People like Portland.
You see that when you go out of town, and tell people where you’re from. More often than not, you’ll see faces light up.
“Oh, I love Portland!”
Or, “I’ve heard Portland is amazing, I’ve always wanted to go.”
People like Portland. People who live in Portland, and people who don’t. This is a popular place.
This week, the better part of the American soccer world descends on Portland, as the city hosts its first ever All-Star Game – MLS’ 2014 edition, to be played downtown at Providence Park against, inarguably, one of the best club sides in the world: Bayern Munich, which supplied the core of Germany’s World Cup winning team this summer in Brazil.
It’s not often that Portland gets such a stage. So we’re making the most of it. The old Oregonian building across from the stadium has been adorned with a giant inflatable MLS soccer ball. The airport has been plastered from head to toe in advertisements for the game and accompanying festivities such that there’s no room for any other ads whatsoever – not that anyone is losing sleep over that.
Pioneer Courthouse Square is ground zero for All-Star fun, while Nike has gone to the water and enlisted the Willamette River for their “sink or swim” floating arena.
We’ve had 11,000 pack the Waterfront for a Flaming Lips concert, a Grilled Cheese Sandwich competition that brought together Jack Jewsbury and John Canzano as judges, and perhaps best of all, the beaming Men In Blazers doing a live show that was punctuated throughout by comments about how they’d finally hit a soccer mecca.
At Bayern Munich’s open training Tuesday morning, so many people came to watch that the Timbers had to open up extra seating sections.
MLS royalty from Henry, to Donovan, to Dempsey have remarked how it will be nice to play in Portland and not get booed – at least too ferociously. This wasn’t an All-Star game that anyone wanted to miss.
The city is hosting this game in 2014 as the fulfillment of a clause in the Timbers’ expansion package that guaranteed Portland one marquee league event in their first five years in MLS. At the time, MLS Cup was hosted at a neutral site – that was what Seattle hosted in their first year in the league in 2009.
But rule changes left the All-Star game, which has rapidly developed into MLS’ most popular event and what many people consider to be the best All-Star game in North American sports, as the only option.
So the realization of that contract happens now. Already, Portland has put on a show. The city’s connection to soccer is a pulse you can feel in everywhere you go here, not just in the overwhelming support for the Timbers, but in the people who play and watch, the vibe they create, and the statements they make.
I recently heard from a Portland transplant that she liked Seattle, but it wasn’t quite the same. “People take themselves too seriously there,” she told me.
Portland’s easy going, liberal culture, very much pointed forward, towards the future and towards innovation and change, lends itself to the beautiful game and everything that surrounds it – especially in America, where soccer has been the sport of the future since 1974.
A lot of cities support their soccer teams. Maybe they don’t pack almost 20,000 people into their MLS stadium for a regular season NWSL game, but they support their teams. In Portland, soccer goes beyond that. For many Portlanders, soccer and its culture are a celebration of who we are and an expression of why that matters.
The Timbers Army, the Timbers’ vociferous Supporters’ Group, certainly wields a substantial amount of power. They’ve used it as an outlet to support gay rights, raise money for landslide victims, and do community organizing – and that was just in the last year. Of course the concerts and the events have been packed. Of course players have enjoyed themselves. Downtown Portland has been vibrant with All-Star game buzz, just giving a new coat of paint to a passion and mentality that more and more people have experienced in the city first hand.
The civic pride in the city isn’t usual, if it isn’t unusual. Soccer plays a role. This All-Star week, which has been executed brilliantly by Merritt Paulson, Mike Golub, Adidas, and MLS, has been phenomenal – and only in Portlandia would a player (Liam Ridgewell) who has lived in the US for all of a month and played three games for the Timbers somehow bizarrely make his way onto the All-Star squad.
The game is Wednesday night. Whatever the result, the city will walk out a winner. It’s long past time the NBA brings their All-Star game here, downtown hotel space be damned. For now, it’s MLS, a league that has valued and bought into Portland’s charm.
Of course, no city is perfect. But people like Portland. A lot. And that’s not about to change.