Friday, April 24, 2009

Groundhopweekend in the Northwest (May 2009)

In most parts of the USA it takes a lot of driving to see one “soccer” game, let alone two in one weekend. This notwithstanding, I set out for a classic football weekend in the Northwest, which took me from the southwest of Oregon to the northeast of Washington (state), and back, through the northwest of Oregon. So, on Friday morning, just before 10.00, I jumped into my car, got a bagel and coffee at my favorite locals, and started my 781 km drive to Post Falls, Idaho, for my 19.00 game.

Spokane Spiders – Victoria Highlanders (01-05-2009)

Don’t ask me why, but the Spokane Spiders, from Spokane, Washington, play their games in Post Falls, ‘just’ across the border in Idaho (37 km). This despite the fact that: (1) Spokane is roughly ten times bigger than Post Falls (the metro area even 20 times); (2) Spokane is in a different state than Post Falls; (3) the Greyhound Park and Event Center, where they play in Post Falls, isn’t very special.

I parked on the huge and virtually empty parking lot in front of the ‘stadium’ and proceeded inside, where I bought a ticket for USD 8.00 (ca. EUR 6), which gave access to the whole ground, though it includes only one stand. After eating a hot dog that looked a bit like a meat stick (gehaktstaaf), at $2 a good deal, I left the canteen/covered stand to go outside and join the other ca. 250 fans to see the two teams and listen to two national anthems (the Highlanders are from Canada).

Spokane Spiders was founded in 2006 and plays in the USL Premier Development League (PDL), a kind of amateur-plus ‘league’ where teams can try to develop a (semi-)professional team. The owner of the team turned out to be the biggest cheerleader, roaming in front of the stand and firing on the ‘crowd’. As so often at (lower level) football games in the US, the fans were mostly families with a lot of young girls, few of them experts of the game. There was almost a gender balance in the stadium; in fact, the referee was female, while the linesmen were male. Unfortunately, there was also an announcer who commented throughout the game, mixing advertisements for sponsors with basic yet cheerful information: another corner/free/goal kick for your Spokane Spiders!

The level of play was very similar to that of the Seattle Wolves, another PDL team I saw a couple of weeks before. Most players were reasonably fit and fairly decently skilled… for lower level amateurs. None would have a short at the higher division amateur teams in the Netherlands, and some might have even struggled at my level. At the Spiders, the player-coach was clearly above the rest, but he was fairly slow and isolated. The Highlanders were better organized and had more of the game.

The visitors had a couple of half chances, including a shot in the 22nd minute that was saved by the goalie, followed by a corner kick that was badly missed by that same goalie, but not finished by the strikers. In the 35th minute the Highlanders got a soft penalty for pushing; a harsh penalty for a minor foul.

The visitors gladly accepted the gift and converted the penalty: 0-1. Shortly afterward they had another big chance, going alone at the goalie, but they failed. Hence, 0-1 was the half time score and no one seemed particularly upset (except for the owner, who nevertheless kept cheering on the fans). At half time the clearly enthusiastic announcer was allowed to introduce a new sponsor: Hooters, a restaurant chain famed for its legs rather than its wings. ;-)

As the sun had gone under and the evening was getting cold, more and more fans moved to the inside stand, where you could watch outdoor football in an indoor football setting. Moreover, you could escape the noise generated by one of the rental floodlights, which were running on their own (noisy) generators.

The second half brought a couple of half chances for the hosts, as the visitors were falling back deeper and deeper, hoping for a lucky counter. After an unsuccessful scrimmage in the 52nd minute the Highlanders goalie was forced to make a great safe at a close header in the 59th minute. This woke up the visitors, who created several good chances in the following fifteen minutes, before the Spiders could create some pressure again. While this all sounds stirring, the quality of play and the low pace made everything fairly unexciting. Eventually, even the owner wouldn’t find the spirit to cheer anymore. So, the Spokane Spiders started their 2009 season with a 0-1 defeat, which was deserved, given the slightly better play of the Highlanders.

Not hindered by much traffic I left the huge parking space to drive to Spokane, where I stayed the night. The next day I was up and about early again, as I had to drive most of the route back to see my Saturday game in Portland, Oregon, 566 km to the southwest of Spokane. The game started at 19.00, but I was to meet a fellow Dutchman a couple of hours earlier.

