#TimbersX | Heritage Series: The story of how Soccer City, USA became a part of MLS

Editor's Note: As part of the Portland Timbers celebration of their 10th season in MLS, Timbers.com will be doing unique content throughout the year that looks back at some of the more memorable moments of the team's history. 

The Heritage Series is a group of stories that goes deep into some of the formative tales of the Timbers over the past 10 season. The first is a look at the organization's road to MLS. Having had a version of the Timbers exist as far back as the 1970s and the North American Soccer League era, when Major League Soccer came on the horizon, a changing Portland found itself at a sporting crossroads.

-----------

Portland learned about the news two days before it became official. “Oregon, we’ve got games,” the city’s main newspaper, The Oregonian, headlined their news. For over two years, the newspaper had owned the coverage, seemingly balancing every will they with a won’t they in the city’s Major League Soccer pursuit. Come time to trumpet the outcome, sports fans in Portland knew which sport they were talking about.

The stories that ran on March 19, 2009, were a culmination. For the better part of two years, negotiations at Portland City Hall had inched forward, with the MLS possibilities igniting after new ownership imbued the city’s second-division team with first-tier hopes. Since the early-1980s wane of the North American Soccer League, Portland had been a city with only one major sports team, allowing the Portland Trail Blazers to foster the type of monopoly the National Basketball Association also enjoyed in other places, like San Antonio, Orlando, or Sacramento. Their only competition within their market came from Triple-A baseball and the equivalent in the soccer world, the United Soccer League. Two days after The Oregonian’s initial headline, those second-tier teams were set to be uprooted.

It’s why the head of that new ownership group, Merritt Paulson, was at the downtown Hilton Hotel on Southwest 6th Avenue on that date, at a space Major League Soccer had reserved days before. League commissioner Don Garber was there, too, returning to a city he had visited multiple times over the prior two years. Drew Mahalic, head of the Oregon Sports Authority, was also at the event, one which allowed the Council’s chief proponents of the move – Mayor Sam Adams and City Commissioner Randy Leonard – to take their victory lap with Paulson. Adams and Leonard had leveraged significant political capital throughout the process, forced to wear down incalcitrant responses from not only the Council’s opposition but also at the county level, as well as within various communities whose neighborhoods were drawn into the plans. Garber’s decision delivered their payoff.

More work needed to be done, and it would be months before the city met the final mandates defined by Garber, but as the news was celebrated with those in attendance from the Timbers Army, Paulson, Adams and Leonard could finally see the next phase of the project come into view. By summer’s end, the negotiations would be completed, with the landscape of Portland forever changed by the reemergence of the one-time National American Soccer League club.

"If it wasn't for Soccer City USA, we wouldn't be here," Garber exalted while revealing his league’s decision. As early as March 2007, Garber had begun buying into the vision, saying MLS could come if one important condition was met. "How could you have a city named Soccer City and not have an MLS team?"

For Garber, that condition was a stadium. Come 2007, Major League Soccer had experienced an evolution as it concerned its facilities. A decade before, at the dawn of the league, fledgling teams were often secondary tenants in multi-use venues, with only the Columbus Crew able to forge a soccer-specific home. Having joined MLS as commissioner in 1999, Garber eventually saw the errors of his league’s ways, soon demanding that new venues cater primarily to soccer’s customers. Chivas USA, Real Salt Lake and Toronto FC were added to the league between 2004 and 2006, and each would soon be playing in soccer-first homes. With few exceptions, Garber made the same demands on MLS’ next generation of clubs.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber at the MLS to PDX announcement. (Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Portland Timbers)

Over a decade on from the Timbers’ day at that downtown Hilton, understanding the stadium issue remains the key to understanding how the Timbers joined Major League Soccer, as well the major obstacles Paulson’s group had to overcome. Within that issue though, is a series of smaller struggles: of two of Portland’s early-century teams; the ownership changes that salvaged one franchise’s path; a history of Portland’s minor-league baseball that nearly derailed soccer’s arrival; and the solution that, in time, made the Rose City into a world renowned soccer destination.

Today, the Timbers have become a driving part of Portland’s international reputation, with atmosphere created by the Timbers Army held up worldwide as an exemplar of the United States’ evolving soccer culture. Game days outside of Providence Park find tourists who’ve targeted Portland for its new sports landscape sprinkled among a crowd who’ve yet to have a less than capacity turnout for an MLS show. Beyond the games, the connection the Timbers and the Army have made throughout the greater Portland area, through their sporting and charitable pursuits, have added something that extends beyond the sidewalks of Southwest 20th, Southwest 18th, and Southwest Morrison.

