If you think Major League Soccer fans are any less fierce and aggressive than Europe’s notorious soccer hooligans, try life as a die-hard Seattle Sounders fanatic relocated to Portland Timbers country.
My Portland office cubicle holds what may be the largest collection of Seattle Sounders paraphernalia gathered within the Oregon state boundaries. Ticket stubs, game day programs, the sports section of The Seattle Times declaring this year’s smashing 3-0 season opener victory against the New England Revolution. The newer soccer fans in the office walk by briskly, while the more senior members have already learned the best routes of avoidance. They’re all fans of the Portland Timbers — my Sounders’ most-despised rival — and we have an unspoken understanding of mutual mouth-shuttage. Nobody wants to get fired.
The less savvy residents of Portland are aware that this whole soccer deal is kind of a thing (MLS game attendance has tripled across the country in the last decade, and stadium sellouts in Seattle and Portland are commonplace), but are ignorant to the tectonic plates of hatred that divide my bright, key lime Pantone 370C green from the Timbers’ dank, moldy 350C. My coworker Marvin, for instance, doesn’t get it. He stopped by my desk recently to say, “My buddies have season tickets in the Portland Timbers Army section. Maybe you can come along next weekend?”
I knew he was trying to be kind, asking me to join the Portscum Timsuck Army, that ridiculous muck of drunk, angry hypocrites decrying the Sounders for being “sellouts” with their NFL-grade premium stadium and big-name Microsoft sponsorship, bile spewed while wearing their very own airline corporate sponsor’s logo across their hearts. A tide of morons in hunter and gold gear that could pull double duty rooting on the University of Oregon Ducks, since the Timbers’ brass wasn’t adventurous enough to think of two original colors. A hoard of lumbersexual hipsters wearing scarves with a blaring yellow ax emblem, surely designed to pay homage to the gigantic chip each of them has whittled onto their shoulder that screams We’re Soccer City USA! We’re not bandwagoners!
No, Marvin wasn’t aiming for that nerve. So I smiled and thanked him. “Sorry, I’m only interested in professional soccer games.”
“They’re in a major league, aren’t they?” he asked, very perplexed.
“Technically. Yes. But I’m a Sounders fan.”
“They’re not playing the Sounders next weekend.”
I suddenly understood my husband’s football fandom predicament when I begged him to explain why his Philadelphia Eagles heart hates the Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo so much. There is no permissible court evidence proving why one’s arch enemies are so offensive, so acutely disgusting that merely glancing at their insignia feels like you’ve opened a Snapchat window of a guy crapping his pants in a grocery store produce section. The hate is visceral. It is legacy. It is blood.
On most days I can carry on as a citizen of Oregon without conflict. I moved there from my hometown east of Tacoma, Washington in 2003 for college. I met a native, fell in love, and just never left. I’ll battle to the death over Portland’s superiority in brunch entrée execution, its wine production, fabulous literary scene, and ease of parking. If the chance to move back to Washington arrives, I’d let it pass me by.
But then there are days when I go to the local fast-food favorite Burgerville on Carman Drive for a tasty Tillamook cheeseburger, and the cashier hands me a Diet Coke receptacle stamped with that loathsome axe. “Do you have any not-Timbers cups?” I ask. They are confused; they stare at the corporate-mandated drink cup, as I’m the first to raise a fuss. I say, “A Timbers-free smoothie tumbler will work fine.”
When I attend rivalry matches at Portland’s Providence Park — or, as my GPS Saved List knows it, “Providump” — I’ve learned to come prepared with a Sharpie. Axe-clad pint cups are the only ones available at Timbsuck games, and there’s nothing quite as satisfying as whipping a fat black pen out of my purse in front of a line of thirsty Army brats to blot out their beloved emblem.
It’s a loyalty that overrides all usual aspects of my personality. I’m normally quite courteous and gracious, even passive-aggressive at times, I swear. But during my most recent trip out of Portland International Airport, which included a layover in Seattle, the beast in me emerged.
I took the obligatory shoe selfie on the iconic ’80s-era aqua carpet in the Portland Airport, and I bought an I Heart Oregon sugar cookie from La Provence Bakery. Life was beautiful until our Alaska Airlines boarding agent announced: “As the official sponsor of the Portland Timbers, we invite any passengers wearing Timbers gear to pre-board.”
I shot up, amidst the forest of passengers using their carry-on baggage as nap pillows, and hollered with all my might: “BOOOO! You’re flying to Sounders country!” Miraculously, no one opted to sit next to me on that flight.
