Friday, May 31, 2019

Welcoming Another Chapter To The Old Grounds

The 18th street walk is dramatically different at Providence Park for 2019
Sometimes to find your way in the future, it's important to revisit the important landmarks of your past - especially when they get a dramatic makeover. Since the last post we did here back in March, life has gotten in the way rather significantly. From dealing with my wife's ongoing health issues to finding out about some of my family genetics recently has added some stress. My mother passed away from cancer in 2005 as many long time Timbers Army friends know, and I ended up with a lot of love from the TA on the old Soccer City USA board when I shared the news. Unbeknownst to me, she had been dealing with Hasimoto's Thyroditis for many years, and knowing this would have likely changed some of my choices in food and health. My sister apparently knew about it, but I just found out over Memorial Day weekend. I had switched to a full time gluten free diet recently to combat my bad psoriasis months ago, but had I known about this propensity for auto-immune disorders, I might have started this sooner.

Work stress has been all over the place, but that is nothing new. I'm also able to de-stress from my day by tweeting about my bus adventures (the hashtag #WillMyBusArrive) which we have talked about in this blog. I never thought I would get so many followers by just talking about whether a bus shows up or not, but it's turned out to be quite popular for some reason - even getting some attention from the local transit authority. I get it's a tough job to drive around and deal with the public daily, and I'm not trying to be passive aggressive about something showing up on time. I've advocated for several years that there should be a true notification system for buses when they break down real time, but for now, it's just using an app on my smarty phone to hope it shows up as directed. Between all of this along with general life events, this should be enough to keep someone distracted from things, but here I am trying to write regularly about our local soccer team and keep people informed about what has been happening.

New signage on the 18th street side of Providence Park
That's been rather difficult considering the situation with the Portland Timbers. The team had announced plans last year about expanding their current stadium, Providence Park, to add seating along with other bells and whistles, but the club's run all the way to MLS Cup 2018 put a delay on the plan, considering that there was a mathematical chance the team could have hosted the finale right up through the last weeks of the playoffs. While the situation gave the Timbers a chance at a second MLS Cup, it did also compress available construction time before the 2019 season was to begin. MLS too care of the issue for the Timbers by giving them a severely unbalanced schedule with the team's first 12 matches happening away from home. Portland completed the longest road trip in team history with a 4 win - 2 draw - 6 loss mark with 14 points and a minus 6 goal differential (17 goals for, 23 against). This will go down as the longest road trip in MLS history in terms of matches played, miles traveled, and likely a few other categories, especially considering that the team effectively has been traveling since camp opened in mid-January.

From visiting Costa Rica to Arizona during pre-season play to then visiting 12 MLS cities (Denver, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Los Angeles again, San Jose, Dallas, Columbus, Toronto, Salt Lake, Vancouver, Houston and Philadelphia), the team has only trained locally under limited conditions. The Timbers didn't even return home after some matches, opting to travel between destinations to save wear and tear. This situation likely contributed to early season uneven play, which happened to coincide with our last predictions post back in March. The Timbers looked disinterested against FC Cincinnati and got run out of the building, but to me, this wasn't a case of talent - they simply looked passionless and lost, looking for any type of identity. After the early season struggles, there was tons of debate on social media about everything - play the kids, trade the kids, trade the vets, blow it up and start over, trade the coach, don't trade the coach, don't trade the kids - I am sure there are plenty of categories that I have missed, but suffice to say, nobody was very happy about it. That is when Sebastian Blanco put forth a post on his Instragram what I term "a call to arms". The entry was a rallying call for everyone to unify behind the club, and Portland responded with their best collective effort of 2019 to that point in a 2 to 1 loss to FC Dallas. Yes, the officials absolutely blew several late calls that impacted the result, but it was obvious that the team rallied around Blanco and showed some of the fight that had been lacking.

The new look for the West Side concourse, complete with new color scheme.
Portland then reeled off 3 straight wins in Columbus, Toronto and Salt Lake before losing in Vancouver, although statistically, the Timbers dominated the numbers but couldn't figure out how to get one past the parked bus. By finishing up with a draw in Houston and a win in Philly, the Timbers are actually in a good place considering they were sitting at a single point earned on April 14. 13 points over 6 matches is a difficult pace to sustain, but considering the back loaded home schedule now puts the Timbers in their revamped home and they are a strong home side traditionally, this is a good place to be. Consider that Portland makes just 5 trips in MLS league play for the rest of the 2019 regular season - Montreal, New York, Seattle, Minnesota and Kansas City - with a USOC date in Tacoma in June as well, but none of the travel time is extended over multiple matches. All things considered, Portland could have been in worse shape going into their home opener, but they've done what good teams do - rally. That's the funny thing about sports - teams usually aren't as bad as they are collectively, nor are they as good collectively as you might think because sports can be the ultimate equalizer in the sense that anybody can (and often does) beat anybody on a given night.

