PORTLAND, ORE. – The chanting and singing started two hours before kickoff. In the pouring rain, with nothing taking place on the soccer field, not even warmups.
For the national anthem, 20,000 fans sang together on cue, a cappella. They even mimicked the sound of cymbals crashing at the appropriate spots.
Then came green smoke and more singing and drum banging and, hey look, there’s a mascot named Timber Joey, a lumberjack who cuts wood with a chain saw after goals and parades the log slabs around the stadium for fans to touch.
Portland Timbers matches are a hoot. Two hours of nonstop bliss, loud and festive.
Fitting that Minnesota United FC made its Major League Soccer debut at Providence Park, the Timbers’ raucous home. As the Loons attempt to find their footing in a crowded Twin Cities sports market, United officials received an intimate look Friday night at a deeply rooted connection between a team and its fan base.
Different situation and different markets, yes, but if United can cultivate something similar in terms of fan engagement, big-league soccer will thrive in our market.
Portland set the bar high.
“We thought we were on to something magical,” Timbers President Mike Golub said. “It’s really special.”
Personally, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Teams in other sports leagues have passionate fans and intimidating home-field environments. This felt different, a sugar high of emotion.
Their massive supporters group, Timbers Army, served as conductors for every cheer and song. No piped-in music, no pleas from game ops to “MAKE SOME NOISE!!!!”
Their sustained theatrics gave it a big-event vibe for those lucky enough to be in the cool club.
The Timbers have 13,000 people on their season-ticket waiting list. They have sold out (21,000 seats) every home game in their existence, 108 games and counting.
“It’s not something you can manufacture,” Golub said. “It’s truly organic and authentic. We recognize the power of what Timbers Army and fans can do. We created the conditions for them to flourish.”
It’s probably unrealistic to expect United to replicate that support, at least right away, because its circumstances are different. Portland is a small market with the NBA’s Blazers as the only real competition. United joins a market with five pro sports franchises and one major Division I athletic department.
But there are lessons to be learned or ideas to be copied for an expansion team.
Manny Lagos, United’s sporting director, wants his organization to create its own unique attachment with fans, a process that probably won’t fully take shape until the team moves into its own stadium next year. United officials set a goal of 11,842 season tickets sold in its inaugural season.
“This is unique to Portland and it’s special to them,” Lagos said. “As people get to know this league, we’re going to have our own atmosphere that’s going to be a little different than how fans here created it. But it’s going to be awesome and special. I think we have similar fans in terms of the cheering and passion and the culture of the sport.”
The Timbers have struck gold, which is good for the entire league. Their symbiotic relationship with fans not only creates a unique experience, but it also shows that soccer can be wildly popular in U.S. markets. That’s important as MLS continues to add new franchises.
“When I come to Portland Timbers games, it brings a smile to my face,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. “What an amazing showcase for our league and for the potential for the sport of soccer in America. It’s showing a lot of people that never truly understood how big this sport can be in the U.S.”
The Timbers won the MLS Cup in 2015, but they also have had losing seasons. A winning team certainly helps, but other factors — marketing, brand appeal, soccer participation at youth levels, etc. — are necessary in fostering that emotional bond.
“Portland is a small market yet it punches way above its weight in every way,” Garber said.
Minnesota United hopes to do likewise. Team officials saw firsthand how soccer can flourish in a city and become a hot ticket. Achieving anything close to that will be a success.