Portland has been called Soccer City USA since back in the NASL days and while there is plenty of evidence to back this claim, there are some fan bases that think that moniker deserves to be given to their city. Of course those fan bases and cities would have to support all levels of soccer, not just the highest professional level in this country.
They would need an organization that goes out into the community and supports soccer at every level. An organization like Operation Pitch Invasion, which goes into the community to fix up local fields for the betterment of soccer players of all ages. OPI's latest project is the Bless Field at New Columbia.
Intrigued by OPI and their latest project I reached out to Shawn Levy, OPI Board Member, to ask him a few questions about OPI and Bless Field. The following are all the questions I asked and Shawn's answers.
Can you give us a brief history of OPI and how it was started and why it was started?
Operation Pitch Invasion (http://pitch-invasion.org) was literally the first idea that was brought up in 2008 at the first of the meetings that created the 107 Independent Supporters' Trust (http://timbersarmy.org/
category/107ist). The question posed was, 'If we could bottle the energy and enthusiasm and communitarianism and civic pride of the Timbers Army and apply it in one way, what would that be?'. The answer became OPI's mission statement: to build, restore and maintain soccer fields in the community.
We're a separate entity from the 107ist. They're technically a 501(c)(7) in Oregon, and we're a 501(c)(3) -- a straight-out charity. They have an elected board of 11; we have a non-elected working board of 4. They are engaged with Timbers Army activities, with merchandise, tifo, travel, lobbying, charitable outreach, connections to other supporters groups, interaction with the Timbers front office, and so on. We fix and build soccer fields; period.
What other projects has OPI been a part of?
Since 2011, OPI has been working with the Portland Parks on restoring a number of fields that had fallen into disrepair because of the limited labor and capital available to maintain them. We show up on Saturday mornings with 50 or so volunteers and do 200 hours of work before lunch. We level fields, re-seed them, fill in divots, repair field lines, replace sprinkler heads, straighten, scrape and paint goal frames, and generally leave the fields in much better shape than we found them. We've worked on about 7 parks so far and have plans to hit 4-5 this summer. We have also gone to a parks department warehouse and straightened, scraped and repainted about 75 goal frames that had been pulled out of service because of their condition. We've given the Portland Parks more than 1600 hours of labor to date -- and we've been told that it would have taken them weeks and months to do some of the projects that we'd completed in a single day.
We've also worked with the Portland Public Schools. At James John Elementary in St. Johns we were the field crew that helped tear up a blacktop and put in a turf field (OPI recruited some visiting supporters from Toronto for one of the weekend events in this project, and, hangovers and all, about 15 of them showed up). At Whitman Elementary we're working with AC Portland (http://acportland.org/), a soccer-centered educational program, to turn an unused field into a proper soccer pitch.
Why Bless field and how did you hear about the need for a pitch in the Columbia Neighborhood?
We always knew that a community like New Columbia needed more recreational and social activities for the kids. It's a high-risk community and the most diverse census tract in the state: families from 22 countries live there, speaking 11 languages -- plus, of course, the common tongue of soccer. We specifically learned of an opportunity to work with Home Forward, the entity that governs the community, at the groundbreaking event at James John Elementary about two years ago. They had a vacant lot -- wedged between an elementary school, a city park and a Boys and Girls Club -- that they were thinking of developing for recreation. We stepped in and said we'd build a field there. They were interested right away, but it took about a year for all the obstacles to be cleared.
Once the field is in place -- we hope to hold a ribbon-cutting before the end of the MLS season -- the plan is for Timbers Army volunteer coaches, taken from the ranks of our public parks recreation league soccer teams, to serve as coaches and mentors in programs and leagues we'll hold on the field, with the organizational assistance of the Boys and Girls Club and the instructional guidance of the Timbers Youth Academy coaching staff. We've chosen the name Bless Field in honor of General Timber Howie Bless, a founding member of the Timbers Army, retired from his service in the US Army, who passed in the spring of 2009. (Howie Bless info: http://finnswake.
We have a lot of readers from around the country who can't make the event. How can they help out even though they are not in PDX?
The short answer is to visit OPI's web site and hit that "Donate!" button; Bless Field is a $200,000 project and I guarantee you every buck helps.
But in a bigger sense, particularly for people who already support a local team and are organized, however loosely: copy our model. Pour your energies into your own soccer community. Grow support for your local team from the grass roots up: get the fans in the stands out into the cities that they sing about and help the next generation of players and fans learn to love the game. We've done it our way, the Portland way, which is the only way we knew and the one we knew would work here. But I encourage other people in other places to do it their way. There are great soccer towns all over the country (and, of course, the world). We may be the one and true Soccer City USA, but that doesn't mean other towns and other supporters groups can't reproduce our passion, our commitment and our energy.
Anything else you would like to add?
The Timbers Army likes to talk about the Golden Triangle of Team-Town-TA (it's why the 107ist logo is a triangle). Bless Field completes the cycle of energy between the three. As I like to say, one day a kid who learned the game in the Timbers way from a Timbers Army coach on Bless Field will score a meaningful goal at Jeld-Wen Field -- and she may be a Thorn! And when that happens, you can forget about the green smoke: look for the flaming chariot taking me straight up to heaven!
Don't forget to get your tickets for Beating Seattle Never Gets Old: A Benefit for Bless Field, at 7pm on Thursday, April 4, at the Hollywood Theater.