BEFORE WHAT WAS to be their beloved team's final match of the season on Sunday, November 24, the Timbers Army found itself out of sync. As afternoon turned to night and first kick neared for Portland's playoff match against Real Salt Lake at Jeld-Wen Field, the most rabidly organized supporters in Major League Soccer sang the opening bars to its traditional pre-game chant.
Well, tried to.
"P-T! (clap-clap) F-C! (clap-clap)" is how it's supposed to go, a simple nod to the Portland Timbers Football Club (PTFC).
But whether it was the onerous 17-day break between home matches or the stocking caps covering many of the fans' ears, for the first time I can remember, the easiest chant in the Army's songbook came out a mess. Those filtering into the press box an hour before the game's start were taken aback when the chant—which usually builds—found itself petering out after a few stanzas.
Two hours later, the message was much less muddled.
Portland's third Major League Soccer campaign was about to come to an end, snuffed out by a Real Salt Lake team that had proven the better side all year long. The Timbers were officially falling one step short of American soccer's biggest game, when the chant suddenly rose again from the North End.
"P-T! (clap-clap) F-C! (clap-clap)" is how it actually went this time, strident almost immediately and quickly building to a chill-inducing crescendo.
Most of the Timbers stood like statues depicting exhaustion, backs turned to the Real Salt Lake players bouncing up and down at midfield in celebration. Cameramen raced from the sidelines, while a black-shirted production crew hustled a makeshift stage, backdrop, and confetti cannons onto the pitch for the Western Conference championship trophy presentation. The Timbers began to slowly lap the field, hands raised in thankful applause, when the tune that had flopped in rehearsal was suddenly soaring.
The reverb in the old stadium was the loudest I'd felt in 52 straight sellout matches. Of all the moments during a historic turnaround of a season, Timbers Army was at its loudest when its team had just lost.
"That was amazing," says Timbers defender Michael Harrington, a seven-year MLS veteran brought to Portland in the offseason as part of coach Caleb Porter's rebuilding blueprint. "Not everybody gets to be part of something like that in their life."
The same could be said of the 266 days that bridged a floundering team to one of the league's powerhouses. To say the Timbers turned things around in 2013 would be like saying the professorial Porter knows a bit about soccer. PTFC of 2012 finished third-to-last in the league and fired coach John Spencer a month after the team fell to an amateur club at home. On that particular night, Portland fans angrily chanted, "Care like we do!" as players left the pitch. Eighteen months later, the Army was full-throated in its assertion that the team undoubtedly did.
"You saw how much it meant to them," said Porter, eyes still ablaze as I pulled him aside following his final postgame press conference of the season. "I couldn't ask for anything more out of them tonight."
But that will certainly change over the offseason. If the upstart Timbers snuck up on anybody this year, they won't in 2014. Porter rattles off the stats that support Portland's placement among the MLS' elite as he leans against a hallway wall: "Finishing top three in the league in the regular season," he says. "Finishing first in the West, finishing top three in goals scored and goals against, finishing top four in the Open Cup and top four in the MLS Cup—we were consistently one of the best teams in the league.
"And we're going to get better, not worse," he continues.
Porter says he'll jump right into scouting over the next couple weeks, but will get "a week or so" off around Christmas to be with his wife and three young children, reflecting on "one of the best years of my life, honestly," he says.
In the meantime, Timbers captain Will Johnson says he'll help set the tone for the offseason by reaching out to each player individually.
"It's disappointing and everybody handles that differently," he says. "Right now, you just kind of stay out of everybody's way. As the pain subsides over time, you have little words with everybody and make sure everybody does know how well they did, and how proud I am."
Timbers Army has already sent such a message. Loud and clear as ever.
"It's just fantastic to be supported in that way, because that's rare," Harrington says. "Even all over the world, I think that's rare, so it was a lift to us. We're disappointed, but that's a light in the darkness there."