* * *
You learn the streets of a new place. You collect addresses like shells on the shore, a dotted line tracing your evolution into roots. Your orbit settles into a routine of favorite café, favorite bar, favorite grocery store, the Starbucks that makes the most perfectly balanced Frappuccino. If you’re meant to be somewhere, you just click into place.
But that doesn’t mean you’re not still from somewhere.
I grew up in Buckley, Washington, a place where Seattle is affectionately known as “the city.” Trips to Seattle represented special occasions for my family and me. We took Christmas pictures with the Nordstrom Santa Claus, went on school field trips to the Woodland Park Zoo, and, sometimes, entered Memorial Stadium to watch the Sounders play.
We moved to Buckley from the much larger metropolis of Tacoma in the summer of 1996. My new home was a spread of rural farmland in Mt. Rainier’s foothills. I was twelve, not at an age of easy adjustment. Most of that summer was spent skulking and listening to Jewel’s Pieces of You on loop.
“You want to go to the game tomorrow?” Dad would offer. I was the oldest of three kids, and the only one he ever asked. Mom wouldn’t go on a work night with dinner to make and children to wrestle into bed. My sister was too disinterested and my brother was still a toddler. I didn’t have much excitement in my life, obviously.
“Can we get Pizza Hut?”
Memorial Stadium, the Sounders’ home in the 90’s, , wasn’t laden with amenities or fine dining options, but I could totally be coaxed with a personal pan pizza.
“Maybe,” he mused, which was as good as binding to me.
Memorial Stadium is still there, even if the Sounders aren’t. It’s at the base of the Space Needle, next to the Experience Music Project’s tinted chrome-wave architecture entombing Jim Hendrix’s guitar and Kurt Cobain’s green striped sweater. The place is roughly the size of an average high school football stadium, complete with silver bleachers and AstroTurf. With an audience of just a couple dozen die-hards, we could have sat anywhere in the house, but Dad would guide me to the seats at the goal line, halfway to the top of the stands. Ten years later he would pick the same spot at the mammoth Centurylink Field, the Sounders’ new stadium, for his season tickets. He didn’t explicitly tell me that this is the best way to see the game, or that one could be completely idiotic and sit right on the sidelines for twice as much money and not be able to see a goddamn thing. He simply showed me.
Chants at old Memorial Stadium were led by a single man — balding, out of shape, cheeks on fire and sweat pools turning his light grey t-shirt a deep slate. “SEAAAAATTTLLLLEEEE!!!!!” he bellowed from the bottom of each stand, waving his arms with remarkable moxie.
“SOOUUUNDDEERRRSS!!!” Dad and I yelled back. It seems impossible, remembering that one-man band of hoodlums, that a decade later, every Sounders match would be cheered by a mass of people dubbed the Emerald City Supporters — or ECS. The booster organization of fans is now seven thousand members strong, and has an entire enclave of Centurylink seating. Today, when the ECS yells SEATTLE! forty thousand people answer back. But before the scarves, before the section-wide tifo banner displays, before the Adidas jersey shop opened, there was Sweaty Guy and my almost-teenage heart belting out our only cheer for the home team.
After the game, usually a win in what would shake out to be an undefeated, championship 1996 season, the Sounders would cluster around the sidelines. The breathless players signed programs, trading cards, shook hands and clustered into pictures. They were still there long after I tucked my Pizza Hut garbage into the trashcan and followed Dad to the truck.
“How come the Sounders hang out after the games?” I asked him one night as we pulled onto the freeway.
“To be good to the fans,” he said.
“But the Mariners don’t do that.”
We’d gone to a few Major League Baseball games at the Kingdome, watched Ken Griffey, Jr., Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez, and other superstars of the diamond. You couldn’t get close to a Mariners player for a high five, let alone a photo and extended conversation on the team’s defensive strategies.
“The Sounders are pro athletes too, right?”
“United Soccer League is pro, but soccer isn’t Major League Baseball,” my father said. The USL formed in the 1980s after the North American Soccer League (NASL) folded, and the team played under the Sounders banner until Major League Soccer granted Seattle a team in 2009. “Most of these guys can’t just make a living playing soccer,” Dad continued. “They’ve got other jobs. They’re not going to get rich in this game. If they’re out there, it’s because they actually care about the sport, you know?”
