I'm worn out and my work week just got started. That's what you get when you try and cram two footy matches in two cities on one day, and then try and watch a third match on television on Sunday. Great for the soccer sensibilities, but tough on the sleep and sanity.
I spent my Saturday traveling to that place up north as a guest of the Chicago Fire from the MLS to support them while they played FC Puke Green on Saturday afternoon. We had chartered busses to make the trip up north, and make it back in time for a friendly match here in Portland between the Timbers and Burnley, a recently promoted to the Premiership English team. I've covered most of the highlights on my other blog, and have some photos that I took in both stadiums.
Honestly, the football experiences couldn't have been more night and day from each other. MLS at Qworst was very homogonized, bland, and controlled, while the Timbers was more of a fluid, dynamic experience. I felt that the Timbers and Burnley played a very competitive, aggressive game during a match that really didn't mean much of anything to either side. There was some chances taken, some mistakes made, but it appeared that both sides were playing to win. In the Fire - Flounder match, it seemed like both teams were content to take their shots at only a certain time, and it was very bunker like in the approach. Although, the controlled crowd environment didn't help my sensibilities either.
I've seen matches in England and throughout the United States, and I've never heard of a soccer stadium actually using sound effects and piped in noise to help accentuate the environment. The Shittle USL team used to use sounds like what you would hear at an NBA game to exhort the crowd to cheer, and this year, they use different techniques to make the game experience, well, not like anything I've ever experienced. But then again, most crowds that follow soccer know when to cheer, they sing with their fans, and the noise is rather spontaneous. That's a foreign concept for a lot of arenas in America, where our short attention span audience needs to have things happen all the time to keep their focus on the events at hand. I can see why some soccer teams have resorted to cheerleaders, mascots and other things, which makes me sad, but at the same point, some people need more of a hook than just the game itself.
Which really points me to a discussion from last week about marketing and the MLS, which really has gone away from its early days of marketing to soccer moms and kids and is now going after more of the edgy fans that appreciate things like cheap beer and being able to make noise. It's a delicate balance to market to both groups, but I think that's what teams need to do in order to survive. One of the things that FC Puke Green has done with tickets is ask fans what type of experience they want, and then put the fans in areas with fans that want to do the same thing, like stand for the match or sing songs. It's actually not a bad idea to put fans together in that type of experience, because I think it lessens the chance of someone getting upset about fan actions when they realize the section they are in. No surprises, just an experience that matches what they want.
And that's why I appreciate how hard the Timbers have worked to make the experience more palatable for everyone. There are sections on the west side for fans that want to sit, and families that don't want to hear the salty language that the TA often uses. For the hardcore fans, you have the north end and section 107. Sometimes, you can't make everyone happy with the overall stadium plan, but if I'm the guy in charge, I'm probably not going to upset my loyal fans that come every game and travel on the road to follow their team. While there are some families that do this, more often, it's the single fans with large disposable incomes that have that approach to their fandom, and many of them want a more animated, active approach to being a fan.
What gets in the way of some arguments is an approach taken by the Portland Sportsman, who tries to argue that Portland is a better overall fit for MLS than Shittle, but they take a rather long way about to prove their point. I'm always happy to hear from different perspectives on the fan experience and what people want, but the take needs to be something that works and it doesn't help when your major premise is filled with some rather simple errors. I wouldn't know anything about that, as one of my first posts on my new blog was filled with a couple of bad hiccups. Granted, I thought my research was top notch, until it got shot down with a few well timed comments. I can see the author here is trying to make the same point about a static, controlled environment is going to do well at first but will level out versus something more organic and fluid, but if that is the case, try and make it a bit more simply. For me, all I needed to do was see an MLS game up close as an away supporter and that was enough for me to understand.
Look, I could have went and sat in the regular seats and took it in, and I might have come away with a different take than I did. I might have thought that FC Puke Green isn't so bad and their fans are good at what they do, but then again, when you have a front office that controls every aspect of the environment and the experience is meant to be controlled to produce an expected result, what could you expect from that? Especially if you have a large group of fans that either don't know any better because soccer is new to them, or you have a block of largely disenfranchised sports fans whose team isn't in the area anymore. It just goes back to trust, and whether you trust the product to sell itself. And right now, I don't think that Shittle trusts the product to sell itself, so you have to sell the fan experience, but if that might not be enough, well then resort to making sure it is enough. Seriously, I've never been to a soccer match where a team got booed for earning a draw during a match.
I can't blame some teams for doing this, especially if there's significant investment like many owners are making. As a fan, though, you hope that at some point, the team wakes up and realizes their mistakes and allows the experience to really sell itself, or you find another diversion for your money. Thankfully, the Timbers have the best owner in the business, who gets what it should be about, and I can't wait until we get to show the MLS what we are all about. But we must be very respectful about what we do, because there's a tremendous amount of history that has occured, and it's important to honor that.
You can't talk about great soccer support in America and not talk about the Barra Brava, Section 8 (who are quite top notch fans), or the supporters in Houston who have really taken to their team. These groups have done quite a lot to show what it takes to be great supporters, and without them, you don't have groups like the ECS or Red Patch Boys with their abilities to show their fandom. You can't really see the future without looking towards the past, and I'm thankful that many of the Timbers fans are learning about our history and what we've done to set things up for our future.
But the most encouraging thing I saw on Saturday in our park was an incident that occured after our first goal versus Burnley. George Josten had slotted home a nice ball, and during the celebration after the goal, a guy who I hadn't seen in our section before takes a smoke bomb and throws it onto the pitch. This led to more than a few of us, myself included, to yell at the guy and point him out to security. Apparently, he was talked to later by some of the more seasoned members of the TA and told we don't do that and until you can follow those rules, stay away. What was rumoured to have happened after that was that the guy tried to turn himself into security and they told him that we'll let the Timbers Army deal with you.
This is a far different cry than the end of the 2006 season with the Flare Bears or the infamous exhibition match with Toronto FC with a few guest players that remain nameless. We talk with our front office, and they listen to what we have to say, and decisions are made with those thoughts in mind. I don't expect the team to do everything we suggest, but at the same time, they are listening to us. And we are doing our part by reaching out to the community and by taking care of issues like what happened on Saturday. MLS is going to be a huge success here, not just because we have the passion for it, but we have the forethought to make this something truly special.