Particularly for people like me, who were only visitors to Portland before the change, it’s difficult to remember what the city was like before it was a Major League Soccer town. For those who have been here longer, the contrast must be stark. In terms of sports, Portland has taken on a different identity since becoming a city that has two major-league teams, with the stadium itself, having just completed another renovation, transformed into an envy of the American soccer landscape.

There’s also been the arrival of a second major soccer team: the National Women’s Soccer League’s Portland Thorns FC. There’s been the arrival of a star above the Timbers’ crest, the team having won a title in 2015. The Thorns have claimed two titles of their own, as well as an NWSL Shield, one year, after the league’s best regular season performance. Lindsey Horan and Diego Valeri have given fans Most Valuable Players in each league. Players like Diego Chara and Christine Sinclair have had impacts few others could match throughout MLS or the NWSL. Still more, like Jack Jewsbury and Tobin Heath, have crafted legends that show the array of icons that are possible throughout Portland.

"How could you have a city named Soccer City and not have an MLS team?" It’s a ridiculous possibility, now. But back in 2007, there were a number of reasons.

The previous landlords

In March of that year, a group headed by Paulson bought the two tenants of what was then PGE Park – the Timbers and Beavers – making his the third ownership of the decade. The first group left the city empty handed on a huge debt. The second applied bandaids to what would prove major wounds.

The first was Portland Family Entertainment, a group that was able to convince the City Council to commit over $38 million in taxpayer money to a 2001 upgrade of the venue. At the time, the project seemed like it would pay for itself, with ownership committed to repaying the investment via rent and ticket revenue at over $3 million a year. For a city whose baseball roots dated back to the early 1900s, and whose soccer roots had become a point of nostalgia after the old NASL, the city’s decision seemed natural. The old Civic Stadium needed to be pulled from the past to preserve part of the city’s present.

Across a number of vectors, the project proved ill-fated. The stadium was upgraded, but within a decade, those upgrades were already inadequate, with basic services like bathrooms proving too sparse by the time Paulson assumed control. More disastrously, though, Portland Family Entertainment was a failing business, going defunct and leaving the city with over $28 million in debts on the construction. Within a few years of the Beavers’ 2000 Portland return – with its previous iteration having been relocated to Salt Lake City in 1994 – the future of both them and the Timbers were in doubt. At least one would need a better facility if either was to stay in Portland.

The effect that would prove the heaviest lift for Paulson and Garber, though, was the $28 million, a number that was only slightly augmented when another ownership group, one that bridged the gap to Paulson, gave the city $667,000 in support. While a sign of goodwill, it did little to change the mood toward another commitment. Amid the national economic recession of the late aughts, and amid a local debate that questioned whether more money for sports was prudent, the city showed little appetite for more risk.

Even with people like Adams and Leonard, Paulson’s group would have to take drastic measures to overcome the legacy of Portland Family Entertainment, something he was confident could be done from the start.

“The city had already worked with me for a couple of years,” he says, “and coming from a situation that had been, in the prior group, financially unstable and got bailed out by interim ownership, I moved out here and sort of stabilized it …

“There was a degree of trust that had been built up, and then the fact that Seattle [Sounders FC] launched in 2009 and broke to the high side of expectations, there, it illustrated to some people who were maybe less fluent in the sport of soccer the potential of doing it on a major league scale was.”

At the time, few could have predicted how major league that scale would be. The Timbers’ own business models estimated an average attendance of between 14,000 and 15,000 per game. At the end of their 2011 debut, that number would be the venue’s then-capacity, 18,827, allowing the team to immediately give the city a greater-than-projected return on their investment.

“One of the keys to everything was, throughout the process, under-promising and over-delivering,” Paulson says, now. “That was a big part of being able to get everything done.”

The new ownership

Paulson had been looking for an avenue into professional sports long before his Portland opportunity emerged, with Major League Soccer a primary focus. In the mid-aughts, as San Jose was about to temporarily lose one of MLS’ original teams, the Earthquakes, Paulson had pursued a solution that would have kept the team in the Bay Area. The cost of the franchise would have been low – two to three million dollars – but building a facility from scratch in the South Bay would have cost him just short of nine digits. At the time, MLS was only three years removed from having contracted two teams, and it had just begun expanding past the 10 members it had in 2002. Paulson eventually walked away from the talks, and by 2006, San Jose moved to Houston.

“Soccer was always a primary target,” Paulson said, remembering back on his early sports pursuits. “San Jose, we were really looking at that, and after that, we had other options with minor league baseball. But we knew with Portland, with the stadium here, we had a real shot with Major League Soccer.”