I imagined those affable guys balling up their uniforms in the wash, collapsing into bed, rolling out a few hours later to get to Windermere Realty or Kirkland BMW. They worked just as hard as the Mariners or the NFL’s Seahawks or the since-departed SuperSonics of the NBA, and maybe even harder, running the length of the field over and over without any timeouts, huddles, or seventh inning stretches. Throwing themselves at the ball, diving into the turf, staining their shins and elbows with inky Northwest grass, none of the Sounders had a Lake Union villa or Redmond mansion. The Sounders, I realized, were the drama kids, the band geeks, or the chess club members in the high school of life — talented, driven and committed, but not popular. That glimmering, charismatic status linchpin that has always been missing from the equation of my own life.
The Sounders were my people.
* * *
“Sorry, I don’t think I can serve you today,” said my Peet’s Coffee barista at seven a.m. on a Friday. I was marginally cognizant of being alive, so I just stared at him, trying to sort out my sin. Was my debit card expired? Were they out of sugar-free vanilla syrup again?
“Your jersey,” he explained after the world’s longest beat.
Ah, yes. It was Fan Friday at work, a corporate-sanctioned day to wear your favorite team’s colors, and be rewarded with some popcorn in the break room.
“Maybe you should just sit this one out,” my mom had cautioned the night before when I was trying to pick between my favorite scarves to wear for the big day. It was going to be either the one that read “Seattle > Portland” or “Seattle Til I Die.” She added: “I don’t want you stuck somewhere with your tires slit.”
Mom has harbored distrust towards Timbers fans ever since the one and only rivalry match she attended in Portland a few years back. She was screamed at in a parking garage while she silently walked back to the car, then blocked in as a parade of cars streamed past, honking and flipping off the bright-green clad passengers inside every car that featured Washington plates.
Since Mom now refuses to cross state lines on game day, I accompany Dad when he comes down to Portland for matches — and the battle stories we’ve accrued haven’t inspired her to have another go. Last August, Dad and I drove into Downtown Portland early in my Oregon-plated disguise car, and parked a fair distance from the stadium. “We’ll have time for brunch!” I rejoiced, and recommended an elegant southern restaurant in the Pearl District. It was a perfect Northwest summer morning, all blue sky and sunshine with Mount Hood peeking in from across the river. Saying no to the streetside patio would have been a crime.
As we sat on the wrought-iron bistro chairs, mulling the menu while live jazz music wafted from the window and mimosas appeared before the water glasses did, I felt like a parent at her kids’ piano recital. My city was hitting all the right notes, with its hair combed and in some freshly pressed pants. “Rabbit hash,” Dad read from the specials leaflet. “That’s something you’re not going to find in Seattle.”
Then I saw them rounding the corner, a gaggle of forest green asshats fresh off a morning preload at Deschutes Brewery. I flicked my gaze back to the menu; there was enough lovely city for everyone and the match wasn’t for a few more hours. As long as you didn’t look right into the eye of the cyclops it might just keep walking.
“Enjoying our local fine foods, are we?” a smug frat-boy-turned-silicone-forest type asked, halting the posse behind him. Dad and I half-smiled, our eyes hidden behind sunglasses. For a second I thought he might keep walking. “Why don’t you go home and CHOKE ON A SALMON? SEAAATTTLE…SELLOUTS!”
“Did we just get insulted over brunch?” I asked as soon as they’d clucked their way down to the streetcar. Was there any more Portland way to be heckled than over mimosas with a side of beignets?
“These are pretty good,” Dad perked right back up, dunking one of the donut holes into its raspberry reduction.
Getting yelled at for eating on a patio was an improvement over his first encounter with the Timbers Army. That was in 1975 during the first Portland/Seattle game. The Timbers joined the NASL a year after the Sounders’ inaugural season and hosted the new rivalry’s first game in Portland. The Timbers fans in the row right behind Dad spent the ninety minutes squirting him with mustard packets, sending him back up I-5 with Timbers yellow shirt stains — and a 1-0 Sounders victory to kick-start history.
* * *
Born with a grudge in my heart, I had my first run-in with the Army during the October 2012 match in Seattle. Mom and Dad were on vacation that week, so my sister and I filled their season ticket seats at Centurylink Field. The Sounders shut out the Timbers 3-0 in the most electric game I’ve ever attended. The team set an MLS attendance record with over 66,000 rancorous fans, the same level of turnout the Seattle Seahawks typically enjoy at their home games in the same stadium. All-stars Fredy Montero and Eddie Johnson made effortless goals while the defense shut down all seventeen of the Timbers’ shots. By the time the whistle blew, the entire stadium was hoarse and sore from euphoria.
