Despite finish, Timbers found success

PORTLAND — The Portland Timbers can take pride in rekindling Soccer City, USA.

Sure, the team and its supporters are disappointed they finished out of the Major League Soccer playoffs. But otherwise it was a resoundingly successful season for the expansion club, and the fans deserve a lot of the credit.

The Timbers Army immediately established itself as one of the league's most fervent supporters groups with a stirring rendition of the national anthem at the team's home opener before a nationwide television audience. It reinforced that impression with non-stop songs and chants, inspired "tifo" fan displays and strong representation at away games.

"They're our heart and soul," Timbers owner Merritt Paulson said about the fans. "You know the credit card commercial where they say 'Priceless?' They're priceless."

Paulson was smart in reaching out to the Timbers Army, which had long been loyal to the team. He also embraced the history of the club, which dates back to the old North American Soccer League. The success of the NASL Timbers in their inaugural season in 1975 earned Portland its Soccer City, USA, nickname.

And it was in the NASL that the Timbers' three-way rivalry with the Seattle Sounders and the Vancouver Whitecaps was born. In later years, fans created the Cascadia Cup which honors the team with the best record in head-to-head matches between the trio based on a points system. Major League Soccer promoted the rivalry when it awarded Portland and Vancouver expansion teams for this season.

Add to all of that an edgy advertising campaign that included real fans wielding logging implements, and the Timbers were the hottest ticket in town. Portland sold out all of its 17 home matches at Jeld-Wen Field.

The team recently announced that there was a 97 percent renewal rate for season ticket holders, and that the waiting list for 2012 season tickets had surpassed 5,000 fans. Eighty percent of the seats at Jeld-Wen will remain at the same price next season, and Paulson said there were plans to open some sections of the stadium that had been covered to ensure an intimate fan experience.

On the pitch, Portland was competitive under coach John Spencer, finishing 11-14-9.

Portland's 11 victories tied the team with the 2006 Houston Dynamo for fourth on the list of wins for an expansion team. The Timbers went 9-5-3 at Jeld-Wen and 7-6-4 against Western Conference opponents.

Kenny Cooper topped the team with eight goals, and he was the only player to appear in all 34 matches. Captain and midfielder Jack Jewsbury led the team with eight assists. Goalkeeper Troy Perkins made 28 consecutive starts.

"The reality of it is that you are an expansion team and, for pretty much every guy in this locker room, it's their first year to play together," Jewsbury said. "Getting quality games, getting games where there's a lot of pressure on you, I think is key in terms of building to the future. That's hard to say because this year we had the goal of making the playoffs and we fell just a bit short, but I think that we're proud of where we've come."

At a banquet on Sunday night, the team announced its annual awards and held an auction to benefit the team's Stand Together campaign to benefit children and families in the Portland area.

Kenny Cooper won the Golden Boot as top scorer, Jewsbury was selected as Player's Player of the Year, and Perkins was named the Supporters' Player of the Year.

Afterward, Paulson said that the team's success was all he could have hoped for as an owner.

"We're obviously making a lot of decisions that are long-term oriented. We didn't open every seat in the house when we obviously could have. We priced conservatively. If our goal was to just maximize the pure business aspect of it, we could have done a lot better than we did," he said. "But I think we've done things that will benefit us for a long time."

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