The Timber Promise, Fulfilled

Well, sort of…

A while back, I made brief mention, sort of as an aside on a blog post about the end of basketball season, that it was soccer season in Portland and that I wasn’t really all that excited about it.

What followed was a post that, around the time of the Virginia Tech shootings, made it to the top of the Metroblogging network’s “most commented” list (which, given the perpetual blabbiness of those Karachians, is no small feat) as I traded shots with various members of the “Timbers Army.”

Generally, I said soccer bored me, I didn’t get it, and I also disrespected Timber Jim, the team’s pseudo-mascot and a key figure in the home team’s personality. Timber Army people said I was ignorant, mean, and generally pitiful. Toward the end, I’d been offered by various people free tickets and beer if I’d come out to a game.

I said I would.

And, Friday night, I sort of did.

I didn’t do the full thing. To truly follow through, I would’ve gone to the Bitter End pub on Burnside, hung out with the Timber’s Army, had a beer or two, then gone to the game and sat with the Timber’s Army, then gone back to the bar after.

While this would’ve been cool, it required more planning than I’ve been able to accomplish. I reached a last-minute compromise instead.

What I did do was buy tickets for myself, my Anglophile best friend, and an Ethiopian friend who loves soccer. I pre-functioned at Kell’s (where there was soccer on the TV, and where the beer was delicious), headed over to PGE Park, and ended up seated two sections away from the Timbers Army (last time, I’d been way off toward the sidelines, and honestly hadn’t paid any attention to them) so that I could observe them without being among them.

And I sat and watched. And took some notes. And some pictures, although something went haywire with my camera (and, sadly, my car, but that’s another story for another day), so I ended up relying on my cell phone’s lens, to my eternal chagrin.

First, to set the table. The Timbers entered the game 2-1-1 with 8 points scored, lining up against a California Victory squad which had a decidedly unvictorious record of 0-2-1 and 1 point. I didn’t know about the divergent records going in, but in watching the game play the teams’ play reflected them.

At first, I just watched the game for awhile. The last time I was at a Timbers game, I was perpetually bored. I found the game more interesting this time, perhaps because the Timbers were constantly within range of scoring and, in fact, scored fairly quickly to put them up 1-0. It was after they scored that I started letting my eye wander, first upon Timber Jim (who, for the first score, let a fan cut off a signature slice from the big log with his chainsaw) and then, shorly after, upon the raucous Timbers Army.

The first thing I should note here is the respect I have for the Timbers Army in general. They really are an awesome bunch. Their energy is electric, and their involvement is constant. They rival fan groups I’ve seen on TV when I watched the World Cup.

TA Fans Celebrate a Goal

That said, there are a couple of other things I noted. First, there are two kinds of Timber Army members. The majority, about 80% or so, are actual soccer fans. They watch the game and seem to be reacting to it (or to Timber Jim, who stays situated between them and the field, so his antics are within their view). But there’s a goodly number, about two in ten, who are part of the Timbers Army for the scene. They could care less about the game.

You can tell the difference by watching the group. There are the people looking at the field for most of the game, and there are the people looking back into the crowd for most of the game. Sure, the true fans will look into the crowd around them sometimes, but they are clearly different from the men and women who are clearly just there to be among the cool kids at the soccer game. If you asked them about how Bryan Jordan completely muffed an open-field possession in the first half, apparently tripping over nothing, they wouldn’t have any idea what you were talking about.

I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to say here. I mean, wherever there’s a group of people with a strong identity, you’ll find people wanting to join in to get a sense of that identity. I guess it’s a tribute to the TA that they have hangers-on and wanna-bes. I’m curious if the true TA members can tell the difference. Having talked to them in our comment threads and in other venues, I’d bet they do.

The other thing that struck me is that it’s really too bad that the TA is so small. Not as an insult. I mean, they fill an entire section in the stands to capacity, and there’s a little bit of spill into the ajoining sections. But given that Portland is “Soccer City USA,” it would be awesome to have the rabid fan group that filled the whole north end of the field. The excitement of the Timber Army is contagious, if you’re near them (I was in section 104, so I was enthralled). If you’re over in the Widmer Beer Garden, though, they’re far enough away from you to not really matter.

I made some observations of Timber Jim as well. First, I still don’t really get him. And that isn’t meant as an insult. I don’t have to get something for it to be cool, or at least cool to a group of people. I still don’t get all excited about a man cutting a log when the team scores, or shimmying down a rope from the rafters, or stretching his legs on the sideline and doing an occasional somersault.

