The Timbers Army celebrates at the Cascadia Summit
Courtesy of Portland Timbers Communications

Timbers 101: Portland reaching out to new fans

PORTLAND, Ore. – Alumni ambassadors John Bain, Bernie Fagan and Mick Hoban will be part of a “Soccer 101” event Saturday from 11 am to 1 pm PT at the Adidas America Village in Portland.

The event, put on by the Portland Timbers and Adidas, has been designed a seminar to offer fans new to the sport of soccer a primer on the history of the Timbers and the fundamentals of the game.

The Timbers open play in MLS on March 19 against the defending champion Colorado Rapids.

Thirty-six years ago, Hoban served as a one-man community relations officer in the months leading up to Portland’s entry into the North American Soccer League. And he encountered a city that was still on global soccer’s frontier.

“[Portland] wasn’t at the end of the soccer world, but you could see it from there,” Hoban said.

Hoban, who was to play in that inaugural season, was charged with establishing contacts with the Portland media and describing the game to anyone who would pause to listen to him. And the questions were rudimentary: How many players on each side? Where can the goalkeeper use his hands?

Hoban said the first time he drove around Portland he was struck by the near total absence of soccer fields. Besides Delta Park, which catered to a small but thriving group of soccer players, the game was almost totally foreign to Portlanders.

The University of Portland still didn’t have varsity soccer. The high schools were not quite there yet either.

“This was a new sport in those days,” Hoban said.

Hoban made appearances at Rotary and Kiwanis clubs. He offered to conduct youth clinics. He pitched stories to the media. He began making connections and kept on going. In the first two years of the Timbers’ existence, the club did more than 1,100 appearances. Hoban even rode an elephant when the circus came to town.

He and other players who were there in 1975 remember how Portland quickly became known as “Soccer City, USA.”

It took a combination of savvy marketing, accessibility and a product that the city snapped up and adored the somewhat exotic game played by a group of regular-looking guys with English accents.

The first Timbers home game drew 5,100 people. By summertime, the successful Timbers packed 33,000 into Civic Stadium – a NASL record at the time.

“It was a love affair,” Hoban said. “When we were introduced, we gave roses to women in the crowd. We kicked soccer balls into the crowd.”

And after each game, the players all gathered at a downtown hotel for a post-match party where fans were free to come and mingle with them and ask questions. At their peak that summer, 1,000 fans were pressing in to the hotel to be part of the party.

The excitement was infectious that year and serves as a blueprint for what is possible in 2011.

Hoban, who went on to become Nike’s first soccer employee, said the off-field progress made by the latest generation of Timbers has been all positive.

“There are so many good things that have been done before a ball ever gets kicked,” he said. “Now the question is: Can the team have a modicum of success?”

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