I spent the majority of the last year living in the United States and, due to being quite unmistakably English, I attracted a lot of interesting questions and queries. While some of these boiled down to Love Actuallyesque requests to say certain words, I did get the odd question on ‘soccer’ – that’s football, to you and me. Primarily I would be asked which ‘EPL’ club I liked. After stating my own allegiance, I would always return the question to them: “Who do you support?” In my year in the US, not one person that I asked identified with a Major League Soccer team.
At first this took me by surprise. Obviously the Premier League has the biggest worldwide audience, but not for a second did I think that it would completely oust the interests of other domestic leagues around the world. But then it came to me that comparisons with the Premier League are futile – despite being roughly the same age as its English counterpart, football in America is still very much in its infancy.
MLS itself is still in the expansion stage; Patrick Vieira’s New York City FC only joined last year, while there are another four teams due to join before 2020. Furthermore, due to this lack of established teams, certain clubs began to dominate. Indeed, four of the five most successful franchises have been involved in the competition for at least 18 of Major League Soccer’s 20 seasons. First came D.C. United, who conquered the late 1990s. Then came LA Galaxy, whose reign as top dogs is even now proving difficult to overthrow. But last year, the establishment spell was broken. The humble Timbers of Portland, Oregon came from the North West of the country to take the 2015 MLS Cup – the youngest ongoing competitors ever to do so, having only joined in 2011.
But while the Timbers’ footballing ability has only just come to the fore, they are without doubt one of the most cultured and fascinating studies of fanaticism. Their rivalry with Seattle Sounders from their neighbouring state of Washington is one thing, however it is at home where you will find the people of Portland at their most weird and wonderful. The so-called Timbers Army are a prolific bunch – having sold out to an incredible sixty-five games consecutively at the 21,000 capacity Providence Park, they are by far the most energetic, boisterous and intimidating of MLS supporters. But what really sets the club culture apart is Timber Joey.
Most clubs in the world have mascots. From English football’s obscure and surreal foam-footed critters to sides like FC Köln who boast a live goat named Hennes, they come in various guises. Portland, however, have a living, breathing lumberjack – Timber Joey. His raucous antics on the sidelines culminate in the sawing of a circular slab from a log each time there is a goal or a clean-sheet. The goalscorer or ‘keeper will then be presented with the log slab post-match, giving Joey’s presence more than your average mascot. And with a culture as bizarrely unique as this, it’s an absolute joy to see the football finally back it up with silverware.
The 2015 MLS season was a landmark one for two reasons for the Portland Timbers. Celebrating what became known as the Timbers 5/40, the season marked their own fifth anniversary in MLS as well as their 40th year on the American soccer scene (the Timbers’ name has a rich heritage which traces back to the North American Soccer League of old). Little did they know that it would end with another milestone in the franchise’s short history – MLS Cup glory.
On the surface, it would appear that there is only one man to thank for their achievements of late. Head coach Caleb Porter hauled the Timbers out from the mire, after having finished the 2012 season with one of the worst records in the league. Porter took the helm from the start of the 2013 MLS season and the rewards were immediately reaped: having sunk to eighth out of nine teams in the Western Conference the previous year, the Timbers ended the regular season third overall and first in their division, qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League.
An unsuccessful 2014 season was followed by the aforementioned triumph of 2015, but this year’s edition of the tournament has seen them sink back down to sixth in the Western Conference, 12 points adrift of table-topping FC Dallas. This probably won’t worry Portland in the long-term – they have, of course, come back from worse. What is more potentially more intriguing is what it says about the future of MLS. Current Eastern Conference leaders New York City FC finished 17th overall and eighth in their conference last season yet now look poised to mount an MLS Cup charge. Both divisions have become fiercely competitive with regional rivalries sprouting thick and fast. While it may mean a bit of a wait for Portland’s next major trophy, the unpredictability and increased belief that the Timbers have instilled in all teams is just the shot in the arm that MLS needed – and long may it continue.
In any case, I have a funny feeling that if I were to return to the States in three or four years time and ask the question “who do you support?”, I would be met with a very different answer indeed.