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Timbers Army- A Story of Perseverance, Passion, and Protest

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Follow along as Grant Little takes us on a brief history of one of MLS’s most active and impactful supporters’ groups.

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Portland Timbers Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

“Even now Timbers Army embraces all comers and requires no membership, dues, or loyalty oaths. Simply show up, stand up, and sing your heart out” – Timbers Army Website

Portland, Oregon is known as Soccer City, U.S.A. because of the city’s love for the sport. Surprising then that it was not until 2011 that the Portland Timbers played their first match in Major League Soccer.

Despite the late entrance into MLS, Portland has always been a fanatical soccer city. The sport was brought to the Rose City by English sailors in the early 20th Century. Soon after the arrival of soccer, the Oregon Soccer Football Association was established.

The Portland Timbers began playing in 1975 as a National American Soccer League expansion club. The organization ran a contest to name the club that received more than 3,000 entries, but ‘Timbers’ won out. The intention of Portland’s supporters picking the name for the club which was an indication that the Timbers were a club for the fans, by the fans.

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at Portland Timbers
The Timbers Army Section behind the North goal is perhaps the most passionate section of any MLS stadium.
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

From the start, the Timbers had some of the best home support in the NASL. After a successful opening season which saw them lose in the final of Soccer Bowl ’75, the Timbers missed the playoffs in both 1976 and 1977. The players’ salaries eventually outgrew the club, and the franchise folded in 1982. This did not stop many of the former players from staying in Portland to continue to help establish the culture of soccer. The club may have folded, but Portland got a taste of soccer, and the fans proved loyal.

There was reason to sing once again as F.C. Portland was founded as a charter club in the Western Soccer Alliance League in 1985. But Portland faced more disappointment when this club too folded in 1990. American soccer still had a long way to go it seemed and there was no soccer club in Soccer City, U.S.A., again until 2001, when the USL Timbers were founded.

The Cascade Rangers supporters’ club was founded by Steven and Jim Lenhart upon the announcement that soccer would return to Portland in 2001. The Cascade Rangers had no membership scheme at the beginning. It was a group of soccer fans who met at Bitter End Pub to sing and chant (and drink) in support of their team.

The Cascade Rangers name was abandoned quickly because it implied partiality to the Scottish club Rangers. In reality, it was a reference to the Cascade mountain range, but the Celtic supporters in the group would have none of it.

From opening day on May 11, 2001, the Cascade Rangers were singing adapted chants from all over the globe as well as inventing their own. People took notice of the group and the following grew larger and larger.

Between the 2001 and 2002 seasons, members of the Cascade Rangers and other supporters who stood in section 107 joined forces to create the Timbers Army. Section 107 became known to supporters as the Woodshed and in 2002 it became general admission to create a more terrace-like atmosphere that can be seen in Europe or South America.

Because the soccer bug had not taken full effect in America, soccer specific stadiums were few and far between. As a result, it was common to play soccer matches at football or baseball stadiums. The Timbers’ fans did not let this slow them down. In fact, they used it to their advantage. Timbers Army began creating banners and waving flags which they would hang from the baseball dugout at the front of the section. They used empty pickle buckets as drums and would beat them on top of the dugout as they danced after victories chanting, “We are Timbers Army; We are mental and we’re barmy; True supporters ever more.”

The Timbers army were indeed a bit mental and barmy. One Timbers supporter, Jim Serrill, asked the club’s management if he could bring a chainsaw to the matches. After initially being turned down, Serrill explained that he could take the chain off the chainsaw making it far less dangerous. He eventually convinced the management to let him do that and much more. Serrill worked in the lumber industry and had an interesting set of skills.

In the Timbers’ lower league days Timber Jim would climb a spar pole (a large wooden pole) and lead chants with his chainsaw, drum, and flags. He would stay on the spar pole until the Timbers scored and would lead the team in their iconic celebration that is still used today. Timber Jim would then slide down the pole and run over to the larger log in front of Timbers Army and saw off a slab of wood for each goal the Timbers scored.

