PORTLAND, Ore. – An hour after the Portland Timbers’ 3-2 victory over FC Dallas on Sunday, owner Merritt Paulson had the pitch at JELD-WEN all to himself.
He played with three small children – general manager Gavin Wilkinson’s kids – in one of the nets, kicking balls, snapping pictures and laughing.
Paulson was completely at ease and utterly relieved by the Timbers’ first home stand, which had come off almost perfectly.
“I got a lot of sleep on Sunday [night],” Paulson said. “I had more people say to me ‘Enjoy this’ [before the game], and I understood where it was coming from. But we needed a great event and for this thing to go smoothly”
In the days leading up to the Portland’s home opener against Chicago, Paulson got very little sleep. On more than one occasion, he woke up in a cold sweat.
“I had a lot of emotion and a lot of anxiety going into that [first home] game,” Paulson said. “The buildup of two years culminating in that home opener.”
Paulson and his management team received the certificate of occupancy three days prior to the first game. There was concern over whether the facility would operate as planned. There was even more concern over whether the team would give the crowd something exciting to cheer about.
Paulson was also well-aware that the league’s three previous expansion teams – Seattle, Philadelphia and Vancouver – had all won their home openers.
“It felt like it was a must-win game for us,” Paulson said.
The owner walked onto the field before the game to address the crowd in pouring rain. He barely remembers what he said, and he ruined his suit. But he did hear the Timbers Army chant his name.
“It was embarrassing, but I was grateful,” Paulson said. “It was something that was special to me.”
The magical night continued for the Timbers, who built a 3-0 lead before conceding two goals in the second half.
Paulson almost knocked Wilkinson over after the game he was so exuberant. He gave his head coach, John Spencer, a hug.
“I am not really a hugger,” he said, “but I was that night. I knew John Spencer wanted it as much as anybody. He felt the pressure and he and the team delivered.”
Paulson went home Thursday night and watched the replay of the game until 3 a.m.
“I had to turn it off because I was getting so fired up,” he said.
Paulson, after all, spent years trying to bring the Timbers to Portland. He successfully brokered a deal with the city for funding to update the stadium. He repaired a relationship with the Timbers Army that was frayed when traditionalists took issue with the team’s decision to change the logo.
All of that work was validated by the success of Thursday’s opener and Sunday’s victory over FC Dallas.
“We’re clearly going to be up and down and not win every game. We probably won’t average more than three goals a game [at home],” he said. “But I believe we can make the playoffs, too.”
Paulson also addressed a series of other issues involved with the game, including that the decision to hold back 3,000 tickets was the right one because it prevented an overcrowding situation in the stadium’s concourse.
“We’re focused on the customer experience,” Paulson said. “We have a great facility, but it has limitations, including the concourse width. We want ingress and egress to run smoothly. We want people to be able to buy food. We’ll continue to look at things to maximize the concourse we do have.”
As far as the future of the national anthem, Paulson said he found the Timbers Army’s rendition to be “very patriotic” at the start of last Thursday’s opener, but it won’t happen at every game.
The Timbers Army didn’t perform the anthem on Sunday.
“We will continue to do it for big games, rivalry games, national TV games,” Paulson said. “I don’t want it to become standard operating procedure and lose its significance. That’d be the risk of doing it every game. We’ll address that with [the Timbers Army].”