If you happened to tune into a Timbers 2 home game on ESPN Plus near the end of May and knew no better, it would have been easy to assume that nobody was in attendance. Sure, the east side was closed due to the final touches being put onto the Timbers shiny new $80 million stadium expansion, but that didn’t seem to prevent Providence Park from feeling--and looking-- quite cavernous.
Playing in an MLS venue will inevitably dwarf any crowd while making attendance seem lower than it is, but that still doesn’t hide the fact that T2 averages just 2,193 fans a game in a venue that can now hold 25,218 of them.
With the Timbers USL affiliate in the bottom third of the league in every attendance category, it’s easy to invoke a much larger question: is it best for T2 to continue playing at Providence Park, or would it be better to make Merlo Field the team’s full-time home?
The case for Merlo Field
Both stadiums have unique traits to offer and come with separate sets of pros and cons. What can be said for both is that neither lacks history. Providence Park one-ups Merlo in age as it was built in 1926 and has held an iteration of the Portland Timbers every year since 1975.
While it might not have as rich of a history, Merlo still offers plenty of strengths. There’s just a different feeling when any game is played on the bluff, a place that many of the game’s greatest North American players have called home at the beginning of their professional careers. Shannon MacMillan, Kasey Keller, Christine Sinclair, Megan Rapinoe, and Luis Robles are just a few of the players who have graced the field as a member of the Portland Pilots over the years. Merlo Field is woven into the fabric of Portland soccer, and it’s always great to see a few games there every season.
As far as the field itself, it is natural grass, which is a major plus because players have made it clear that they enjoy playing on grass much more than on turf. Merlo Field also seats 4,892 fans which would make any game seem a lot more full while also coming off as more of a secluded and “homey” atmosphere.
While Merlo has a lot going for it, it’s major flaw comes from its location. The University of Portland is isolated just north of Portland and is twenty minutes from Providence Park by car. If you want to take public transportation, it’s an even longer trek. If you live on the westside closer to Beaverton, Tigard, and Hillsboro, getting to Providence Park at five in the afternoon is tough enough. Having to face another seven miles driving through Portland after that can be brutal. Merlo Field has a lot of physical benefits and is steeped in its own soccer history, but the isolated location can drive away fans who just can’t make it out that far. Despite its location flaw, there is still something about the stadium that makes it special.
The case for Providence Park
Home sweet home. Providence Park is the venue of choice for T2 and for good reason. Having T2 games there allows fans who might never get the opportunity to step into the stadium the chance to check the facility out while seeing players who could one day be a part of the first team. Providence Park is one of the most unique venues in North America for any sport, and hosting USL games there allows for more opportunities for it to be showcased.
As mentioned earlier, Providence Park has a great history, especially when it comes to soccer. Soccer legend Pele played his final game in Portland while club legends Christine Sinclair and Diego Valeri call the building their home. The other major factor is exactly what Merlo has working against it: location. Providence Park is located in the heart of downtown and borders a MAX line. It’s just a 15-minute ride to the Sunset Transit Center in the west and a fourteen-minute ride to the waterfront. It’s a location that puts the rest of MLS to shame, especially clubs such as New England or Chicago.
But while the location is almost perfect, the stadium is just too big to host USL games. Most fans are on the west side of the stadium, which is the side television cameras are on. Fans are very spread out as well, which brings quite a strange atmosphere. The biggest complaint among players though might just be the turf which can get extremely hot during games. While playing in the main stadium is a cool aspect for many fans, it can be argued that it is simply too big to provide any type of atmosphere week in and week out.
Overall, both stadiums do a good job of playing off the other’s weakness’. Merlo has the grass and a smaller stadium, but the location is a major issue. Providence Park’s biggest asset is its location, but it can seem too cavernous at times.
Realistically, T2 will not play their home games away from Providence Park, and that’s not the worst thing in the world. At the end of the day, it’s just great to have another level of soccer to watch in the Rose City.