Learning from MLS: an American Soccer Weekend
On Saturday, I was fortunate enough to take in my first Major League Soccer encounter as Portland Timbers took on DC United — the first game I have seen outside the UK since my attendance at the 1993 Champions League Final in Munich.
The Oregonians are very much darlings of the footballing blogosphere, having become the subject of a wonderful podcast, Mao’s Football Show, been the subject of a cracking piece from its deviser Michael Orr in Issue Zero of the Blizzard and been subject to much praise for its fan culture in a series of posts at the excellent Pitch Invasion blog — indeed, a clutch of these appeared in Tom Dunmore’s book which we reviewed in January.
But what can British football — and in particular the Football League – learn from Major League soccer? On this evidence – a lot.
The atmosphere at Jeld-Wen Field was immediately striking. This piece from Benjamin Kumming contrasted the grassroots development of the supporters’ Timbers Army with the more marketing led Seattle Sounders up the Pacific Coast. That may be true, but on first glance, a high degree of coordination seemed to be behind Portland’s raucousness.
Perched atop a gantry in front of the fans, three conductors spent the whole match and much of the warm up to encouraging the fans while a drum pounded away and a forest of flags were brandished with gusto. The chanting was vociferous and based largely on UK terrace favourites- although I was unable to make out the words, ‘you’re so XXXX, it’s unbelievable’ was perhaps the most commonly aired ditty. Despite this, the Timbers Army seem to have done well in incorporating some of the best elements of fans culture from a range of countries with, I suspect, tropes from another youthful organization, the J League, very evident.
More impressively still, when Portland managed a late equalising goal, green smoke bombs of a decidedly less acrid odour than one might expect were released, enshrouding the home end with fog, while with great ceremony, a lumberjack shaved a slice from a log (this was a toned down version of a previous action where a chainsaw had been used to fell a replica of Seattle’s space needle).
Getting a brand new 58cc Semi-Pro from B&Q into the New Den is not advised of course, but the effect was impressive — as a logging town that built much of its wealth from the transportation of forest resources from the interior, this nod to Oregon history was admirable and while the deployment of the dreaded drum splits opinion in the UK (witness the vitriol often directed towards the Sheffield Wednesday and England ‘band’), it worked here. Nor, I might add, was any music played after the goal was scored.
Indeed, the electric nature of proceedings seems very much to have been fostered by the Timbers Army with the club’s owners themselves showing great sensitivity in allowing them their head. The match was an 18,000 sell out and while this in no way compares with the 66,000 who have bought tickets for the Timbers’ next away game — at Seattle this coming weekend — it’s still a great figure.
Nor, I should stress, are the locals put off by events on the field — it’s been another flat season for the club, currently lying second from bottom in the Western conference — and this is especially notable given that the way the league is organised doesn’t even provide a relegation battle to get excited about. One might expect a record of 7 wins in 30 to lead to a listlessness amid the bleachers — not a bit of it.
Portland have something of a reputation as a ‘hipster’ club (along with St. Pauli, Union Berlin, Athletic Bilbao and others) — a ridiculous concept that has been propounded and poo-pooed in equal measure, much of it being based on the city’s richly deserved reputation for progressive politics, astoundingly good beer and rich coffee (all of which I have been enjoying with enthusiasm over the past few days). Yet, in truth, the denizens of the ball park on Saturday came from all corners of the social spectrum, albeit with the middle classes and younger people more heavily represented than they would be in England.
But this liberalism has certainly helped in producing a set of attitudes that British fans could do well to match. Despite the efforts of Supporters Direct and The Football Supporters Federation, most of us remain placidly accepting when rumblestix are introduced, Chelsea Dagger is played after goals, handshakes imposed and T-shirts fired into crowds. Many of these ‘innovations’ have actually come from the US — but, as evidenced by their opposition to a new club crest that they didn’t much like, the supporters continue to hold sway here in Portland.
The evening also revealed many smaller things to purr about — local beer, DIY artwork (although the famous tifos discussed in this Pitch Invasion piece were less in evidence than usual) and a strident reaction to events on the pitch. Unlike my most recent stateside sports experience referred to in last week’s missive about the franchise system where most of the crowd at a New Jersey Nets match were more intent on their hot dogs than the game, here, the Timbers Army went into indignant overdrive at the award of a controversial penalty. Nor did the players hold back — treating the assistant referee to a sequence of bawling that would have made Jaap Stam and Roy Keane proud.
Perhaps most impressive of all was the stadium — converted from baseball and in possession from much of that sport’s respect for tradition. Yes, there are pillars; yes there is a Crystal Palace style end, but the design recalls the arenas of an earlier age and certainly did a great job of promoting the atmosphere.
We already know about the formidable nature of the US national team but on this showing, the club game is in rude health and ready to challenge the Mexicans for regional top dog status. Having seen its unrelated ancestor, the NASL Portland Timbers expire along with that league before, the slow build up of interest in the new incarnation, along with admirable grassroots initiatives led by groups such as Operation Pitch Invasion, the city has done well in allowing the most important people — the fans — determine the destiny of soccer in the United States. English football’s primary asset remains the supporters – we should do well to remember this.