Those minor league baseball pursuits nearly landed his group in San Francisco’s North Bay, where a $24 million investment would have brought a team to Petaluma. Even then, the possibility Portland was on his radar, leaving local leaders very familiar with his group by the time his Timbers ownership was announced.

"I know the Paulson family comes with an impeccable reputation," Mahalic said, when Paulson’s ownership was confirmed in Portland. "We're expecting sound business policy, people of integrity to conduct the team. All indications are that this purchase is a very positive deal for Portland."

By the time Paulson made his Rose City commitments, the promise of soccer was looking undeniable. Two months before the new group assumed control of the Timbers and Beavers, Garber had been in Portland to scout PGE Park. By October, dollar amounts were being quoted around another refurbish of Goose Hollow’s venue, and that same month, MLS’s deputy commissioner, Mark Abbott, joined Garber for a second visit of 2007. Come October 18, Paulson, Garber and Abbott were taking their case to City Hall, in person.

“Originally MLS had looked to bring in not two Pacific Northwest teams at the same time in 2011, which is what ended up happening with us and Vancouver,” Paulson remembers. “They were thinking more Montreal and Vancouver.”

Timbers owner and CEO Merritt Paulson at announcement day (Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Portland Timbers)

The end game was going to be securing a third vote from the five-member Council. Adams was out front of the campaign, as was Leonard, albeit to a different degree. Over the course of two years, Paulson and Leonard’s disagreements would occasionally trickle into the public, with Leonard’s devotion to keeping baseball downtown proving an obstacle in the process’s final stages. But their two votes were generally good bets. Together, and with MLS, the trio needed to find a third councilor.

“These deals – stadium deals, expansion deals around sports, they often take many years” Timbers President of Business, Mike Golub, says. In 2007, Golub was working for the Trail Blazers, two years ahead of his move into soccer. His time in the NBA, where he also worked for the Memphis Grizzlies as they established themselves in a new market, lends perspective on sports’ off-field obstacles.

“There are a lot of moving parts, and the public-private marriages are very hard to consumate, sometimes,” he explains. “And so, much to Merritt’s credit, the timing was impeccable, but also, he and we, we did it right. In the middle of a really major recession, we put a really smart public-private partnership together ... I think we were really pretty systematic about it. It was never a fire drill. But it was a bit of a blur at times.”

Amid that blur, Paulson had to extend to win a skeptical council’s confidence. He would have to personally guarantee all future rent payments and ticket revenue needed to repay the city’s investment, even if his teams went out of business. As part of that exchange, he and Major League Soccer made clear that a venue tailored for soccer was a prerequisite to any invitation to join the league, giving the Beavers, once the Timbers began playing in MLS, a five-year sunset on their time in Goose Hollow. That meant finding a venue for the city’s baseball team, a complication which, even after MLS signed off on the Timbers, threatened to derail the team's first-division hopes.

The devotion to baseball

From 2020’s perspective, it’s difficult to imagine a city more committed to Triple-A baseball than the legacy soccer has fostered. Such are the changes in a sports landscape that’s moved away from national pastime. Such, too, was the reckoning of baseball’s reality in Portland.

In the process of a potential rebrand early in his ownership, Paulson and his group considered changing the Beavers’ name, hoping to further distinguish the team from the nickname of Oregon State University. Eventually, fan feedback led Paulson to abandon that plan, but he eventually made a telling change to the team’s logo. “Est. 1903” was added to the art, explicitly reminding Portland of their history with the sport.

The 21st-century reality of the Beavers was worrisome, though. Attempts to buildout PGE Park flew in the face of broader trends in minor league baseball, ones that saw fanbases revitalized by new, smaller parks. Attendance at Goose Hollow’s site consistently vacillated at modest levels, registering between 4,500 and 5,500 reported fans per game throughout the aughts. The turnstile realities were even worse, regularly coming in at sixty percent of official totals. While the numbers were too big to ignore, they were also too small for PGE Park’s cavernous feel.

A new park at the current site of Memorial Coliseum was proposed, but the public decided it wanted that historic venue preserved. A tabled plan to build a stadium in Southeast Portland’s Lents Park seemed promising, until residents said they didn’t want a baseball park. Clark County entered the conversation, briefly, as did the idea of moving the team to Vancouver, Washington. And at the end of the saga, Beaverton was close to a commitment, until they couldn’t come up with the money for their venue. All along, fan voices were amplified by Leonard lamenting the sport’s possible move from downtown.