MLS: New England Revolution at Portland Timbers
Timber Joey in action.
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

As the Timbers Army became more diverse, they adapted more chants and made them their own as expat Serbians, Croatians, Brits, and Latinos joined the section. The supporters group saw a large increase in fans when Inara Vermenieks wrote a piece on the Timbers Army which was featured on the cover of The Oregonian’s living section. They were highlighted again in the Willamette Week Corner in 2005. The article with the biggest impact was Grant Wahl’s article documenting the rivalry between Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers in Sports Illustrated giving the Timbers Army national coverage.

The Timbers played in the USL until 2010. On March 20, 2009, MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced that the Portland Timbers would be the 18th franchise in MLS and would join the league in 2011. This was in great part due to the MLS to PDX campaign organized by Timbers Army. The campaign turned the Army into a political organization tasked with convincing the Portland City Council to help fund a stadium renovation so Portland could be an MLS franchise. Timbers Army organized marches on city hall and called people to testify at hearings which resulted in the request’s approval by the city council.

The Timbers Army originally had ‘an army with no generals’ mentality, but this had to change with the new demands of being in MLS. They held a series of meetings at the Lucky Lab Brewpub to strategize Timbers Army 2.0. It was designed to help the club make a successful transition to MLS and was named 107 Independent Supporters Trust (107IST). The 107IST is still in effect today and is tasked with tifo creation, travel arrangement for away days, and community action for the Portland Timbers and the Portland Thorns.

MLS: Western Conference Semifinal-Houston Dynamo at Portland Timbers
Some of the finest tifos in MLS history have been on show at Providence Park.
Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Timbers Army is renowned for the atmosphere that they create on match days, but they have an even bigger impact on Portland than it does on Timbers matches. The 107IST has donated more than $500,000 to charitable causes since 2011. According to Jamie Goldberg of The Oregonian, these donations include youth soccer scholarships, providing equipment to high school teams, constructing pitches, and renovating rooms at the Oregon Department of Human services, to name a few. The members of Timbers Army have also spent countless hours participating in community service projects.

The 107IST has also set up multiple non-profit organizations. Operation Pitch Invasion (OPI) is one of the non-profit organizations they’ve developed that builds, maintains, and restores local pitches.

Timbers Army is not an organization that focuses solely on soccer. Their community engagement is one example of that, and another example was the Iron Front controversy in the 2019 season.

The Iron Front was an anti-fascist group in Nazi era Germany. The Timbers Army began flying the Iron Front flag due to a notable uptick in hate in the city, according to Eli Rosenberg of the Washington Post. Fans were passionate about flying the flag at every match but were notified by MLS that they no longer could. MLS adopted a new policy that the league would not allow political signage. In response, Timbers Army immediately released a statement voicing their disagreement with the policy.

The conflict between MLS and the Timbers Army, as well as other supporters’ groups, grew as the 2019 season progressed. Timbers Army and other supporters’ groups were unrelenting, and the Iron Front symbol could be seen in various supporters’ sections and fans united under the new hashtag #AUnitedFront.

Timbers Army and the Timbers Front Office had many discussions trying to reach a compromise. Not flying the flag was not an option for the Timbers Army. To protest MLS’s policy, they arranged a protest with their biggest rivals.

On August 23, 2019, Timbers Army and Seattle supporters’ groups held a stadium wide silent protest for 33 minutes, to commemorate the year the Iron Front was banned in Nazi Germany. After the 33 minutes were up the groups sang the anti-fascist Italian song “Bella Ciao,” in English.

Timbers Army and the Independent Supports Council were able to take their concerns about the MLS Fan Code of Conduct to MLS. This resulted in revised phrasing in the fan code of conduct which allows signs that are not overtly political or violent.

Timbers Army is one of the most well-known supporters’ sections in all of America and this should come as no surprise in Soccer City, U.S.A. They have created a unique and quirky atmosphere from the beginning and their fans have persevered despite their club’s past difficulties. The Portland Timbers are here to stay, and Timbers Army is too. They are passionate, they are community driven, and they will not be silenced.