Editor’s Note: In the over 90-year history of Providence Park, the stadium has seen thousands of events from baseball to dog racing, presidential visits to Elvis, and even one time, a ski jump. It has also been the site of some incredible instances of American soccer history.
Now on the eve of a stadium rebirth that includes a new 4,000 seat east side, new soccer chapters are waiting to be written. As June approaches and the Portland Timbers and Thorns FC look to open the new look stadium in MLS and NWSL play respectively, we look back to three important soccer matches at Providence Park: Pele’s last professional game in the 1977 NASL Soccer Bowl, the U.S. Men’s National Team’s key victory over Costa Rica in their quest to qualify for the 1998 World Cup and a heartbreaking Women’s World Cup loss in 2003 for the U.S. Women’s National Team.
All three held capacity soccer crowds.
All three were moments that helped put Soccer City, USA on the map.
All three also happened to be covered by one man: Michael Lewis.
Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, is Newsday’s soccer correspondent and also writes about soccer history for The Guardian. He has covered nine Soccer Bowls – six in the original NASL – and is the only writer to cover all 23 MLS Cups.
We asked him to write about what he remembers of those three critical and memorable American soccer events in Providence Park history.
In my younger days, I had been known to make an impulsive decision or two.
And looking back, I am glad I did.
Sometime in mid-August in 1977 while covering the Rochester Lancers for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, I made up my mind I was going to travel to Portland to cover my first national championship game – Soccer Bowl '77.
Had the Lancers reached the final, my newspaper would pick up my travel expenses. If New York made it to the final, I could watch Pele's final competitive match in person. That would be a fitting circle because I covered the game in which Pele scored his first North American Soccer League goal in 1975.
After all, I figured I was in a no-lose situation since the Lancers were playing the New York Cosmos in the NASL playoffs semifinals.
Well, the Lancers did lose to the Cosmos in the two-game series, 2-1 and 4-1, the second game on a Wednesday night. After returning to Rochester, N.Y. Thursday, I flew into Portland Friday for the Sunday confrontation between a team that featured two World Cup championship captains – the great Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto – against the Seattle Sounders for a memorable and historic match.
Civic Stadium – that's what Providence Park was called back in the day – was filled to the brim with 35,548 loud and enthusiastic supporters in anticipation. While there was no official hometown team, a fair number of Seattle fans made the trip south.
It was the first time I had been west of St. Louis and my utter astonishment of how green and beautiful Portland and its environs has been etched in my mind forever, even if I did not get an opportunity to visit Powell's Books. That would come in subsequent visits.
I was there for a classic David and Goliath confrontation with a sense of anticipation that something special was going to transpire.
A Sounders upset?
A Pele goal in his final match?
A Giorgio Chinaglia hat-trick?
Or perhaps something else.
Sometimes you get surprised. Hey, that's the beauty of sports and why we follow them.
Like the rest of the stadium, the press box was packed. There was only room for New York/New Jersey, Seattle and Portland writers.
So, the national media was relegated to an auxiliary press box behind one of the goals, much to my chagrin. I did not like where I sat, but I learned quite quickly that sometimes you can be in the right place at the right time – and not complain where you are sitting – even if you did not have a place to set up your typewriter (yeah, this was way back in the day).
But then again, I had a front row seat to history.
With the game 19 minutes old, Seattle goalkeeper Tony Chursky dived to gather in a long feed by Chinaglia that was out of the reach of Steve Hunt in front of me. Chursky got up and started to dribble away, ignoring everything and everyone. In came Hunt, and I sensed a danger, real danger. Hunt stole the ball and knocked it into the goal for the first goal. Hunt lost his left shoe in the process. [Ed. Note: Watch at the 0:22:44 mark in the video below]
Chursky, a Canadian international, was deaf in one ear and could not hear his teammates' warnings over the loud crowd.
Four minutes later, the Sounders equalized on Tommy Ord's goal [Ed. Note: Coming out of a commercial break at 0:26:46 above] but Chinaglia's six-yard header – off Hunt's left-wing cross on the 77th minute – decided matters in a 2-1 victory [Ed. Note: Goal at the 1:21:35 mark].
Wish I could say that Pele was a factor in the game, but he wasn't. But it didn't matter to his teammates or to some of the media.
The scene in the Cosmos' crowded and raucous locker room was utterly surreal.
The Brazilian media sang and chanted the Black Pearl's name, "Pele! Pele! Pele!" before they placed him on their shoulders and paraded him through the room.
Just wish we had cell phones to capture the commotion and chaos.
Later, sitting at his locker, Pele looked at peace with the world. "God has been kind to me. Now I can die," he said.
Of course, Pele did not die. He realized his dream of watching the beautiful game grow in the USA.
Pele carried off the field to the locker room.
Little did I realize I would return to Portland two decades later to witness the seeds that Pele had helped plant. Tab Ramos, who grew up in the shadow of Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., Pele's home venue in 1977, came to town with the U.S. national team for a vital World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica on Sept. 7, 1997.
With one flick of his right foot, Ramos ended months of frustration in spectacular fashion. Sidelined for eight months due to an ACL injury, the midfielder scored to keep the U.S. alive and kicking in its bid to reach the 1998 World Cup with a 1-0 win before another sellout crowd of 27,396 at Civic Stadium.
Earnie Stewart, now the general manager of the U.S. men's national team, lofted a pass to the right side where second-half substitute Preki won the ball and passed into the penalty area to Marcelo Balboa. Balboa then fed Ramos, who drilled a shot from the penalty arc past goalkeeper Erick Lonnis into the right corner of the net.
"I've never been happier than today," Ramos said. "A magical finish."
I wish I could say the same about the U.S. women when they played at PGE Park – the stadium's name changed again – along 27,623 fans in the Women’s World Cup semifinals on Oct.5, 2003.
It turned out to be a rare American defeat in the WWC, a stunning 3-0 loss to Germany. The result broke the hearts of the U.S. players and their supporters, plus some impressive streaks. That included an 11-game tournament unbeaten run and the Americans' 27-game home unbeaten streak (26-0-1).
Germany prevailed with the superb Maren Meinert pulling the strings in midfield and lethal striker Birgit Prinz making life miserable for defenders and goalkeepers pounding away up front. They scored in stoppage time after Kerstin Garefrekes tallied in regulation.
The Americans are the Brazilians of women's soccer. Like it or not, they are expected to win every major tournament. But this was the first time they had failed to win the title in consecutive Olympics (silver medal in 2000) and World Cups.
"It's the end to a chapter, a book, a volume of books," goalkeeper Briana Scurry said, referring to Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Joy Fawcett, Tiffeny Milbrett and Brandi Chastain and herself possibly playing in their final high-profile match together.
It wasn't. The band got together to win the gold medal at the Athens Summer Olympics a year later.
Obviously, I can't predict the next time Portland will play host to an international match of great importance that will allow me to visit this great city again. But if there is one, I plan to be there to see the upgrade to Providence Park.
Besides, then I will have a good excuse to return to Powell's, as well.