As part of Stumptown Footy’s continuing offseason autobiographical series on how soccer explains our lives, here's my very long story about my youth soccer playing days in Minnesota, stints in Europe, and eventual connection with the Portland Timbers. It's the story of a lifelong search for a soccer team to support, and all the stumbling blocks along the way.
I grew up playing soccer in Minnesota from age 7, one year after the NASL's last season. I was part of an in-between generation who had no role models to inspire us and thus played soccer without really knowing what it was. I remember putting on shin guards, running around, sucking on quartered oranges, running some more, and being rewarded for my team’s inevitable defeat with a 12 oz can of Grape Crush. (Grape Crush: for when Orange Crush just isn't purple enough.)
By middle school my shy demeanor, slight stature and lack of athleticism somehow awarded me a starting position as a left back. The scrawny kid cowering on the left flank, my game consisted of a few basic tactics:
a. reading the attacker and putting timely challenges and tackles on the ball
b. lobbing Monty Python-inspired taunts at opposing strikers
c. drawing hard challenges from opposing strikers (mostly resulting from my taunts)
With my limited athleticism and no local team to support, soccer ceased to be a part of my life at age 15. It took me years to recognize how much I missed the beautiful game.
Austria, Part 1
The next time soccer and I got together was in college. I spent the fall 1997 semester in Graz, Austria, the hometown of future Flounder goalkeeper Michael Gspurning. On two occasions during the short time I lived there, I sat in crappy, obscured-view seats at the south end of Arnold-Schwarzenegger-Stadion, singing "Steht auf! für den SK Sturm!" (to the tune of the Pet Shop Boys' "Go West") with 15,000 other SK Sturm Graz fans:
- a 1-0 victory over AEK Athens in the second leg of the second round of the UEFA Cup-Winners Cup. Sturm Graz lost 2-1 on aggregate. I had to learn about aggregates before I understood why everyone was screaming "Schiess!" ("Shoot!") during the last twenty minutes and cursing after the game ended. I'm sure there were more than a few Sounders fans this year who were similarly confused.
- a 2-0 victory over SV Ried that featured two goals by Hannes Reinmayr.
That year Sturm Graz went on to win their first Bundesliga title, with an impressive 81 points in 36 matches – 19 points more than second place finisher SK Rapid Wien. They lost just three matches and finished with a goal differential of +52. Three out of the league's top five scorers formed Sturm Graz’s "Magische Dreieck" (magic triangle) of Hannes Reinmayr, Ivica Vastić, and the hometown hero, Mario Haas.
It would have been fun to be a part of that. Alas, I returned to the States in December, leaving Sturm Graz behind. I tried to keep up with the team via FIFA 98, but the folks at Electronic Arts never had much respect for Mario Haas.
Footnote: The Governator revoked the City of Graz's right to use his name in December 2005; shortly thereafter Arnold-Schwarzenegger-Stadion was renamed UPC-Arena. Then a Hooters opened nextdoor. My memory is ruined.
Austria, Part 2
After college I returned to Austria, where I had a job teaching English and business to high school students for a school year. It was a fun time. When I wasn't (mis)educating the impressionable youth of Austria, I educated myself about
- Austrian coffee and beer
- Skiing, which would have been prohibitively expensive if not for the phenomenal exchange rate at the time
- The few television shows for which the secondary language setting on the TV could be set to English (Murder, She Wrote and Diagnosis: Murder totally hold up)
- Takeshi's Castle (made even funnier with a German commentary track that seemed to miss the point)
The town I lived in, Bregenz, had a top flight soccer team, Schwarz-Weiss Bregenz, which played its games at a stadium about 500 meters from my apartment. But in spite of the stadium's proximity, I only attended one match. The quality of play was pretty low, and, well, a soccer match in Bregenz is basically a massive open air bar fight. While the Austrian Bundesliga is popular in bigger cities like Graz and Vienna, most Bregenzers who aren't interested in bloodying each other don't follow soccer.
Most of the people I regularly spent time with in Bregenz hailed from the British Isles, so my soccer education came from them. We talked a lot about soccer. Well, they talked a lot about soccer, and I occasionally chimed in with either, "Hmm, that's a funny/interesting football anecdote! Here's a funny/interesting baseball anecdote," or, more commonly, "Yeah ... American soccer sucks." Fortunately, we were able to connect on other levels. Like beer.
Funny/interesting football anecdote: one of these British friends, Peter May, captained one of the intramural teams at the University of St Andrews. Pete confided in me the two recruitment tactics that would guarantee his team's success: 1. recruit an American goalkeeper from the international dorm, and 2. recruit a Prince William look-alike to deter opponents from physical play. Pete later became a sports writer, and his first book, The Rebel Tours is an excellent read if you're at all interested in cricket and/or South African history.
Footnote: Schwarz-Weiss Bregenz folded in 2005 due to financial problems and was replaced with a 3rd division team, SC Bregenz.
Portland Timbers, for you I sing
That brings us to the summer of 2002, which is really what this story is all about. That was a rough summer. A year removed from all the fun I had in Austria, the life I knew in Portland was an utter nightmare. I won't get into all the details, but they involve the usual suspects -- an unfaithful girlfriend, an abusive employer, an unstable housing situation, and about $2.16 to my name.
I was fumbling around Portland, exposing myself to the counterculture, eating cheap lunches among the fledgling food cart scene, involving myself in various protest movements, getting pepper sprayed downtown when Bush visited, etc. Amidst all that fumbling that summer, I stumbled upon my first Timbers match.
Now, given the picture of American soccer I had drawn in my mind during my year abroad, I wasn't expecting much. I assumed I'd be emailing Pete about the joke the local team's attempt at "world class soccer" had been. Instead, my email to him described a 2-0 Timbers victory over the Cincinnati River Hawks, thanks to two first half goals by star striker McKinley Tennyson -- and I quote:
7,612 fans showed up for the match between the Portland Timbers and the Cincinnati River Hawks, and setting aside the visiting team's name being laughable, the quality of play was actually relatively high. A good 1000 people were waving flags, wearing Timbers kits and face paint, beating on drums, etc. And their mascot is a lumberjack who walks around with a chainsaw, yelling and stuff. It was a riot.
My guess is that Pete, reading that description from across the pond, was not as convinced as I was that soccer in Portland was real. I was convinced. I bought a scarf. I learned the songs. I brought along every friend I could persuade to join me. By 2004 I was attending nearly every home match and sitting among the steadily growing crowd in Section 107.
At the end of the 2007 campaign, I was inconsolable after our loss to the Atlanta Silverbacks, which denied us the opportunity to play our hated rivals the Seattle Sounders for the USL title. The Timbers finished the match with 22 shots, 8 of them on target, to Atlanta's 10, and 3. If ever there was a game we deserved to win, it was that one. Sadly, the 0-0 draw was settled from the spot, and Atlanta won 3-1 on PKs.
The image of Josh Wicks, the most dominant keeper in Timbers history, sitting alone on the bench after the game, will forever burn in my memory.
That heartbreak, as difficult as it was at the time, was the catharsis that galvanized my fanaticism for the Timbers, filling the soccerless void I'd been living with for so many years. Life is better now -- I'm in a decent job, a loving relationship, and a kickass apartment. And I get to write for Stumptown Footy. As a Timbers fan I'm happier than I've ever been.