It was during the trying results combined with everything else that I took a step back and pursued other activities. My wife and I are regulars at our local gym, and I remember having a great leg workout while Portland was dominating Columbus while we got a lot of shopping done during the Toronto match. It's not that I didn't care about the results, but there is a rule about sports superstitions to not mess with a streak, and considering we had other plans during the FC Dallas match and it went better, we kept up the pattern. I was finally able to watch the Houston match live and a replay of Philadelphia, but this helped provide some much needed balance and perspective. Considering that my over 50 team, Old Growth FC Silver, is in some form of stasis with an unknown future, and there isn't exactly a hot transfer market for a bald 52 year old right back/defensive midfielder/attacking midfielder with a totally average shot, middling dribbling skills and an ability to fall down easily at any point, I was really missing soccer and the community surrounding the Timbers. To say that I'm looking forward to this opening is a true understatement; while it brings back soccer, this actually represents my 29th year of going to events on the grounds.

Taken from the Key Bank deck, the new roof changes the stadium skyline.
It all started in April 1990 when I worked in Big Pink, and I heard about the Portland Beavers baseball team from my manager. It was a Wednesday night and not having any pressing plans, I left work and ventured up to northwest Portland to the then-named Civic Stadium. I don't remember much about the game itself except the beer was flat and they played through a couple of drizzle storms, but I was hooked. I watched several games per year through the 90's until those Beavers left for Salt Lake City to eventually be replaced by the Portland Rockies. I was a regular attendee, and watched with excitement when we learned the Beavers were returning for the 2001 PCL season. I even watched several of the Portland Timbers matches that year, but didn't get stuck in fully until joining the Timbers Army in 2004. Civic Stadium underwent various transformations on the east side and center field decks until they were eventually condemned, which disappointed me as they were my favorite places to watch baseball. Our work break room had a flyer posted back in 2001 to call the team if you wanted any ticket packages, and this was my first conversation with Dan Zusman. Dan has been a loyal friend and steward of the teams for many years, and I've spent thousands of dollars on tickets and travel supporting my clubs. The 2011 soccer retrofit brought us a fully functional East deck, but there were always rumors that the club wanted to add more seats somewhere. Considering the footprint didn't allow the stadium to go out, the only option was up - hence, the new stadium design for 2019.

I received an email from the team inviting local media to a tasting of the new food options at the park on the same night that Timbers 2 was hosting the Real Monarchs, so I was excited for the chance to walk about the grounds and reconnect with my media colleagues. Upon arriving at Gate G, I was greeted by Katie from the Timbers press staff with my season credential and a pass for the night to the Key Bank deck. I have to say that I'm truly humbled and honored to continue the tradition of covering the team, and I take this as a great responsibility. Many clubs don't work with independent media at all, so considering the Timbers grant this to me and my wife after years with our previous outlet and now working our own sites is still thrilling. I will be honest that my nerves are still very much on edge each year until I see the credential after our ghosting experience back when, so when it is there officially, the weight of the world just goes away. I am then directed to walk through the concourse all the way to the Key Bank deck, and I get a chance to walk the entire concourse from the southwest corner to the center east side. Although the way, I'm struck by the changes in signage and colors, which make the stadium seem more open, and I'm not just saying that because I've watched way too may home design shows over the years.

A view of the South Deck after the construction has completed
As I entered the area, I watched several Timbers officials with grand smiles on their faces, having a look of pride at the accomplishments of transforming the stadium into the new era. From the new seats and decks to the new turf to the sound system to the LED scoreboards to the roof, there's a lot of visual changes to take in, but I wasn't overwhelmed at all. After watching a few TV stations do cold opens teasing stories about the park and having a bunch of print media be very quiet in the background, the officials at Park Provisions gave a few opening remarks about the menu after Timbers President of Business Mike Golub talked in detail about the overall construction plan and the end results. As much as the updates change the complexion of the old stadium to bring more seats and features, it's really a smaller part of an overall master plan to upgrade every aspect of the three clubs under the team umbrella: the Timbers, the Portland Thorns of the NWSL, and the Timbers' USL affiliate, Timbers 2. Team locker rooms were expanded with new features, the team has doubled their investment in sports science positions to help players stay healthy and fit through the grueling season. The Timbers are also expanding their Beaverton training campus to add more play space with an eventual goal to allow the Thorns to train regularly on campus instead of varying training sites. Academy teams are seeing additional investments, too, as the overall goals were to spread the wealth about as smartly as possible.