But, that said, his importance to the TA is obvious. Timber Jim is no less than their heart and soul. When you watch him interact with the Army, it’s obvious that while an occasional visitor may see him as a sideshow, the TA sees him as a key part of the event. There is an apparent love affair between him and the patrons of section 106. And watching that part is touching.

I also found parts of his performance engaging. In fact, I found at one point that, in watching him do his thing, I missed about a five minute stretch of the game. This caused me to wonder in my head how much of what he does is for the team, and how much of what he does is for the Army. He clearly watched parts of the game, but he also clearly missed alot of it.

Of course, my high school’s cheerleaders missed huge portions of the football games, cheering with their backs to the field and all. But none of them professed to be fans.

Generally, I’m annoyed by the chainsaw. When the team scores, a coin-shaped chunk is cut from a giant log perched just on the field. An interesting idea to be sure. But it takes a little over a minute to cut it off. For me, the thrill of any scoring celebration (fireworks, lights and sirens, or whatever) is gone after the first 10 seconds for so, and then I just want the game to go on. When I’m at a Ducks game, and the team scores point number 48, I really get tired of watching Donald Duck’s push-ups after number 7 or so. Then it’s just fluff.

On the same token, though, the chainsaw is actually pretty cool for sparking a cheer. Every once in awhile, where there’s a scoring slump, the chainsaw gets hungry. Timber Jim hoists it over his head, keys the trigger and revs it for 20 seconds or so. Something about it’s loud hum is absolutely invigorating, in a way I have no hope of describing. And it does get anyone who hears it excited. Even me.

In terms of game play, I still have a couple of fundamental problems with soccer. I think they are all attributable to two things I see as flaws, which other people may very well enjoy. I think the field is too big, and I think there are too many players on it. As we debated in that initial comment spree, there’s not enough scoring in soccer for me. The ball spends too much time in the middle of the field, or off on the sidelines, and when it gets near the goal there are too many people around, things get congested, and more often than not it results in the ball getting punted back to the middle by the goalie.

Even with those things that I perceive as weaknesses, there are some very impressive aspects of soccer. The athletes are amazing. I once had a discussion with a friend where I said that I figured the most in-shape athletes were probably wrestlers (not the WWE kind) and soccer players. They said that, really, there’s a lot of standing around in soccer, but all I see is guys running their tails off for 40 out of every 45 minutes, with a combination of jogs and sprints. I remember intervals from high school cross country, and that kind of constant, up-then-down-speed running can be grueling.

Add to that sheer physicality the skill required to do the things soccer players do with the ball, whether it be kicking a ball with a precise curl on it, or stopping on a dime and making the ball shoot away in an apparent 90 degree angle from their body, and you can’t help but be impressed. Add in the knee work, the headers, and the other non-hands ball handling skills on display, and soccer players are an amazing crew.

While watching the game, it was apparent that the Portland players were more polished at a myriad of things. Their passing was crisper, they were less-panicked in one-on-one situations, they seemed to have better field awareness, and they actually appeared to be executing a plan. The Cal players, on the other hand, seemed scattered and disorganized and never seemed to have any idea of what they, as a team, were trying to do. This was made apparent at the end of the first half, when Portland had scored 1 goal (I think two, but one was called back) and attempted 9 shots, while Cal had only put one kick near enough the goal to constitute a shot (although no save was registered by the goalie) and scored nothing.

In the second half, Cal went on the offensive, playing more aggressively and actually maintaining position on the Portland end of the field for the first few minutes. However it was futile, as they couldn’t seem to cohere enough to do anything with their field position, and eventually Portland scored again. Cal, in fact, only seemed to excel at punk-ish roughing of Portland’s players, with Cal #2 nearly starting a fight in the first half, and Cal #21 getting ejected from the game after a foul which is best described as an attempted-pantsing of Neil Dombrowski. Meanwhile, I recall at least two assaults upon Luke Krearnalmeyer as he was advancing the ball towards Cal’s goal, with no-calls by the officials.

In the end, Portland defeated Cal 2-0, having taken 18 shots to Cal’s 3. And, as is universal to so many fan-packs at a ball game, the TA pulled out and started jingling their keys. Although I was amused that, instead of singing the “Hey Hey Hey Goodbye” song, like most key-jingling fan sections do, they instead chanted “drive home safely.”