"What Merritt has done is put me in a bad position," Leonard said at the heights of the ballpark drama. "I told him I would vote for soccer if he kept the Beavers. He promised me, he shook my hand, he said he'd see this through.”

Over the two years Portland baseball future played out, the city’s preference for soccer became apparent. Trends at the turnstile for the Beavers continued in one direction, while a surge in participation with the pre-MLS Timbers Army created an undeniable force. Even before Garber’s 2009 announcement, TA backing for first-division soccer gave the group political heft – a weight that made it clear Portland could be an MLS jewel. As soccer fans assembled in front of City Hall task forces, baseball fans wrote letters to The Oregonian, and ceased to raise the Beavers’ attendance numbers. Their sport remained wedged between its past and present, with the city’s legacy voices trying to stave off an undeniable future.

Options emerged as quickly as they faded. All along, the fates of the city’s soccer and baseball teams stayed coupled. From 2007 to 2008, and through early 2009, the idea of losing the Beavers was more a fear than a reality, yet as community after community declined to house them, and the next set of communities failed to bring plans to fruition, the true reality of the Beavers took hold. Soccer had a route to the major leagues. Triple-A baseball couldn’t find a home.

Getting the final votes

On March 12, 2009, with debates around urban renewal districts sharing headlines with Leonard’s and Paulson’s public debate, the Timbers got their third vote, for which the name Dan Saltzman should always live in team lore. While commissioners Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish would ultimately make dissenting decisions, Saltzman swayed toward Adams and Leonard, voting for a proposal that, at the time, would shift the Beavers from Goose Hollow to the Rose Quarter.

“Saltzman upstaged his City Council colleagues thoroughly as he kept an audience heavy with Timbers fans in suspense about how he would vote on bringing a Major League Soccer team to town,” The Oregonian wrote, at the time. “In the end, Saltzman did supply the crucial third vote …”

Almost immediately, parts of the plan were cast into doubt. The same day the council’s 3-2 vote seemed to put Portland in line with MLS’s criteria, the Portland Trail Blazers’ senior vice president of business affairs, J.E. Isaac, spoke out against what a Rose Quarter park would do to the NBA team’s business, testifying before a city task force that, “replacing Memorial Coliseum with a baseball stadium will leave us as a facilities district." In the days that followed, Isaac could walk back his comments, slightly, but the dissent started an early debate about the site. Even if Memorial Coliseum was torn down – an idea that proved unpopular enough to abandon – how should that land be used?

The idea of establishing a new urban renewal district, something needed to collect new tax revenue, eventually dissipated, too, with then-Multnomah County commissioner Ted Wheeler, a future Portland mayor, convincing council members of the plan’s potential harm to his charge.

"I've heard lawyers, I've heard consultants, I've heard planners for the city of Portland all standing up and saying there's no risk to Multnomah County," Wheeler said, in what The Oregonian described as a “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington moment.” "With all due respect, I'm new in this job, but I wasn't born yesterday. I'd like to have my lawyers and my consultants and my planners take a look at this, and then we can come to the table and mutually agree on what our community's priorities should be."

As time went on, the plan continued to be picked apart, and at one point, an op-ed in The Oregonian lamented Paulson’s unwillingness to pay off the debts caused by Portland Family Entertainment. A responding op-ed, penned by Paulson, quickly pointed out the injustice of handing another’s ills to his group.

The view was an outlier, but it was also an indicator of a growing feeling within the negotiation – that eventually, Paulson’s group should pony up more. The MLS expansion fee, eventually acknowledged as $35 million, came out of the team’s pocket, with the team also on the long-term hook to repay a series of city-backed loans. But from the moment the City Council initially approved the soccer-baseball plan, a $15 million gap existed in the finances. How to close that gap, along with other funding concerns, sparked drama over the process’s final months.

“There was a meeting behind closed doors that got pretty animated, and that’s something that those of us in the room still talk about today,” Paulson says. “By and large, I’d say it was a very measured, thoughtful process. But it was a difficult negotiation. I would say that when I was in a room with Sam and Randy, and a bunch of the city lawyers, there was one meeting that sort of went to DEFCON 1. I still communicate with Sam and Randy a little bit, and there were a number of stories throughout the process.

“At the time, it wasn’t enjoyable to me, I’ll tell you that. I was on pins and needles … there was an attitude of a never-ending fountain of money that could be tapped into. But the way it transpired was fairly humorous, in retrospect.”

