EVERY ARMY carries its flag into battle. And by the end of their inaugural campaign, the Timbers Army's flags were a wet, soppy, wound-up mess.
So Holly Duthie and Lexi Stern volunteered to take them home for a washing—"adopted them," Duthie says—naturally choosing their machine's lightest cleaning cycle for the task.
How else would you launder Timbers Army's most recognizable regalia?
"They were still disgusting," Duthie says, describing the mix of mildew and stains from Portland's trademark dank quarters and liquid sunshine.
So Duthie made the executive decision to make a minor laundering adjustment.
"I got warmer and warmer and less and less gentle," Duthie says, "and by the end, it was hot water on the harshest setting with bleach, OxiClean, Borax, and anything I could find."
Yes, even a touch of fabric softener at the end. Oh, but don't let that final touch fool you: Timbers Army, the ardent supporters of the Portland Timbers, is by no means going soft for its sophomore Major League Soccer season. They're just getting more organized. And their ranks are growing.
"The lower half of our house has kind of been converted into a flag maintenance area," says Stern, who, with Duthie, helps repair, design, and stencil older solid-colored flags. "We kind of revitalize them."
Similarly, the idea of the Army is to refresh the players on the pitch. And along with the synchronized chanting, singing, and occasional spine-shaking eruptions of pent-up passion, the flags above Timbers Army help create the atmosphere that's become a large part of the draw to Jeld-Wen Field. The soccer is exciting and all, but the most consistent performances at the House of Pane happen just off the pitch.
Sports franchises are by nature inconsistent, and the Timbers have proven to be no exception. The downs and especially ups are the reason a team is compelling, and the dichotomy makes for high drama. But fans—particularly supporters—can be a different story. Fans' interest can wax and wane, sure, but true supporters, who choose to stick around after the novelty wears off, strive for perfection.
What started in 2001, with brothers Steven and Jim Lenhart looking for a group to share some revelry before games, has spawned a scene unique to the Rose City. And that growth has meant its share of pleasure and pains for fans new and old alike.
So where is Timbers Army's next front? What battle plans have been readied for seasons two and beyond? Can they ever expect to top their first-year success?
The answers are on a high-top table in a SE Belmont bar on an early Monday evening, as six men sit around a few pints, pens, notebooks, and an open sketchpad. It's the Timbers Army game-day operations crew, and they're finishing a meeting prior to Portland's match with Real Salt Lake.
On the north end of the table (fittingly, as the Jeld-Wen Field's North End is home to the Army) is Fernando Machicado, who chairs the group. To his right are Joshua Dietz (materials acquisition) and Eric Tonsfeldt (internal security and rigging). Facing the trio are two board members from the financial mitochondrion of Timbers Army, the 107 Independent Supporters Trust, or 107ist: Garrett Dittfurth (communications) and Scott Van Swearingen (107ist president). Between them is a pencil-wielding designer who prefers not to give his name.
He never says why (or much else, really) but I like to think his silence keeps an extra layer of security around the contents of the sketchpad he carries: Plans for an upcoming fan-made "tifo" display—those giant, sections-wide, painted canvas sheets raised during home matches.
Or, maybe he's just shy.
Either way, secrecy about the tifo is of paramount concern to the game-day ops crew, who along with hundreds of volunteers, pour hundreds of hours into creating the visual anchors for the much-heralded atmosphere.
Leakers are punished with the worst sentence imaginable. More so if you're one of the Timbers supporters fanatical enough to spend time prepping and painting a giant sheet only seen for a few moments before a match.
"If you let out that secret, you're never helping again," Swearingen says. "If we see it on Facebook, then you're done."
An increase in hands has no doubt helped the cause, but it's also put a premium on those who manage the throng of eager participants.
"It used to be five dudes working 120 hours, now it's 120 dudes working five hours," says Tonsfeldt. "The scale has gone up, but we've done it all before. We have great institutional memory."
They also have the backing of the nonprofit 107ist, which, along with tens of thousands of dollars in charitable donations, finances the fan-made displays. Swearingen, who tracks 107ist's revenue and expenses, says the organization's war chest is "multitudes higher" than previous reports of $200,000, but prefers not to disclose the actual number. He stresses that no individual takes home any of the money, and that "it all goes back into game-day atmosphere, the community, or the club."
Elections to the 11-member 107ist board took place in the past offseason, and based on last year's smashing debut, new three-, five-, and 10-year plans were drawn up in an attempt to maintain momentum and set the Timbers Army up for the long term.
The Army's recalibrated mission then emerged: Be no less than the best supporters' group the world has ever seen. Ever.
"We had no idea where we were going to be at after the first year," Swearingen says. "Was there going to be a lot of drama? Was it going to be an uphill battle to get simple things we thought would come easily? We don't want to be this story that's cool domestically, but isn't reputable [internationally]. We want to be a leader that lifts everyone up in MLS around us, so they're constantly raising the bar with us.
"Granted, behind us, but with us."
The Timbers' front office has largely been an ally to TA, and the relationship between team management and supporters is familial. Which is to say, there's plenty of mutual love, but they don't always see eye-to-eye.
One of those rifts is the use of flares. Machicado calls a safe, controlled, supporter-driven pyrotechnics display "the holy grail," and last season, a number of Timbers fans were suspended for lighting flares in the stadium during a match in Salt Lake.
