I USED TO SCOFF when I heard sports commentators glorify a team’s supporters by saying things like, “Football is a religion for [team name here] fans.” How, I thought, is that an advertisement for them? And if that’s their religion, if that’s their source of meaning, it’s a poor excuse for one!
That was before I became a Portland Timbers ultra.
If you don’t know a lot about global soccer—and given the tendency of humanists to look askance at bigtime spectator sports, there’s a good chance you don’t—here’s a primer: The Portland Timbers are a team in Major League Soccer (MLS), the top-level professional league in the United States and Canada. Despite its rising popularity, soccer remains the “other” sport in this country, overlooked by media relative to the “big four” (football, basketball, baseball, and hockey) and altogether other in its traditions and vibe.
Soccer fans who take their energy and loyalty to the top level are often called “ultras.” They are typically grouped in a particular section at the stadium, where they sing, chant, and wave scarves and flags with unrelenting ardor. Soccer’s fan culture is more edgy, progressive, and D.I.Y. than what you witness at, for instance, a pro basketball game, where simplistic cheers are spoon-fed by high-wattage scoreboard graphics and over-the-top public address systems.
When you’re with the 5,000 ultras in the north end of the stadium at a Timbers game in Portland, Oregon, you can’t even hear the PA. Instead, you’re swept up in a constant torrent of songs and chants belted out by you and the thousands of other fans, all testifying to the awesomeness of the team, the supporters, and the city, and sung to melodies ranging from “Winter Wonderland” to “Anarchy in the UK,” by the Sex Pistols (I am a Timbers FAN! I am an OregoniAN!)
And the seats are as superfluous as the PA. You stand—for the whole game. Mix the full-throated soundtrack with the smoke bombs, the sea of green-and-gold flags, and the chainsaw-wielding, jersey-clad lumberjack who saws off a slice of Pacific Northwest “victory log” when the Timbers score—ah, the joy that erupts when Portland finds the back of the net—and you have something that the Timbers Army website describes as “part carnival, part mosh pit, part revival meeting, part Christmas morning.”
Me? I call it a fun and friendly riot—and something more. Something that rises to the level of that over-stretched word “community.”
The “meaning” of the Portland Timbers and their supporters’ cult sure became clearest to me only after my wife and I left Portland to chase a job opportunity on the East Coast. We were disconsolate about surrendering our season tickets in the Timbers Army section—there’s a miles-long waiting list for those prized tickets—and saddened to know that we’d have to settle for watching games online.
Then, a wondrous discovery: Timbers fans on the East Coast! Including in our new city of New Haven, Connecticut! And not just a few interested people talking on social media but a well-organized East Coast Platoon of the Timbers Army.
Let me say here that it’s understandable to be put off by that martial imagery—or the logging homage, for that matter. Here’s the reality: Timbers Army members tend to be non-militaristic, eco-conscious, LGBT-embracing, craft-beer-loving liberals whose ranks include lots of women and who are practiced at the art of appropriating and subverting tropes you might normally associate with conservative sports culture.
Now my wife and I attend Timbers away games up and down the East Coast. We Timbers supporters show up in organized masses several hundred strong, marching into opposing teams’ stadium with our drums, songs, and colors to show our rivals what a proper group of ultras looks like.
I’ll long relish the way we took Manhattan by storm on my first outing with the East Coast contingent, singing our paeans to Portland every inch of the way as we thronged from a midtown pub to the subway and then to the stadium to see the Timbers beat New York City FC (which stands for Football Club).
Portland ex-pats, many of us, we hold onto the Timbers and each other as a way of keeping Portland alive for us. Some of us are ex-pats who aren’t even from Portland originally, but who identify with what the team and city stand for. For these ultras, it’s a thing to finally make the pilgrimage to the Rose City and stand with the Army in the North End of Providence Park for a Timbers home game.
So many of us, so far from Portland, embracing the Timbers. Why? For some of the usual reasons people attach to out-of-market sports teams. The Timbers get a relatively large amount of national media exposure. I assume this is partly because the Timbers Army provides good optics and audio for TV (our noticeable f-bombs notwithstanding). Plus, Portland won the league championship in 2015, establishing the team as one of the best and highest-profile franchises in the league.
But it’s more than that. It’s the belonging that comes from wearing the colors, understanding the meaning of the esoteric iconography and symbols, and knowing things like why the official supporters organization is called “The 107IST.” (It’s a genesis story: The Timbers Army was created in Section 107 of the stadium and grew organically from there.)
It’s the rituals and traditions. In the eightieth minute of every game, you can count on the Timbers Army striking up a rowdy rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” and, in the eighty-fifth, an equally irreverent rendering of “I Can’t Help Falling in Love”—yes, the sentimental Elvis Presley song.
