NASL to MLS, mother to son and west to east coast: The Tallutos share a love of Portland soccer

PORTLAND, Ore. – Some people introduce themselves with their smiles. Karen and Holden are those type of people. Karen Talluto’s is exuberant, unbridled, extending across her face with the glory of being exactly where she wants. Holden’s is more restrained, but there’s a youthful awe that’s missing from his mother’s. It’s half joy, half adolescent wonder. 

They’ve been here before, making their pilgrimages to Providence Park two, three times a year for much of Holden’s childhood, but their faces cast this game new. Tonight’s is between one of their two favorite teams, Portland Thorns FC, and another NWSL opponent, Sky Blue FC. They get to see this matchup every year near their home in New York, when they drive out to Piscataway, New Jersey, to catch the Thorns’ visits to Rutgers’ Yurcak Field. But this is the first time they’ve seen Providence Park’s new look. This is the first time Karen’s seen three levels rising above the east side of her childhood’s soccer home.

“My family moved up here in 1979,” she explains. “We were early Timbers fans. We followed the Earthquakes in San Jose (before their move), and my brother was a soccer player. But then we totally fell in love with the Timbers, to the point where we were super-involved as a family.”

It was the NASL, back when young players, trying to forge a career in their home countries, would make their way stateside, to play in the league of Pele, Cruyff and Beckenbauer. Karen still remembers the ones that found their way into her dining room, to get a meal from her mother. Mick Poole. Dale Mitchell. Willie Anderson. When asked, six names quickly fly off her tongue.

“Willie Anderson gave my brother soccer lessons,” she says. “He was his private coach. And my brother would train on the pitch (at the stadium), and he went to school with Paul Conway,” a future Timbers USL-era player who was the son of Jimmy, part of the team’s Ring of Honor and former NASL-era stalwart.

“It was such a different time,” she remembers. “We would go to the after events. We were involved with the supporters’ group. We just got to know everybody. The players, especially the younger ones who were far away from home and didn’t have family (here), my mom would invite them over for dinner.”

She may have originally been from California’s Bay Area, but shortly after her family settled in Oregon, the Timbers became part of her heart. It stayed that way as she left Cascadia for graduate school in California and eventually settled in New York, where her husband grew up. She teaches school, now, is raising Holden, but also keeps Portland’s soccer culture close.

“We usually come out three times a year to Portland, if we can, to visit my parents, but we always plan our trips around games,” she explains. “We always make sure we can go to a Timbers game and a Thorns game. But this year, we went to the World Cup in France, so we didn’t think we were going to be able to go to a Thorns game. My husband went back earlier because we had so much vacation in Europe. So, he didn’t get to be here for the Thorns game. But (Holden and I) get to come.”

Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Portland Thorns FC

It’s clearly important to her. When Karen talks about the difference between, in the Bay Area, going to early Earthquakes games as a kid to, in Portland, becoming a part of Timbers’ culture, the before and after comes through in her voice. Soccer life before the Timbers is an antecedent, the tone says – there to contrast what her life became. Grad school, getting married, establishing a life in New York. As we sit a few rows up from the field on the west side of Providence Park, we talk about how the Timbers – who they'll also watch during this trip – and Thorns fit into it all. And we talk about how Portland soccer has become a part of Holden’s childhood.

“When the Timbers came back into MLS, it was mind-blowing that I would be able to come back to this stadium, bring my son, share this experience, bring my parents – they frequently come with us to games,” she marvels. “It’s awesome. And when my brother is in town, he comes, just to have that part of my childhood be part of Holden’s childhood.

“And then when you add the Thorns into the mix,” she adds, quickly, “it is even better. We love women’s soccer, and we’ve always made sure we go to both, because we want (Holden) to understand that it is equal. We don’t value one team more than the other. So that’s incredible, too, to add that into the mix. Just to have the organization is so great for both teams, and the fans really are cross-over fans. We get to love both teams. No, it’s incredible.”

They also get to enjoy the extended parts of the club’s culture. Previously, when one of their prior trips fell at the right time, they were able to help the Timbers Army paint one of the group’s early-season tifos. This year, their trip to France pushed their summer excursion into Stand Together Week, giving Karen and Holden their first experience with the club’s annual week of community focus.

“We helped with clearing out weeds and plants that were in a dirt pile,” Holden says of the Stand Together project at Supa Fresh, a local initiative that strives to empower local youth through work at their farm. “They have sort of compost-ish dirt pile, and we were helping clear out that. We used some of the soil to put around the building that was weeded by another group.”

As much as the work, the community stood out to Holden.

“It was cool just to go out and help and see it all,” he says. “The other people that are helping, too. What we accomplished in a short amount of time, it was just good to see.”

You can feel Karen’s smile as Holden talks, as he describes catching matches with other members of New York’s Gotham Company supporters’ group, or being part of the east coast's larger Sleep Coast Platoon. Regrets at having to go to bed before late Wednesday night kickoffs. Memories of catching the Timbers’ two MLS Cup finals. They’re all part of the experience the Tallutos want to give Holden, as are the tifo paintings and the Stand Together projects. This is why Holden’s being raised in a Portland soccer household.

“I actually feel more connected to the team,” Karen says, of her 3,000-mile fandom, “because we’ve made so many friends that we’ll meet up at games, and it’s so awesome to sit with the supporters in the stadiums for away games. It’s amazing. 

“It’s easy to stay connected, now, I think. And it’s fun to be part of the comradery Holden’s talking about. Like the Sleep Coast Platoon: staying up really late, watching games in the middle of the night, knowing you’re going to suffer the next day.”

Holden concedes that, at times, being an east-coast fan of a west-coast team “is hard, a bit.” But he feeds off his mother’s enthusiasm, something he sees as “awesome.”

“Sometimes it’s a little bit much,” he says, using a child’s obligatory caution, lest they fully endorse their parents, “but it’s still good.”

You can see as much on his face, as he stares wide-eyes across the field at Providence Park. Running his eyes up the east side’s new reach into Portland’s evening sky, he already understands its significance, sees how the club is growing. Just as his mother can say “remember when,” referring back to a nascent Timbers of the NASL era, so too will Holden be able to tell his children about what Providence Park was, and how much Timbers soccer has grown.

The Tallutos have given him that. They’ve given him a reference that will endure. In the smiles he shares with his mother at each glimpse of Providence Park, they’ve forged a place of his own within Portland soccer.