PORTLAND – Yes, the Portland Timbers have a mascot ... and he carries a chain saw.
Tough-guy lumberjack Timber Joey personifies the passionate, colorful and sometimes R-rated vibe that accompanies Major League Soccer games at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland.
That was especially evident Sunday, when a sellout crowd of 18,627 watched Sounders FC come from behind twice for a 3-2 win over their hometown Timbers.
“Certainly, the environment is good,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. “It’s second-best in the league.”
That remark is in keeping with a Northwest soccer rivalry that turns not only on which city has the better team, but also on which club has the better supporters.
On this sunny Sunday in Portland, the Timbers Army supporters group arrived early, cheered, sang, waved flags and chanted things that can’t be quoted – or even adequately paraphrased – in this newspaper. While in an upper corner, a section of 500 traveling Sounders fans did their best to match them chant for chant, bleep for bleep.
That kind of emphasis on soccer-fanatical young adults, rather than soccer-mom families in minivans, is new to MLS. And it is working, starting with the 2007 expansion to Toronto.
“I don’t think it’s so much of a turning point as it is a progression,” said Paul Beirne, Toronto FC senior director of business operations. “Toronto builds on some of the success that other cities had. Columbus was the first city to recognize that a soccer-specific dedicated facility is important. Houston had started to develop inroads into supporter culture. Other than D.C. there weren’t a lot of clubs that put a focus on that until Houston, so we tried to put a focus on that.”
Until Toronto, MLS seemed to value the quality of a stadium over where it was located. The key was what is called soccer-specific stadiums: facilities created for the sport, generally with 17,000-20,000 seats, and under the control of the clubs.
Teams such as Dallas and Colorado plopped their stadiums in the distant suburbs, surrounded by youth soccer fields in the hopes that those soccer-playing kids would get their parents to take them to MLS games. However, both clubs remain below the league average in attendance.
With Toronto, the emphasis switched to location, location, location. BMO Field is on the fringe of Toronto’s buzzing multicultural downtown, and the fan base reflects that: It is adult. It is passionate. It drinks beer, which is more profitable for the clubs than, say, cotton candy.
That has been the model for expansion teams that followed (with the exception of San Jose, which is playing in a small temporary stadium on a college campus). Attendance record-setter Seattle plays downtown. Philadelphia plays in a suburban city, but a distinctly gritty one. The Timbers play on the fringe of downtown, surrounded by pubs, restaurants and shops. Vancouver’s temporary home is in an established mixed-use neighborhood, but before the season is out the Whitecaps will move into the heart of downtown.
“(The concept has been) embraced by other clubs,” Beirne said. “For example, Philadelphia isn’t particularly urban, in that it’s not right in the downtown core of Philly. However, they do have a certain sensibility in their building, and they have a sensibility in their target market. So going after young adults and diehard football fans, I think is something that does separate us from the clubs that came before us.”
Of the six MLS expansion cities starting with Toronto, all but San Jose rank among the league’s top six in home attendance. The Northwest teams rank first (Seattle), third (Vancouver) and fifth (Portland) among the 18 teams.
“I’m so proud of this league and the new teams that are coming in,” said veteran Pete Vagenas, who played for the expansion Sounders and now plays for Vancouver. “They seem to hit the ground running, which is great. Again, being a lifetime MLS guy: Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, I can’t say enough. The atmosphere in Seattle is obviously second to none. They get behind their team. When the Whitecaps are playing, everybody seems to know about it – which is great. It’s great for this league, great for rivalries. I’m so excited for the Vancouver-Seattle-Portland dimension.”
Jam-packed soccer stadiums
Major League Soccer average home attendance in the Northwest and across the league:*
Seattle / 37,265
Vancouver / 20,008
Portland / 18,627
League / 17,551
League minus NW teams / 15,894
*Going into this weekend’s games.