And you know that the best song and dance of all will come after the final whistle—but if, and only if, Portland wins. Then you get to sing the theme of the Tetris puzzle game while pogoing left and right with the all the other fans, who feel like your best friends even though you don’t know the vast majority of them.
The “love” that the crazies profess in the final minutes isn’t too strong a word. Indeed, when I listen to one highly energized ultra from Pittsburgh explain his head-over-heels embrace of the Timbers and their East Coast fans, it’s a love story I hear.
Travis was in an awkward, painful place with his sexuality and sports fandom before discovering the team. In a moving post he wrote for the East Coast Platoon Facebook page (which he authorized me to share in this article), he talked about the homophobic cracks he had to endure while watching soccer matches in a pub in Pittsburgh. Understandably, he stayed mainly in the closet. Until he experienced the Portland Timbers and their supporters.
In the memorable piece, Travis reflected on his experience with the Timbers Army (the “T.A.”) and its cousin club, the Rose City Riveters (“R.C.R.”), who support the Portland Thorns in the women’s pro league:
Pride Week just happened.… Other than being in the North End for matches, marching with T.A. and the R.C.R. during Pride Week is the thing my heart aches for most being so far from Portland. I know I am not alone in feeling that pride. Being with the T.A. and R.C.R. is where I feel safest, where I knew I could be open about myself. This acceptance is such a stark contrast to Pittsburgh that a friend I confided in here worried that “There were two Travises, a Portland and Pittsburgh one.”
I adore this acceptance. I adore this inclusiveness. I NEEDED it to eventually be comfortable with coming out entirely. The Timbers Army and Rose City Riveters were a crutch when I couldn’t be myself.
Suffice it to say, this kind of acceptance of LGBT people is not what sports fandom is known for, and it’s what makes Portland Timbers culture so different, so impressive, so humane. It’s what springs to mind when I see the Cascadia flag flying high in the Timbers section at the road games we attend, the silhouette evergreen icon proclaiming a different kind of sports culture, one that’s largely free of the aggression and reactionary politics that taint sports for many humanists.
I could go on. There’s the community service work done by the Timbers Army back in the Rose City. There’s the amazing creativity and craft that goes into the massive banners that the fans create, known as “tifos,” that cover virtually the entire north end of the stadium when unfurled just before kickoff. There are the special-edition scarves and patches that East Coast Platoon members design and distribute at away games, reflective of a culture that is much more about participation than passive consuming. There’s the happiness in seeing people I’ve gotten to know from all over the eastern United States—from New York, Washington, DC, Massachusetts, and both Pittsburgh and State College, Pennsylvania (the home of the East Coast Platoon’s unofficial ringleader)—and bonding anew over the team from the Pacific Northwest that we’ve made our own.
At first glance, the Timbers scene might seem like the kind of arrogant, tribal display that leaves many humanists turned off to sports. True, we Timbers supporters want the team to win. Badly. We yell at the referee and act like there’s been a grave injustice when a decision goes against our team. We know the creativity and volume of our songs surpass those of our rival supporters’ groups, and we boast of this in many of our songs and chants.
Over there it’s so quiet,
Over here it’s a riot!
Walking along, singing a song,
Walking in a Timbers wonderland.
And, yes, we know our sport is stained by a history of hooliganism and violence. Which, I suppose, is why we Timbers ultras are quarantined from the rest of the stadium at away games and why security escorts us in and out as a group. The security precautions really aren’t necessary. The minute the guards let us loose in the parking lot or on the street after the game, here come the other team’s ultras—not to trade insults or fists but to swap stories, compliments, and scarves. As the interaction migrates to a nearby pub, it becomes abundantly clear that our differences over team loyalty are transcended by our love of America’s “other” sport and our being together to revel in it.
Soccer in general and the Timbers in particular are what keep me in the game as a sports fan. Writing my book on Christianity in major league sports (Onward Christian Athletes, 2009) cost me the ability to enjoy the games I loved as a kid and young adult. The research put me face to face with the most off-putting sides of football, baseball, and basketball: the exploitation of black and Latino athletes, the tight ties to right-wing politics and religion, the sexual aggression and homophobia. There was no way to forget what I learned. The bloom was permanently off the rose.
I’ve found refuge in that green-and-gold team from the Rose City. As have countless others who had thought their sexuality, or their left-leaning politics and cultural affiliations, or their distaste for force-fed consumer culture and religion had made sports fandom a place where they didn’t belong.
They do belong. You’ll find them in the North End and all the spaces it evokes.