The team put their money where their mouth is with the recent acquisition of accomplished striker Brian Fernandez, who joined the team a few weeks ago and already has 3 goals in 2 matches. Timbers Coach Gio Savarese has been very pleased with the composition of the 2019 Timbers, but one of the areas the team has wanted to address is adding a pure impact scorer that could mesh with Blanco and team captain Diego Valeri seamlessly yet not impede the development of young forward Jeremy Ebobisse. While it's very early, Fernandez has shown an ability to create chances out of the most minute chances and put the defense on notice, and you could tell the Dynamo and Union had trouble marking Fernandez. Portland's opponent for their first home match of 2019, Los Angeles Football Club, dominated the tempo in their March meeting in Los Angeles and the Timbers' defense never fully found their footing in losing by a 4 to 1 margin. Ebobisse did tally a goal on the afternoon, but Portland wasn't able to keep the pressure going forward enough to trouble the LAFC defense. However, the addition of Fernandez changes the complexion rather dramatically, as the Timbers now have a player that can attack and score from anywhere on the pitch. While Blanco and Valeri can still command a match during long stretches, Fernandez's inclusion keeps teams from solely concentrating on Timbers' number 8 and 10.

Portland still has a turf field, but the new Cool Turf should lessen field temps
I rather enjoyed the food options I could eat, as there were a few options for my gluten free diet. The tamales and bacon nachos were very tasty and flavorful, but admittedly, I would have enjoyed trying the quesadillas and the burgers if they had gluten free buns and tortillas. I think fans will appreciate the new food options, and I rather enjoyed witnessing the Stumptown Footy crew come up with player pairings for the new food. I can confirm that Zack did indeed nearly knock over the table, while I was able to meet Katelyn and Tyler in person. The view from the Key Bank deck is pretty distinctive, and I can see people enjoy sitting in this section. Once the tasting was completed, I left the area to take an more extended tour of the stadium. Timbers 2 were down 1 to 0 at the half to Real Monarchs, and I wanted to find a good vantage point to take in the second half. It didn't take very long for me to find a familiar spot as I wandered into the North End and found my old home in Row N of Section 107. From the 2005 to 2010 seasons in USL play, this was my home each and every Timbers home match, and as luck would have it, four of my old Row N compatriots were occupying the area and invited me to stay for the second half.

These people were some of my best friends over the years of watching soccer. Steeplechase was one of the first people I met in my first ever Timbers Army meeting back in 2004, while Obi was the best man at my wedding back in 2005 after we had worked together in the corporate world years prior. Firestarter and Savor PDX Green Sailor (sorry about the error, she's changed her name a few times since then) also met in Row N and got married years ago, thus making Row N the producer of 2 Timbers Army themed weddings. Yes, I used their board names or nicknames because there was a time when we all knew each other by our SCUSA board names, and there are still people that call me by my board name, Groundskeeper. It had been a while since I saw each of them, but it was simply amazing to catch up on news, reminisce about our days in the section, and actually watch Timbers soccer up close. Timbers 2 actually staged a very nice rally with 2 second half goals to win by a 2 to 1 one tally, which as many long time TA members might realize, it's a score that we often won by back in the day. I ran into several other friends I have met through the Army and got to chat with them as well, but spending a half of soccer in my old section with some of my row mates was something I didn't expect to happen. And it was a perfect way to end the evening.

The outer concourse concessions all received new looks in the upgrade
Change is inevitable, as it's the nature of life. But something that struck me in talking with Golub after his comments as he said the team was doing their best to try and prepare for the future by embracing and honoring the past. In sports, the focus of a club often drifts between dealing with any current issues, pondering past successes or failures or anticipating the upcoming era, but not all three at the same time. It's important for any institution to look at the past, present and future, and Portland is learning the importance of maintaining this balance. It's difficult to embrace the future of Providence Park without looking at its history, and I can say that just within my years living in Portland, I've seen everything there live from Aussie Rules football, Canadian football, baseball, basketball, concerts and lots of soccer. The grounds is an important part of the fabric of Portland, and I'm honored to have been a very small cog within the Timbers community. If there was ever a way to inspire somebody before a home opener, my experience on May 29 in touring the park was exactly what I needed - and apparently I'm not the only one.