PORTLAND, Ore. — On a rainy Thursday at Providence Park, the Portland Timbers‘ home venue has all the trappings of base camp on Mount Everest. Shelters have been constructed. Sleeping bags and blankets are everywhere. Propane canisters and space heaters provide little additional warmth against the December chill. Adult beverages are expected to pick up the slack as the day — and night — goes on.
Some fans have been camped out since Monday, albeit in shifts. Why? To acquire one of 1,000 precious wristbands that will allow those with general admission tickets in the 3,600-seat north end to stake out their preferred vantage point for Saturday’s MLS Cup between the Timbers and New York City FC (3 p.m. ET, stream live on ABC).
Portland has long dubbed itself Soccer City, USA and based on the activity around the stadium two days before the game, it’s hard to argue.
At 7 o’clock Friday morning the wristbands will be distributed, at which point their lucky recipients can go home for a shower and a hot meal; until then, fans are staking out their spot in line. At first glance, the line stretches all the way down the SW 18th Avenue side of the stadium. It’s there that I encounter Chris Bright, a local tech entrepreneur. I ask him if he’s the last in line, but his belly laugh reveals just how misinformed my assumption is.
“C’mon, let’s take a walk,” he said.
We turn the corner onto SW Salmon Street and I discover the line goes up about two-thirds of the block, past the Multnomah Athletic Club. “Tonight, lots of people will be showing up as placeholders,” said Bright. “This is line culture for the Portland Timbers. Tonight it will be a real party. You should come back.”
We reach the back of the line. Bright said anyone who shows up now is still in the “good range” to secure a wristband. “When you start getting around that corner,” he said, pointing the corner of Salmon and SW 20th Avenue, “I think you’ll be in jeopardy.”
Jason Henneman and his daughter Eva are last in line while I’m walking, though they know that won’t last. Longtime Timbers season-ticket holders, they took a bus from Bend, Oregon, and are in the process of assembling a canopy to keep out the rain. Eva, a high school student, has plans for how she’ll while away the hours. “I’ll probably hunker down, grab some Wi-Fi and start doing some math,” she said. “I haven’t ever been old enough to do any of the line culture stuff. I turned 18 a few months ago. I’m here, and I’m ready to be fully committed and spend some quality time.”
The absence of any sleeping bags is evident. “There’s no sleeping,” said Jason Henneman. “There’s a party in Portland.”
New York City FC is determined to spoil the festivities, and victory for the Blues could spark a unique celebration, at least in MLS circles. Earlier in his career, NYCFC manager Ronny Deila promised the supporters of the team he managed at the time, Norwegian side Stromsgodset, that he would strip off his clothes if the team managed to avoid relegation. True to his word, when his side avoided the drop, he celebrated by stripping down to his underwear.
When Deila took over NYCFC ahead of the 2020 campaign, he made a similar boast. “I can promise if we win the playoffs, I will do it,” he told ESPN then. Reminded of his vow ahead of Thursday’s training session at the University of Portland’s Merlo Field, Deila said to ESPN with a wry smile, “We’ll see, we’ll see. As you start to get older, that isn’t so fun anymore. But at the same time, a word is a word. First, we have to win. That’s the most important thing.”
When Deila joined NYCFC, the comparisons to Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp still hung over him, but he has carved out his own path in New York. His reign has continued NYCFC’s transformation from a side predicated on big names — such as Andrea Pirlo and David Villa — to one where the team is the star, with steady contributions from Maxi Moralez and Valentin Castellanos, to veterans like Sean Johnson and Alfredo Morales and academy products like James Sands.
“We now have a foundation in the way we play, in the culture, and also in in young talented players to grow as a club,” says Deila. “I also think we have more value in the club now than we had before. We have players that others want, and this is an important part of being a club. So I think it’s a fantastic achievement to get to the final this year.”
As for Portland, it’s the third time in the past seven seasons that it has reached the MLS Cup. This one is different, however. The Timbers have been playing at Providence Park (formerly Civic Stadium) off and on for 46 years, with 1,010 games played, and they have never hosted a final in any of the previous leagues in which they toiled. That has left some Timbers Army veterans scratching their heads as to preparation.
“This is something new,” said Jeremy Wright, a former board member of the 107ist, the organizational arm of the Timbers Army. “We’ve never had to host a party in our own town for 15,000 people, right? I know how to get catering in Columbus, Ohio, to the tailgate now. I have no idea how to do that in our own city. It’s really funny.”
Over a beer at Tough Luck, a bar on the city’s northeast side, Wright noted that there are some mixed emotions to hosting Saturday’s final. He described a relationship between the Timbers Army and the Timbers front office that has become frayed following disputes over the flying of the Iron Front flag and the abuse scandal that rocked the NWSL’s Portland Thorns. Recent years have also been difficult on Portland given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the push for social justice and the political violence that has roiled the city.
“We wish we could just be like a pure, pink fluffy rainbow unicorn dancing, but there is a reality to it that people are compartmentalizing this week,” he said. Yet Wright also noted that there is plenty to celebrate, with parties galore starting with the one outside Providence Park on Thursday night.
“My hope is that maybe this game can be a small part of the healing, help us celebrate,” he said. “We love our city. The whole point of the Timbers Army was to celebrate our city as much as the Timbers.”
A second MLS Cup would kick the party into overdrive.