On August 24, 1975, three thousand jubilant Portland Timbers fans headed south to San Jose, California. Portland’s hodgepodge of players, mostly aging Britons, had somehow managed to reach Soccer Bowl 75, the North American Soccer League’s championship game, in their inaugural season. Sadly, the Timbers lost 2–0 to the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
After the game, dejected head coach Vic Crowe tried to stay positive.
“I’m disappointed,” he told reporters. “This team has done more for Portland and the NASL this year than any other team .... They ought to have a cup of their own.”
Forty years later, on a crisp December evening in Columbus, Ohio, I’m standing, mostly (long day of tailgating; don’t judge), in Mapfre Stadium, switching an ice-cold 25-ounce can of Bud Light from right hand to left and back to keep my fingers from freezing. Around me, the Timbers Army chants “P-T-F-C” in full voice as the team takes the field. Before the match, more than one Timbers fan rattled off the Vegas odds like so many tea leaves, and it doesn’t look good.
As late as October 3, fans were already mentally fattening up for a long off-season hibernation. But then, a revelatory 5–2 win against the LA Galaxy revived a lackluster campaign. In the now-legendary playoff against Sporting Kansas City, a KC player’s penalty kick hit both goal posts (!!!!) before bouncing away, clearing the path to advance. Vancouver in the semis, Dallas in the conference final: a magical undefeated run. And now here we were, playing for a championship for the first time since Crowe hung his head in San Jose.
As the Timbers kick off, I wonder what the old Welshman (who coached four more seasons with that ’70s–’80s incarnation of the Timbers, and died in 2009) would think. On the surface, little had changed: the Timbers, led by a dynamic, 40ish-year-old former player (coach Caleb Porter, this time), chased a championship away from home, as underdogs, in front of a loud, beer-swilling contingent of traveling fans. But the larger context might have seemed surreal: a growing league flush with cash, international stars arriving, and a $720 million national television broadcast deal.
It takes exactly 27 seconds to erase 1975 for good. Diego Valeri, the Timbers’ Argentine midfield maestro, scores the fastest goal in MLS Cup history. Seven minutes later, winger Rodney Wallace heads in the second goal. The Timbers power to a 2–1 win, and the away section disintegrates into a roiling mass of hugs, tears, and laughter. Afterward on the darkened concourse, Timber Jim, the lumberjack mascot who first became the team’s human symbol all the way back in the ’70s, finds himself crushed in the center of a spontaneous group hug. When the crowd releases him, his eyes are wet with tears.
As you read this, the Timbers are already in Arizona preparing for their 2016 season, which opens in March. I guess we’ll have to do it all over again.