Commissioner Don Garber visited Portland this week and touched base with perhaps the most passionate fans any club team has north of the Mexican border. The fans of the Portland Timbers dating back to the initial NASL entry in 1974 have been more reminiscent of the die in the wool fans of European football than the casual “soccer mom” support MLS has typically courted. As football grows from a niche sport that is marketed to suburbanites to a game that resembles football outside the cocoon of American professional sporting life, Portland is the most natural place for MLS to grow.
Despite on and off success, the Timbers of USL-1 have averaged over double the fans that USL-1 sides in Miami and Atlanta have averaged.With regards to Miami this is significant because we have already outlined south Florida’s unwillingness to embrace a product that may not resemble top class European or Latin Football. Portland has already proven with its support of USL-1 it will embrace any football related product.
The Timbers also averaged higher attendance than regional rival, the Seattle Sounders who now are headed to MLS. The Sounders have sold upwards of 20,000 season tickets and now have attracted Sigi Schmid as its manager. The Sounders being joined by the Timbers in MLS would bring a genuine European derby feel to MLS for the first time (sorry the LA Superclassico is kids stuff compared to this). In USL, this rivalry has been the most intense around: in fact it has been openly speculated for many years that Portland has been passed over for MLS expansion because of the type of fans the USL Sounders have attracted: loud, passionate and committed. Previous to 2006, MLS was more interested in wooing casual American sports fans than passionate football support. Perhaps this change in philosophy will also mean that the league will be more successful in Miami a second time around. Whether that is the case, one thing that is for sure is that MLS will work in Portland. Not only will new and passionate fans come to the league, but the prospect of the Northwest derby moving to MLS against Seattle is one of the most exciting things that could happen in the league. Thus the admission of the Timbers should be a no-brainer for MLS.