Portland Timbers – Carolina RailHawks (02-05-2009)

I parked just outside of the stadium around 17.00, and joined a tailgating party on a parking lot nearby. Tailgating parties are typically American phenomena, where people meet up in the huge parking lots before the stadiums, hours before the game, to have drinks and food (including your own barbecue). This particular party was organized by the Timbers Army, the loyal supporters of section 107 in the PGE Park, and was attended by some 50 people.

After spending over an hour at the party, where I had a great chat with an American of Dutch descent (such a shame he is an ajax supporter), I.M. and his girlfriend had arrived and I met them in front of the main entrance of PGE Park, the multipurpose stadium that seat 19,566 (mostly covered).

The PGE Park is first and foremost a baseball stadium, home of minor league Portland Beavers; hence the rectangular shape and synthetic turf. However, with the Portland Timbers joining the Major League Soccer (MLS) in 2011, it will become its home; if the city can find a place to build a new stadium for the Beavers. I.M. had bought a ticket for the behind-the-goal area, at USD 11 (ca. EUR 8), and so we joined the famous Timbers Army to get an unexpectedly pleasant and ‘real’ football atmosphere.

The game tonight was between two established teams of the USL First Division, which oddly enough had already played each other that Thursday, also in the PGE Park, with a 0-0 result. We started with the obligatory national anthem, only one this time as both teams were American, which the supporters ended with shouting “Timbers Army” (instead of “brave”). It was the start of 90 minutes of song and chants, many of them original and topical – one of my favorites: “We have swine flu, oink, oink, oink”. Still, it remains an odd thing to hear supporters shout against the opponents, while no away fans are present (it is 4.600 km from Cary, North Carolina, to Portland, Oregon).

The Timbers fans reminded me of the German St. Pauli fans, an odd blend of alternatives with a big passion for football. Although there were still quite a lot of girls and women around, the vast majority of members of the Timbers Army are guys between 15 and 35, the usual suspects in European football stadiums.

To be honest, I devoted most of my time in the stadium enjoying the atmosphere, talking to I.M., plundering the Timbers fan shop, and appreciating a very decent game of football. I didn’t make many notes, so I refer to the official report online for details.

The first half was dominated by the Timbers, who created various chances while suffering only a few real counter attacks. The level of play was very acceptable, not much different from the Dutch equivalent (i.e. eerste divisie). Moreover, the stadium and crowd, officially 6,752, let alone the atmosphere, was better than I have seen at some Dutch eredivisie (First Division) games. The pressure of the Timbers paid off, as the hosts went into half time with a well-deserved 1-0 lead. As always, the home goal was followed by Timber Joey, the life mascot of the Timbers, cutting off a piece of wood with his chainsaw.

In the second half the RailHawks had the better of the game. Increasingly the Timbers started to make small mistakes and they looked increasingly tired. The pace of the game went down, but it was still very decent. Moreover, both sides created clear chances, but were unable to convert them to goals. In the 83rd minute, however, it was the Timbers who clinched the deal with a second goal of the evening: 2-0. This was also the final score.

After the game the players of Portland Timbers came to the side of the Timbers Army to thank them for their support. This was much deserved as they had truly been singing and chanting for the whole duration of the game. Timber Joey game the players the two pieces of wood he had cut off, which were then celebrated as if they were the FA Cup.

I guess it is clear to the reader by now, I am totally won over by the Portland Timbers and the Timbers Army. This was the 12th team I have seen in the US, including several in the MLS, but so far there has been no comparison in atmosphere and dedication of the fans. This might change, however, when I will visit the Seattle Sounders, the arch rivals of the Timbers, at the end of the month at Qwest Field.


Matthew said...

You should have come on our message board to let us know you were going to be there! Good times would have been had by all...thanks for the great writeup, looking forward to the rest of your blog and to seeing you back at a Timbers game some day.

Rose City 'Til I Die!

Lucas said...

Love the report, glad you had a good time in Portland! I guarantee that the atmosphere in seatle will be NOT EVEN CLOSE to what we have in Portland (they'll have a larger crowd, but it's nothing like the same thing).

Cheers! Come back any time, and come to the pub!

Cameron said...

You definitely should have let us know you were coming. Glad to hear you had a good time with us out there. Seattle will be a disappointment im sure, think Tulip bulb auction meets girls sleepover, and you will have a feel for the environment up there. Pints up!

jatterbu said...

Enjoy the corporate purchased "atmosphere" in Shittle. I hope you like lattees and marching bands. Just try not to sit in front of the smoke machine, they get upset when you block their "atmosphere." Oh, and don't bring any Krispy Kremes with you or you might get mugged.


Anonymous said...

hi, new to the site, thanks.