"In those early days of the NASL, we never knew if our club and the league would be in operation the following season," Mick Hoban recalls.
Mick Hoban is a volunteer Alumni Ambassador with the Portland Timbers and was a member of the original Portland Timbers squad that began its participation in the North American Soccer League (NASL) in 1975. Portland was his third stop in the NASL, after his first two teams folded.
Hoban and his teammates had to work extra hard wherever they were playing to make sure their clubs were successful. That task was particularly difficult in Atlanta, the first team he joined after moving to the United States in 1971.
"The local media went to great lengths to pour scorn on soccer," he says, "and I did everything I could to defend and promote the sport I loved."
As hard as Hoban and his teammates worked to keep the sport alive, the Atlanta Apollos folded in 1973. Hoban's next club, the Denver Dynamos, fared even worse, folding after just two seasons of existence. It wasn't until he joined the Portland Timbers that Hoban finally found a team that would outlast him.
Thankfully, MLS has survived the struggles of its early existence to the point that no player worries about whether the league will continue to exist next year. In all likelihood, there won't be a need for today's Timbers to similarly usher the spirit of soccer through another dark age.
Be that as it may, there is still work to be done, both on and off the field.
"We are all just stewards of the Timbers," Hoban says. "Owners, coaches, players, fans, front-office managers - we will all make a contribution to the Timbers identity, the Timbers brand and the Timbers way."
Peter Lowry echoes this perspective, particularly as it relates to the culture on the field and in the locker room. He often talks about the legacy some of his teammates in Chicago -- Chris Armas, Chris Rolfe, Jon Busch, Logan Pause, John Thorrington, CJ Brown, and Brian McBride -- left with him.
"It's good life habits that you get around guys like that," says Lowry, "I still think about, what would Chris Armas do?"
"Once some of those guys left, it became my turn to start giving to some of the young guys."
"So I don't think I left a legacy with the Timbers," Lowry humbly offers. "I think I tried to sustain their legacy and bring it to Portland. Some of the young teammates I had in Portland still call me and talk to me and ask me for advice."
Legacies go both ways. Players can leave a mark on the team's character and the fans' memories. Likewise, the club and community can leave a lasting impression on players, even in spite of the tenuous relationship players have with their clubs.
"I have a ton of pride in the teams I played for," says Lowry. "I'm still a huge fan of both of them."
Steven Smith shares Lowry's sentiment. He says that aside from the years he spent with Rangers, his time with the Timbers was the most enjoyable of his career. "I will always be a Timbers fan," he says.
The problem is, neither of these former Timbers lives in Portland. Their legacy as former Timbers will be left elsewhere.
For similar reasons, Mick Hoban and his teammates didn't leave their soccer legacy in Atlanta or Denver.
The Timbers organization provided opportunities for the players to connect with the community and plant roots in the city. And of course the players worked tirelessly to promote the sport here.
"The combination of career opportunities," says Hoban, "and the fact that we'd each served the Timbers for multiple seasons led to a disproportionate number of former players choosing to live and work in Portland."
The NASL-era players who were able to serve long careers in Portland and retire in the area helped build support for the game during the long absence of professional soccer. They helped build local university, college and high school programs for both men and women into some of the best in the country. They helped to keep a love of soccer alive among a fan community that would itself become a national leader.
"The ‘Six Degrees of Separation/Kevin Bacon' exercise," jokes Hoban, "is certainly in play in association with many former Timbers players in Oregon/SW Washington soccer circles."
If the present trends continue, though, and current MLS players are moved with ever increasing frequency, their capacity for leaving these important legacies may diminish.
The club reboot that the Portland Timbers made this past offseason, its success in transforming the team's culture notwithstanding, needs to be exceptionally rare. One must only look at Chivas USA as an organization which, with one rebuilding year after another, is doing its community a tremendous disservice.
(To be fair, the Timbers organization has done well in the past, keeping guys like Scot Thompson and Adin Brown around after their playing careers ended; as a fan I hope this past offseason was a temporary departure from the norm.)
The players, too, need to stake a claim for more control over their own participation in the league, by demanding more of a say in intersquad transactions involving them.
Finally, and most importantly, MLS needs to recognize that while its success in the short term may depend on TV contracts and marketing deals, its future is built on these contributions from players, in addition to the contributions of coaches, front office staff, and the community of supporters. It needs to make changes in its structure that facilitates, rather than inhibiting, the successful stewardship of soccer traditions in MLS cities.
Many thanks to Steven Smith, Peter Lowry, and Mick Hoban for their contributions to this story. And an extra shout out to friend-of-the-blog Peter Lowry and his fascinating blog, "The Lowry Lowdown," quoted throughout this article. There are many more fascinating insights to be found within.