After reviewing video of the incident and consulting with the 107ist board, the Timbers banned 18 of their fans from this year's preseason matches, the first two regular-season home games, and the Cascadia Cup at Seattle. Both Machicado and Dietz were among the fans suspended, but Dietz says the ban hasn't prevented him and other banned fans from carrying out their pre-game duties with the rest of the crew, despite having to exit the stadium before the match begins.
"We knew the price," Machicado says. "Most of us took it in stride."
And after Portland scored its first goal in the March 31 home game against Real Salt Lake, a group of fans took up a form of tribute to the suspended fans, lighting flares from the roof across the street from Jeld-Wen Field, within full view of the cheering Army.
"We probably agree on 95 percent of things," says Timbers Chief Operating Officer Mike Golub, the reigning MLS executive of the year and also a 107ist member: "The TA and the front office have the best interests of the club at heart."
Leading up to last season, with a team largely made up of new faces, the front office showcased its fans with giant billboards around the city. This season, those billboards largely feature players—a marketing evolution Golub says was "good and natural."
"The environment at a Timbers game will always be a huge defining part of the club," Golub says. "We also want to have the focus on the players intensify, and it's not a mutually exclusive thing."
Some would disagree.
When a writer for fan site stumptownfooty.com called on Portland media to focus on "the quality on the pitch not in the stands," team owner Merritt Paulson—who regularly and often humorously engages with fans, pundits, and trolls alike on Twitter—tweeted in agreement. However, he quickly followed up by noting Timbers Army was "second to none" and that his organization needed to build a team that "lives up to it."
This young season, the team has struggled, and losing has brought about the rise of TA's id. And after working itself into a frenzy for up to three hours, the Army's energy sometimes vents in not-so-pleasant ways. When Portland dropped its third straight match on April 7—blowing a lead for the second straight home game—fans reported homophobic slurs were hurled at opposing players from the North End. This came a week after the Army participated in the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination by holding up red cards in an effort to show solidarity in the fight against discrimination. It's a reminder of the tenuous nature of the group dynamic, and fact that anytime you pack 20,000 people into one place at one time, there's bound to be a few who deserve to be dishonorably discharged.
"We have a lot more people to worry about, a lot more people to keep track of," says Tonsfeldt, who runs the TA's five-member internal security battalion tasked with stamping out problems before stadium security or police are forced to get involved. He says although there are occasional exceptions, the Army does a good job policing itself.
"They're herded not by the five guys [working internal security], but the by the thousands who've been there before," Tonsfeldt says. "The less the [stadium security and police] are involved, the more we can keep this kickass the North End thing going."
But can the Timbers Army's influence emanate further than Goose Hollow?
One team from the National Basketball Association certainly thought so: Last summer, a team of executives from the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves paid a visit to Timbers and 107ist brass to get a better understanding of how a raucous, traditionally European-style fan environment could be built stateside.
The short answer: From the ground up. Only.
"The beauty of what happened here is that nobody said, 'Okay, we need to create Timbers Army,'" Golub says. "It wasn't an engineered thing by the front office."
"When culture is forced, it becomes a T-shirt cannon," he says. "If you let it happen on its own, it becomes something organic and unique."
Major League Soccer has certainly caught onto that, and during halftime of the Timbers' home opener, MLS Commissioner Don Garber stepped into the press box and talked about reproducing what's happening in Portland league-wide. He pointed to the level of engagement Timbers owner Paulson, in particular, has with the fanbase, and the level he's willing to delve into to ensure fans are listened to and given a real voice.
"But [Paulson has] done it in a way that's responsible and respectful of the need that the fan dynamic has to be controlled," Garber says. "I applaud Timbers Army for working closely with the league, and we're trying to replicate that particular dynamic around the league."
Another possible avenue for exploration is local politics, where Timbers Army has already shown adeptness, having mobilized in 2009 to help push public funding for a stadium through the city council. Swearingen says he's been approached by multiple candidates currently running for local office—including mayor—but that they're "trying to stay pretty neutral on it."
"We have long memories of some city council people in office who maybe voted down on the stadium stuff," Swearingen says. "But we try not to get involved in any of that. We're pretty representative of the city's politics because we're made up of our membership."
But reflecting the city goes beyond political persuasions. In many ways the Timbers Army is both a cross-section of Portland and the embodiment of its spirit. And it goes beyond Portland's knack for DIY or the fact that everyone from students to servers to surgeons clamor for the same seats prior to Timbers matches. Like the Rose City, the Timbers Army prides itself on being welcoming to all, but second to none. Looked at with curious wonder from the outside, both the supporters and the city care deeply about what others think—right up until the moment others speak ill of them. Both the uneducated ("n00bs") and overzealous (costume or kilt-sporting fans known as "LARPers") are treated with snark, and with both Portland and the Timbers Army, you're welcome to visit and even settle in, but if you don't like it, feel free to move on.
"You can create your own adventure," Swearingen says of the 5,000 general admission seats that, in theory, allow fans to choose their own level of involvement in the singing, chanting, and dancing. "If you have a bad time, it's probably your own fault—you could've moved."
Dietz, who notes the club reserves about 50 seats a match for unsuspecting families, rival supporters, or folks "who are out of their element." He says to stand in the Timbers Army is to enter into a social contract of sorts. It may only be for 90 minutes, but it's clear the effect of that agreement lasts much longer.
"There's no more lingering in the North End," Dietz says. "It just isn't an option."
And for a group that's doing anything but standing still, neither is slowing down.