Posted by: bkivey | 23 June 2013

Portland Soccer

timbers crestThe Portland Timbers finished the first half of the season with a win over the Colorado Rapids 3 – 0 at home. It was the fifth clean sheet in seven games, and runs the Timbers’ record to 7 – 1 – 9, tying them for first in the Western Conference, and MLS, with Real Salt Lake with 30 points. The Timbers have gone unbeaten for a club record 15 straight.

This is quite a change from the first two MLS seasons. After they earned a reputation as a powerhouse in Division II, they found themselves out of their, um, league when they made the jump to MLS for the 2011 season. Winning at home got a lot tougher, and winning on the road near impossible. Their road win in Vancouver to secure the Cascadia Cup was the only such in 2012.

Enter head coach Caleb Porter. After coaching at the University of Akron for seven seasons,  and winning the conference an equal number, he was tapped to coach the Timbers. His oft spoken coaching philosophy is simple and direct: We’re in business to win trophies. Whatever he’s doing is working, because the Timbers are contenders this year. What’s more, they look it.

From a fan perspective, the most noticeable change is the increase in mental toughness.  Timbers fans used to cringe as the 74th minute elapsed, because opponents seemingly scored at will in the last 15 minutes of games. If the Timbers got behind, they’d sometimes seem to give up . If they were ahead, they’d relax and quickly find themselves on the wrong side of the score. Despite their rabid fan support, they weren’t very good.

This year is different. It took a few games to get going, but the team is good on both sides of the ball. Behind on the scoreboard? They’ll stiffen and put the ball in the net. Up on the opponent? They’ll keep their foot down. The side does have a tendency to start slow, but they’ve come good much more often than not.

Besides the players on the field and the coach on the sidelines, the Timbers have two other factors in their favor. The first is keeper Donovan Ricketts. He’s good. Real good. He’s made saves that seem superhuman, and he’s not afraid to come out of the box and challenge opponents. Much of the team’s 15 game unbeaten streak is squarely in Ricketts’ hands.

The other factor working in the Timbers favor is the Timbers Army. This is the insanely rabid rooting section several thousand strong that occupy the north end of the field. People who know have favorably compared the atmosphere at Timbers games with Premier League. They start chanting and banging drums and waving flags and generally making as much noise as possible at Minute 0 and don’t let up until the final whistle. Add team mascot Timber Joey running around with a chainsaw, and opposing teams can find it intimidating. Jeld Wen Field is among the smaller MLS venues, putting the fans right on top of the pitch, and more than one visiting player has complained about the noise and fan proximity.

Barring a second half collapse, it looks like the Timbers may do something this year. Fans don’t have any basis on which to judge a successful MLS team, so both the team and their supporters are in uncharted territory. It should be a good ride.

thorns crestThe Portland Thorns are the local NWSL team, and they’re good. A little more than halfway through the season, they hold a 8 – 2 – 2 record and 26 points; good enough to tie Sky Blue FC for first in the league. Where they blow away the rest of the league is in attendance. The side routinely has 10,000+ watching home games; two and three times the capacity of most NWSL venues. People in Portland love their Blazers and their Timbers, and the Thorns are well on the way to making that a triumvirate.

They have their own rooting section, the Riveters, and while numerically smaller than the Timbers Army, are fan for fan no less raucous. There are many fans who support both clubs, and the Riveters can only be expected to grow. It doesn’t hurt that half the LGBT community appears to turn out for games.

I’d never watched women’s soccer at any level before the Thorns, and there are differences. The major difference I’ve seen is that while the women’s game lacks the power of the men’s game, it’s more graceful. More passing, fewer direct challenges. The flow of the game is different. Not that the players are any less competitive. I’d hate to meet any one of them in the metaphorical soccer dark alley.

Thorns games are entertaining, the players competitive, and the home atmosphere electrifying. Women’s leagues in the past have suffered the stigma of being ‘just for girls’, and you can’t build success when half the population feels unwelcome. Not so the Thorns. It’s true that there’s a much higher percentage of females at Thorns games, but they have the tremendous advantage of a built-in fan base. People in Portland are accustomed to going to professional soccer games and rabidly supporting the home side. Fans care much less about who’s playing than whether the team is competitive. As long as the Thorns put a good product on the field, they’ll enjoy the vociferous and wide-spread support of the Portland soccer community.

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