After the game, the team marched around the field with Timber Jim’s team flag, and the Timbers Army saluted them, raucously, for quite awhile.

________

So, what did I learn? I still am not a soccer fan, although it doesn’t suck, and I can see why people would be. The Timbers are a good group and PGE Park is a good venue for soccer. The Timbers Army is pretty cool, although I don’t really have any respect for the people just there to be part of the scene. Timber Jim still makes no sense to me, but he clearly is an important part of the experience for the people that really matter, the regular fans.

Will I go to another Timbers game? Quite likely, maybe even this season. Even if you aren’t a fan, it’s a nice way to pass the time on a nice night. And, if you go and aren’t a fan, sit near section 106. It’s good for people watching, but may even help you get into the game more than you otherwise would.

8 Comments so far

  1. bickle (unregistered) on May 28th, 2007 @ 9:27 am

    Rusty —

    Thanks so much for coming to the match and for your thorough and even-handed commentary. It was a very good night to have stumbled upon: fair weather, decent crowd, excellent result. The fan you saw cutting the long had come all the way from Seaham, in NE England, to spend the weekend with the Timbers Army. He first visited two years ago when his club, Sunderland, played a friendly match (i.e., result didn’t count for anything) and then hosted a contingent of a couple dozen TA in his home town last spring. I would wager that soccer is the only game in the world that could give rise to such a phenomenon.

    Anyway, thanks again, and don’t be a stranger. Next time you choose to visit, announce yourself in advance on talktimbers.com and get a heapin’ helpin’ of TA hospitality!

    best,

    Bickle


  2. Bickle (unregistered) on May 28th, 2007 @ 9:32 am

    that would be a ‘log’ that the fellow cut, not a ‘long’….


  3. Totalnerd (unregistered) on May 28th, 2007 @ 10:06 am

    It’s section 107, not 106, where the densest core of fans in the North End can be found.

    Rusty you now officially provide better Timbers coverage than the Oregonian does.


  4. pong (unregistered) on May 28th, 2007 @ 10:29 am

    some of the people that you may have thought who were there as scenery may have been what we call “capos.” that is, people who lead the chants. you can tell the diffrence between these (less than 5) and the sofas by… well, the fact that they are the ones turned facing the crowd that are SINGING! its done this way to get the section as a whole united in song.

    the sofas are usally tourists, and for the most part, are nothing but useless pieces of shit that are there, like you said, to be seen, and usally act in ways that are “counter-revolutionary” to the means/wills/aims of the North End.


  5. AlanL (unregistered) on May 28th, 2007 @ 1:35 pm

    Move closer to the TA next time, grab a chant/song sheet and really have some fun. Learn the songs, watch the game, cheer the team.

    Thanks Rusty!


  6. tony (unregistered) on May 28th, 2007 @ 3:25 pm

    Hey thanks for the coverage. Yes, Officially better than the Oregonian! Hopefully we didn’t twist your arm too hard to make you write this. Thanks again.


  7. stiglr (unregistered) on May 28th, 2007 @ 5:28 pm

    One significance of each log cut is, at the end of the game, the scoring player gets to come by the North End of the shed, claim his section of log, hold it high over his head and celebrate with the Timbers Army. That log slice is then his to keep as a momento.

    I’m pretty sure a few players keep at least one of their chunks to be proudly displayed with any of their trophies, medals, shirts or other memorabilia that chronicles their career as an athlete.

    More on Timber Jim: I believe he’s been the Timbers mascot since he was a young man in the ’70s!!!!! Even though the team has had a few hiatuses over the years, Timber Jim has reappeared with the team. That’s got to count for something, no? I can’t think of a mascot who’s that long in the tooth… even the San Diego Chicken “franchised” and became The Famous Chicken, thereby losing his San Diego roots and identity… so much for loyalty, eh?


  8. beerick (unregistered) on May 29th, 2007 @ 11:36 am

    I’ve seen games where the TA filled 106-108, which is quite an impressive stretch. As a Timbers fan I am proud of the army, they do a great service, and have held steady through adversity. We usually have a merry bunch of hecklers along the west side.

    As far as your issues with soccer…it’s not baketball. Soccer is highly strategic. It’s a struggle, a battle, a chess match.

    Watch more soccer, it’s good for you. Play some or coach kids. Read soccer. Good reads are Soccer in Sun and Shadow and The Miracle of Castel di Sangro. The best description of a goal I’ve ever seen is in Among the Thugs, a fairly brutal story. cheers.



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