In the post-game fray, we were re-shuffled by attendants admonishing us with light-up cones. Somehow we ended up behind the field near the ass entrance: the Timbers Army loading dock.
“SEATTLE SLUTS!” I heard as my sister and I passed by. I whipped around to face a Portscum booster in a punk plaid tartan skirt and matching knee socks, leading a wave of middle fingers. We stopped next to the city cops on riot patrol and waved. We blew kisses. We played miniature violins. We drank up their glares and shaking fists like the sweet-tart lemonade they were.
On the way home, we got through to Dad’s cell phone on a lucky streak of the California Redwoods’ spotty service. “We took on the whole Timbers Army!” I said. “Our middle fingers were the last thing they saw before they floated back to Portland on a sea of tears.”
That same season, my husband — apathetic to soccer but willing to humor me — scored suite tickets from his company at the Portland Timbers’ home match against the Sounders. I wore my team’s colors and walked tall, but mouth shut. In the years of living in enemy territory I’ve made my opposition pose an art form, gleaming with dignified defiance. Don’t antagonize, don’t be an asshole; just cheer the piss out of your team. We were on our way around to the suite level entrance when Andre-the-Giant-sized security triplets suddenly flanked my path.
“Ma’am,” the leader said. “Turn around.”
“This is Timbers territory. You can’t be wearing that in this section.”
“Go back to the visitors section please.”
I held up my laminated sponsorship suite pass like it was an FBI badge. “I’ve got a suite ticket. The suite is my section.”
They toppled like a Jenga puzzle, offering to escort me personally to the area. “We just wouldn’t want anything to happen to you out here, miss,” the same guard said. “These guys can get pretty unruly when they see the wrong shade of green.”
“Thank you,” I replied, gliding past. “I’ll be fine.”
* * *
One evening during the Sounders’ 1996 season, my dad came home from work with a ball of cotton tucked into his elbow. “What’s that?” I asked, glancing up from my homework at the kitchen counter. He wordlessly set it down front of me, as my sister and brother kept watching TV in the adjacent living room. In a house with three kids, it was tough to get a present unnoticed. Even if one of us had absolutely no interest in what the other was offered, the “Why did she get something and I didn’t?!” principle kept us constantly accounting. I unfurled the t-shirt to reveal the Seattle Sounders logo splashed across the front, with the orca whale mascot lobbing a ball through the “O.”
“This is amazing!” I whispered below the DuckTales volume. “Thank you!”
When Dad knew one of his kids liked something, he’d find a way to sneak it up on us. When my sister and I fell in love with the Snow White McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, he hopped between a dozen franchise locations throughout King County to find all seven dwarves. We came home from school one day and they were magically lined up on the counter, two complete sets, still in their fry-salted cryovac.
After watching an episode of Star Trek: Voyager when I was ten, I became obsessed with the Kathryn Janeway character, portrayed by Kate Mulgrew. Sure enough, a few months later, Mulgrew’s autograph surfaced in the mail. “Well look at that,” Dad mused, poorly feigning shock. He was like a fandom Santa, stealthily fanning the flames of whatever we fell for.
Dad has always been a collector, a perfectionist of passion. He can’t just have a few soccer cards from his favorite players; he has to have every NASL player from the league’s founding to its shuttering, plus the holograms, and even the misprints. He couldn’t just take his daughter to one game. We had tickets for the whole ’96 championship season, dressed like real fans: me with my screen tee, Dad with his original 1974 team scarf.
The day after he secretly slipped me the Sounders shirt in the kitchen, I proudly wore it to my new school in Buckley. My sixth grade class was ruled by a clique of future cocktail waitresses and real estate agents, girls who had all known each other since preschool. Their parents had gone to school together, and their parents before them. It was a small insular municipality that was infrequently interloped and rarely abandoned. The girls were good at noticing outsiders, but even better at spotting weakness.
“What are you wearing?” Alice Grant, the girl with the most immaculate cheekbones on Earth wanted to know. This was a common inquiry from her. It’s how she got me to throw away my Mickey Mouse shirt and purple leggings and barn-themed sweater. I arrived in sixth grade dressed like I was twelve, unaware that this pack had left childhood behind the moment their age breached double digits. I didn’t answer Alice immediately; I just let my Jansport sink to the carpet and tucked my head into my desk, pretending to search for a pencil. “What the hell are the Seattle Sounders?”