As the summer of 2009 approached – as ballpark locations failed and sources of new funding went unrequited – it became clear a new plan was needed, one that would separate the funding for stadium renovations from the needs of baseball. On June 20, 2009, Leonard issued a final threat, warning his support of the MLS deal could wane if baseball wasn’t preserved. Five days later, though, a 4-1 vote officially separated baseball’s fortune from soccer, paving the way for a PGE Park renovation plan was approved on July 24.

The aftermath of the deal

Eleven years later, the legacy of those battles is evident at Providence Park. The stadium began its facelift for the Timbers’ 2011 debut. By the team’s second year in MLS, the venue could accommodate over 20,000. Last spring, a second phase of the venue’s major-league growth was completed, adding the new levels to the site’s east side while bringing capacity to over 25,000. Now, the venue mostly enclosed, is laden with new, modern video displays, and boasts a luxury level that would have felt absurd at the old PGE Park. If the mind increasingly strains to remember what Portland’s sports scene was before MLS, it too will struggle to think back on the old Civic Stadium.

But just as the Timbers’ jump to MLS led to Providence Park’s new look, so too did it help remake Major League Soccer. Following Seattle’s arrival two years before, Portland’s move up from USL is part of a turning point in league history. Long-time followers could point to Toronto’s fanbase as a hint, or the influence the Sons of Ben had in bringing a team to Philadelphia, but the fan culture that has become definitional to MLS arrived when the Sounders and Timbers came on board. Almost immediately after the rivals were back in the same league, Portland versus Seattle redefined the league’s standard for local animus. In time, older rivalries like D.C. United versus New York were being compared to a new benchmark.

“The way the Timbers Army activated in those early years,” Paulson remembered, “and that success MLS had in Seattle, too. [Seattle] opened a lot of eyes. Both of those were huge factors in the success we had, early on. The fact that the Army was as engaged and active with the city of Portland the whole time was very powerful, as well.”

Fans react to Portland being awarded an MLS franchise. (Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Portland Timbers)

Come 2022, Major League Soccer will have 30 teams. When the league first expanded into Cascadia, it grew to 15. The size of the league has doubled since the first Pacific Northwest teams came on board, and as much as the on-field success of Portland and Seattle plays into that, the success the teams have had off the field, in the support they’ve received from their fanbases, has changed the league forever.

“The glue to all this thing [was] our supporters,” Golub said. “The fact that we were granted a team and already had an amazing supporters group and the Timbers Army was and continues to be the secret sauce, right? We worked hard, as did the Army, and together, cultivating a larger Timbers Army than we had had during the USL days, but the fact that the culture, the ethos, the community of the TA predated our MLS years was and is an awesome thing. It was the tailwind that we constantly had behind our momentum.”

Perhaps the biggest legacy of 2009’s deal is what the revitalized Timbers have done for Portland itself. A decade ago, when outlets wrote about the city’s aspirations – whether there was value in moving from, in major sports terms, a one-team city to a two – none could have predicted what the atmosphere would become at Providence Park, how much the Timbers Army’s growth would help promote Portland’s international profile, or how major the Timbers themselves would become. Soccer may still exist in a bubble, of sorts, with fans of traditional, big three or four sports slow to accept a new option, but within Portland, that new option has proved foundational, in terms of the city’s culture.

Throughout each season, news organizations from across the world come to Providence Park, with every feature trying to answer the same, possibly eternal question: Why? In so many ways, Portland could just be another NBA city, like Sacramento or San Antonio – a one-team town, with an identity that corresponds. Instead, Portland’s profile has exploded, with its love for soccer meshing with an aesthetic which has made the city marketable. Within those international features, figuring out why Portland has developed its distinct identity is less important than merely documenting it, season after season. That unique, counterculture identity, though, proved the perfect match for the Timbers’ revival.

“It’s a trite expression that things happen for a reason,” Paulson says, now, “and we operated according to a very good plan with people who knew Portland really well – with how things happen in Portland. I had great support, and we took a patient and open and intelligent approach. Ultimately, I think it was the right thing for this city, and things happen for a reason.”

There are few places in the United States where a team’s scarf is so ubiquitous; where the atmosphere around the matches, nestled into the urbanity of Goose Hollow, feels so communal; where a fanbase’s identity is so influential. Though there were uncertainties along the way, and the fight for the Timbers’ MLS place lingered for months after the league’s approval, Portland’s new sports landscape began on that March day at the Hilton Hotel. It began with a question that probably should be rephrased, now.

Don Garber asked, when announcing the Portland bid’s success, "How could you have a city named Soccer City and not have an MLS team?" Now, it seems a better question would be: How could you be a Major League and not have Soccer in Portland?

Topics: