It had been 464 days since I last set foot in Providence Park. For the last year plus I, like all of us, had been reserved to watching the Portland Timbers from afar. On Sunday, I was able to see them right up close and personal with my own eyes again.
Well, I chose one hell of a game to make my return. Here’s what I saw and what I felt.
From the first moments of entering the stadium, I was immediately struck with two thoughts: “Holy cow, I kind of can’t believe we’re back here” and “Holy cow, I forgot how much I did not miss the long beer lines.” Even with limited capacity, the same semblances of normalcy within the stadium still remained: long(ish) waits to enter, many people standing in line for overpriced concession fare, and the low rumble from the Timbers Army chanting and clapping droning in the background.
What remained as well was the rush I felt when I stepped out onto the inner concourse. One of my absolute favorite things about a matchday is stepping out of the tunnel and seeing the entire field for the first time. Despite it not being close to its fully packed and electric glory, that first view of all of Providence Park still brought a smile to my face, and a rush of excitement to my body.
It really did feel like home.
Of course, it did not feel exactly the same. Spaced out seating, limited allowed attendance, and a lack of full percussion section in the Timbers Army did give me a bit of an “unfulfilled expectations” vibe (which turned out to be prophetic on a few levels). But it was still live soccer! For the first time in a long time! And it quite honestly could not have been a better occasion than to see the Timbers play the Seattle Sounders, so my excitement could not be quelled.
First though, a comment on the whole set up and safety protocols around PP.
Full disclosure: I received my second dose of vaccine on April 28. Based on the length of time since I’d had my shot and the associated science around antibody generation, how restricted my own personal bubble has been, and the evidence behind the likelihood of outdoor transmission, I made the personal judgment that I felt safe enough to attend the match.
There were ushers and stadium staff always ready to remind attendees to keep their masks on and keep their distance. I’d say I saw around 90% mask adherence around me (how do we still not know how to pull our masks over our noses people), and spacing was mostly respected. As directed, I kept my (very stylish, dinosaur-emblazoned) mask on the entire time except when eating or drinking at my seat.
The safety measures of enforced mask-wearing, spaced out and limited concession stations, the temporary removal of apparel and merchandise stations, and spaced seating were visible and enforced to the best of the stadium staff’s ability. While of course not being 100% safe, as are most things in life in the age of COVID, I think the entire experience was set up about as safely as it could be.
While I still had the flashes of anxiety that marked any time I ventured out into the public during the pandemic, I will admit that was soon as the ball was kicked I was enthralled with the play on the field.
Throughout the match, what I was struck by is how much everyone rose and fell with the team, and how the team responded in turn. The energy and attention from the fans formed a symbiotic-like relationship with how the players played on the field — and my gosh it was invigorating. When Seattle was dictating the play, a nervous jitteriness arose. When Portland started rising into the game and dictating play, spirits were lifted and encouragement became the prevailing feeling around me.
Despite it being spaced out, you still felt like a community pushing the team onwards. Whether it was the “synchronous and then very asynchronous” PT-FC chants that rang out as starting lineups were announced, or the dude behind me who yelled the insightful and simply brilliant “Nouhou- aww more like boo-hoo!”, the shared happiness of being able to collectively experience a soccer match with fans was not lost on me.
Nor was the burst of excitement and anxiety of witnessing a game-changing moment, like Diego Valeri’s penalties. When it was awarded, the stadium roared. Everyone around me rose to our feet, being sucked into the pivotal kick. We should have stayed seated and kept our hands and feet inside the car for what came next.
Nothing that day was like the roller coaster I felt watching Valeri miss a penalty, have it be retaken, have him miss it again, then think that he scored the rebound, but then see it get waved off. I experienced a dozen emotions in about three minutes. I felt exhausted, and there was still a half hour left.
Turns out, the Timbers were exhausted as well, as that moment just sucked the energy right out of them. After Raul Ruidiaz was awarded a penalty, and he converted it right in front of the North End, all of the last vestiges of energy were immediately sucked out of the stadium as well. We didn’t just see the gut punch of that sequence — we all felt it live.
Watching Jeff Attinella go down injured, and then seeing Seattle take a 2-0 lead, just seemed to pile on the misery. It’s like the stadium had immediately gone into a daze. And that also seemed to be directly felt by the players on the field as well. They just looked shell shocked and lifeless for the waning moments, a kind of reflection of the mood in the stands around them.
With the match winding down and stoppage time ticking away, I slumped down and resigned myself to accepting the Timbers being blanked at home.
And then Bill Tuiloma hit his thunderbolt.
It’s a darn shame that Tuiloma’s goal wound up being but a consolation goal in the end, because a rocket like that is exactly the type of goal you want to see when returning to the stadium for the first time. Everyone around me cheered like we’d won the dang thing. The smoke started billowing, Timber Joey’s chainsaw started revving, and everyone was alive again.
And all of a sudden, there was a fleeting emotion that took over the entire stadium seemingly all at once: hope.
For an incredulous ninety seconds after Tuiloma’s goal, there was a prevailing feeling around the entire stadium that Timbers might actually be able to get a result out of this crazy game. An energy started to permeate the stadium, and it seemed to give the team one last burst. When the next speculative cross was whipped in, I actually rose out of my seat just a bit in anticipation, as did my compatriots beside me. We had the audacity to dream, in spite of the reality that was the past ninety minutes.
But alas, we all know what happened. The last hopeful crosses were cleared, Seattle killed the clock, the final whistle blew, and everyone slumped back in our seats. The Timbers had lost 2-1 to Seattle. Whether it was because we were all deflated after a rollercoaster game, or was a product of the limited capacity, but the normal postgame boos directed towards the visiting team and/or officials after a home loss felt just a bit hollow.
As I trudged out of the stadium, commiserating with my party around how the game went wrong and what the Timbers needed to do to improve, I was struck with how lessened the blow felt. Yes, I was disappointed that the Timbers had lost, especially to those guys. But I was there, with a few thousand others, and I lived it. Disappointment was a strong emotion, but it seemed to take a backseat to the real, raw emotions I had felt being back in the stadium again.
The joy and sorrow of being able to experience live soccer was a new concept that I had admittedly forgotten. The rush of seeing the field, of being excited as kickoff was imminent, of being right on that edge of elation or disappointment ... those were all things that I had dearly missed.
The roller coaster and raw energy of a game with live fans is something that I will never take for granted, as it is how soccer is meant to be consumed, the good and the bad. So next time the Portland Timbers see all of us, we will be smiling — and doing all the other expressions associated with the emotions of watching them.