“They’re a soccer team,” I said, toneless.
“Who watches soccer?!” Alice’s father owned the Honda dealership in Auburn, Washington, where my dad delivered mail. Her pops hired athletes to appear in Civic commercials on big sale weekends like Labor and Memorial Day: hotshots like pitching ace Randy Johnson of the Mariners and the SuperSonics’ power forward Shawn Kemp. He’d sooner hire the high school football team captain than pay some soccer nobody to sell his Japanese cars. This was America, dammit.
“Lots of people,” I lied.
“Lots of losers!” she cackled, then whirled around to go report this newest violation of cool to the pack.
That year, Alice and her friends harassed me into giving up much of myself: my fearlessness in answering questions, doodling habit, writing addiction, and whimsical clothes raided from my mom’s Goodwill pile — I really thought I could bring the poodle skirt back. But I kept on with my Sounders tee. I wore it until it had holes and spaghetti stains.
I’m sure Dad couldn’t have known what he was handing over that night, balled up in his work bag, smelling like the ink and paper smudged on his mail carrier hands. We don’t plan for a talisman; one can’t shop for hope. It arrives in strange packages that a person can’t truly unravel for decades, until they’ve grown up and out of ancient miseries. Then, maybe, they realize that they couldn’t believe in themselves, but they could believe in something.
* * *
Seventeen years later, I was with my husband in our new house in Arizona when a text message from my dad blipped onto my screen: You’re Here!
It was 4:30 in the afternoon, and halftime up in Seattle. We’d been living in Tucson for three months, moving a week after the Sounders’ fifth MLS season began in March of 2013. My husband’s job transfer provided a month’s notice to Tetris-pack all our belongings and pick the best-looking rental house on Craigslist. Unlike my instant college infatuation with Portland, I didn’t fall for The Old Pueblo. I couldn’t find my footing amongst the bleached strip malls and empty, merciless desert space. My lifetime’s worth of friends and family were fifteen hundred miles north. Forget living in enemy territory. I was nowhere.
On my phone, a picture from Dad came through. It depicted the two of us at Portland’s Providence Park (at the time still called Jeld-Wen Field) for the Timbers home match against the Sounders the previous season. The image was being displayed on the Centurylink Jumbotron.
Through some magic he still won’t explain, he’d snagged front-row, goal box tickets for the 2012 rivalry game between the Sounders and Timbers at Providump, and we became stars of the NBC national broadcast of the contest. A sports photographer working the Seattle beat snapped the photo of us after striking up a conversation with Dad, learning that the two of them had been haunting the same Sounders games since the ’70s. Dad held up his die-hard scarf, the 1977 NASL Championship version complete with a Kingdome emblem. In the photo, we’re jersey-wearing, toothy-grinned twins. The Sounders promotions department brought us into Photoshop, blurred the Portland background and added a text banner: Earn Free Away Tickets with MatchPass Season Tickets! We were the literal poster children for Sounders pride on the road.
As far as I was from home, a tiny bit of me stood ten feet tall in my favorite place. It was like a phantom was holding my spot at Centurylink, a presence I didn’t realize I had the power to conjure. Dad and I were immortal fanatics — no matter the league, whatever our address. We may cheer men, we may wear colors, but at the core, the magic was about belonging — to a city, a family, a life.
That’s the thing about the home team. I can talk all day about what assholes the Portscum Timbsuck fans are, and how wrong they are about the Sounders faithful being “sellouts,” but it’s not about who I hate. It’s the love and the pride that is supreme, both as irrational and blind as family. As long as I keep that passion kindled, and as long as I remember the words to all the chants, I can keep casting the spell. I always have a home.
The promo played all season long, up until the next year when my husband and I wriggled out of our Tucson debacle and moved back to Oregon: my land, my heart…most of the time.
* * *
Tabitha Blankenbiller lives in Portland, Oregon, most often lurking around Powell’s and ranting about the housing bubble. Her essays have been featured in a number of journals including The Rumpus, Hobart, Passages North, Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Brevity. Read more of her work at tabithablankenbiller.com, and for bonus features (mostly cat pictures), follow her @tabithablanken.
Sloane Leong is an illustrator and comic artist currently living in Portland, OR. You can find her at sloanesloane.com & @sloanesloane.