Timbers fan base hardy, but will they be happy in 2013?

PORTLAND, Ore. – There is always a certain level of cuteness to the relationship between the Portland Timbers and their city that doesn’t quite exist anywhere else in Major League Soccer.

Here, for example, is one bit of news that bounced around the area on Sunday that you’d be hard pressed to replicate in any other market. The beloved local burger chain Burgerville is offering a two-for-one deal celebrating next month's official return of the Timber Joey milkshake, featuring organic local raspberries and authentic wood chips harvested from the nearby Tillamook State Forest.

Okay, that forest-to-table thing isn’t exactly true. But here’s the point: There is a milkshake named after the local MLS team’s mascot, and that’s crazy. Who cares what they put in it. Just buy one.

Clever marketing partnerships, however, will only get the Timbers 3.0 so far, and a Timber Joey milkshake tastes a whole lot better when the club is winning. And that’s something Portland haven’t done in a while, following a 2012 season that effectively negated an impressive expansion debut the year before. They lost game after game at the expense of former head coach John Spencer, a whole lot of players no longer wearing forest green and a fan base that’s diligent, but not dumb.

It was all decidedly rough and well documented: Spencer out, GM Gavin Wilkinson openly mocked from the stands, a listless Kenny Cooper shipped to New York, where he promptly thrived and scored a career-high 18 goals. The ensuing offseason overhaul was equally dramatic, with wunderkind Caleb Porter officially introduced as head coach, enigmatic striker Kris Boyd gone, and Argentine playmaker Diego Valeri signed to pull the strings.

The Timbers’ new beginning began in earnest on Sunday, when the team played in front of their adoring fans for the first time in 2013. The Timbers punched and countered with the San Jose Earthquakes for 90 minutes in the Timbers’ preseason tournament en route to a 3-3 draw, and it became very clear immediately that the theme in Portland this year will be very simple: Forget the past.

They’re off to a promising start. Sunday night’s hat-trick hero, offseason pickup Ryan Johnson, is new enough that he was unaware of the club’s signature tradition of log-cutting after each goal is scored. When the chainsaw-rearing Timber Joey presented him with all three slices and told him to hold them aloft for the crowd to see after the game, he had no idea what was happening (at right).

Or there’s this: Porter has told the media all winter he’s not interested in rehashing a lost season played when he wasn’t in charge, and he seized the chance Sunday to not-so-subtly point out that his Timbers played with some fight after falling behind in the first three minutes on a Chris Wondolowski penalty kick.

“To be able to respond from an early goal … I’m not sure if that would have happened last year,” Porter said. “So that’s a positive.”

READ: Timbers, Quakes draw in Day 1 finale

Sunday night was Porter’s first real glimpse at what was undoubtedly one of Portland’s biggest selling point when he took the job last fall: The Timbers Army. Full-throated and awake after four months in hibernation, the Army were once again the pounding heart of a crowd that topped off at more than 14,000 fans, numbers that would be respectable regular-season numbers in some MLS markets.

Porter greeted them with a thumbs up and a clap above his head when the Timbers left the field following pregame workouts, and then praised them again after the match was through.

“It was tremendous,” Porter said. “Some of the other supporters may not like this, but I think we have the best supporters in Major League Soccer, and I think it’s going to be a huge advantage for us in our 17 home games.

“We in Portland, the fans, the Timbers Army, we’re paving the way,” Porter said. “We really are setting the benchmark for everybody to follow, and it’s wonderful. I’m glad that I’m the coach here, of this club.”

But praise for the fans won't win the Timbers games. Yes, the fans are coming back in droves again – there are 15,250 season-ticket holders this year, with more than 6,500 on the waiting list – but they haven’t forgotten watching the club lose five straight last summer, and then trudge through another six-game winless streak in the fall that sealed their fate.

The Timbers were bright at times on Sunday night – Valeri and Johnson looked especially dangerous, and already appear to be upgrades – but there were blotches too, including the early handball that set up Wondolowski’s goal and, most costly, a flubbed clearance that eventually led to a Portland castoff Mike Fucito’s equalizing goal in the 60th minute.

Porter (right) condemned those mistakes, but also jumped at the chance to note the Quakes were the best team in the regular season last year, and the Timbers had just gone toe-to-toe with them. But, it has to be said, the Quakes played without four injured starters – Alan Gordon, Steven Lenhart, Steven Beitashour and Marvin Chávez – and Simon Dawkins is gone. This was not the same team that won the Supporters’ Shield last year.

But the Timbers will certainly take the result for now and look ahead to Wednesday, when they’ll take on FC Dallas in the nightcap of the tournament’s second day. It’s a fair bet another 14,000 fans or more will show for that one as well, leaving little doubt that at least for now, the fans are as hardy as ever and ready for a fresh start.

But it’s up to Porter and the Timbers to keep them happy.

“Nothing can be worse than last year. Nothing can we worse than that,” said Timbers Army member Victor Castrini, a high school teacher in Portland. “There was some anger, some nasty stuff, but everyone still showed up. The Timbers Army is a great way to support our city, our culture and our team, and if our team sucks, we still have those other two things we love.

“The honeymoon’s not over,” he added. “It’s definitely not over. Not yet.”