t have traded them for the Dallas Burn and the Tampa Bay Mutiny. Civic Stadium, now PGE Park, had been cleaned up nicely for the occasion and the team was familiar in its white and green, thank goodness. (The Sounders wore red, for some reason.) The crowd featured a few faded Timbers t-shirts and hats. Timber Jim rode in on a motorcycle and cranked his chainsaw and descended from the rafters as if rappelling from a Doug Fir. “Green is the Color,” Eric Beck’s blessed old 1975 anthem, descended from the loudspeakers.

I went with my parents, who reminded me that we had been there when the Timbers played the St. Louis Stars in the 1975 Western Conference championship game (which I didn’t remember), and that we had stood in line for hours for tickets to a 1978 playoff game against the Washington Diplomats (which I did). 

You could almost sense that all 12,295 people in the stands that day watched the game with their fingers crossed. This time, let this be the time it sticks. The Henry’s brewery had closed in 1999, so the spring breeze didn’t carry the familiar incense of hops and barley, but we did have the Portland Timbers back. Oh, and let the record show that we beat the Sounders that night, 2–0.

------------

About the Author: Dennie Wendt's writing has appeared in Portland Magazine, Salon.com, More Than Sports Talk and theweeklings.com. He has written a novel about soccer in the 1970s that will come out someday.

About the Illustrator: Brooklyn-based Kyle Stecker has created imagery for Variety, Grantland, Howler Magazine, Revolver Magazine and the Harvard Business Review.

 

Timbers vs. Sounders, May 11, 2001 (Photo by Allison Andrews)

Topics: