What is it like when your team wins the championship? Beyond description, really — but that didn’t deter me from writing this here diary of the experience of watching my Portland Timbers win the 2015 MLS Cup in Columbus, Ohio.
5 p.m. I finish a 12-hour shift driving a taxi, hand off the car to the night driver, and tell him, “Your first job is to take me to the airport – I’m going to Columbus for the Cup!” I jump in the back, pull my scarf and hat out of my backpack, and at the terminal, I hand him two crumpled 20s that I probably got from a pimp or a john. I stride in – and immediately trade a thumbs-up with somebody else in green.
5:15 p.m. There is a lot of green at this gate! People are smiling high-fiving, and posing for pictures. I’d say there’s two dozen or more on this flight to LAX.
5:25 p.m. I board early, sit on the aisle, and count Timbers fans walking by. I give up around 30. One of them gives me a fist-bump and says, “Do you think they allow singing on here?” “Let’s find out,” I say.
9 p.m. At LAX for the red-eye, there’s even more green at the gate. The Portland flight gate and flight crew seemed to understand what was happening; they’ve seen the Army before. These folks in LA have no idea what’s going on.
5 a.m. The Columbus Airport is closed. The few dozen of us green-clad Army folk stumbling through the halls feel half like zombies and half like paratroopers just before the invasion. But our Facebook feeds show pictures from last night of Columbus pubs filled with the Army; our people are already here.
8 a.m. After a nap at the hotel, I go to a local coffee shop, where the first two people I see are a mixed-color couple from Portland; she’s all Crewed out, he’s all Timbers. They used to live here, been married a while, but won’t even sit together at the game. We’re all thrilled to be here. My coffee takes about seven minutes to arrive, and I feel right at home.
9 a.m. Detour to a previous life: I used to be the Portland Breakfast Guy, and along the way I met the Columbus Breakfast Guy. So we meet – for breakfast, of course. Place called Katalina’s. I ask what I should have, he says they’re known for these pancake balls, and I say stop right there, sir. I’m good.
Woman at the register gives me shit about being Timbers, then asks what filling I’d like in my pancake balls. As soon as the word Nutella is out of her mouth, I say stop right there, Ma’am. I’m good. So was the breakfast. Nick goes off to lead a brunch tour, and I head for a pub recommended by the Army. Liverpool is kicking off soon.
11 a.m. Sitting at Zauber Brewing, watching Liverpool-Newcastle, I count scarves: one Newcastle, two Liverpool, three Crew, 10 Timbers. #OccupyColumbus
12:30 p.m. In the sea of black and gold that is the parking lot outside the stadium, there’s a bay of green on the east side: Looks like 1,000 or more Army already there, taking in the catered barbecue and Oregon brews. I plunge in.
1:15 p.m. I take a walking tour of the lot, looking for another mixed-color Portland couple I know. I find them, they offer brews and brats, and we exchange compliments for each others’ teams. Crew fans get to tailgate, though – lucky bastards! Then again, our stadium is walking and train distance to everything, and surrounded by bars. It’s close, but … we win.
1:16 p.m. A father and son walk up, kid wearing scarves from both teams. I ask what’s with that, and the dad says they just went over to check out the Army tailgate. Then the kid says, “They told me they have bigger dicks than us.”
I mean …
I’m still staring at this nine-year-old, my brain blank, when I realize he and his dad are laughing about it! Dad says, “We were gonna drop our pants and prove ’em wrong, weren’t we, son? But it’s cold out here, isn’t it?”
Well, okay, kid. Welcome to the world of being a soccer fan.
2:00 p.m. Back at the Timbers tailgate, the crowd is swelling, the beer pong is happening, and much fun is occurring.
And when the Army Drum appears on the councourse, headed into the stadium we erupt In the PTFC chant. I keep looking at my ticket, then at the stadium, then at the people around me. This shit is getting real!
2:30 p.m. We’re going in!
The Army moves towards the stadium, only 90 minutes before the game. Some scenes from along the way:
That song kind of died out there, but here are the words:
We’ll be comin’,
We’ll be comin’
We’ll be comin’ down the road.
When you hear the noise
Of the Timbers Army boys,
We’ll be comin’ down the road!
And here’s what it was like to be in that scene on the ramp:
2:45 p.m. I bump into a Portland friend and her English boyfriend. We decide to stand together and find seats up against a rail in the next-to-last row. The Army has filled the whole south end of the stadium and spilled out into the side stands. We sing “Portland here, Portland there, Portland every fucking where.” He and I spend the time talking about soccer in England, especially Brentford, which is in his neighborhood and is my destination for Boxing Day.
2:50 p.m. On the big screen, they show MLS playoff highlights, and whenever the Sounders show up, we chant “Fuck Seattle!” I keep thinking they’ve never seen anything like us in Columbus.
2:55 p.m. Still nearly alone in the stadium, other than a little black-and-gold puddle forming in the far corner, we sing “Our house … in the middle of C-Bus!”
2:56 p.m. These lame-os try to taunt us with their supposedly “researched” signs.
Naturally, we give them the wanker sign and sing that we have bigger dicks than them.
3:15 p.m. To my left I see three ladies returning to the seats, each holding two beers. To my right a group of men start singing, “Here come the women with the beer.”
3:45 p.m. I suppose the Crew people are singing, but we drown them out with
Over there, it’s so quiet.
Over here, it’s a riot!
Walkin’ along, singin’ our song,
Walkin’ in a Timbers wonderland.
4 p.m. There’s a big MLS Cup inflatable thing on the field. The teams come out. One of them is the Timbers. I have to stop and check on this occasionaly. It’s like being in a dream.
4:01 p.m. The Crew ultras roll out what I guess they call a tifo. It’s kind of a skyline, I suppose. We mock it mercilessly.
4:15 p.m. It starts.
1st minute. I’m still futzing with my phone or spot or something, when at the far end of the stadium something weird happens with their keeper, then I see Valeri running off with his arms in the air, and everybody around me goes apeshit. Did we score?? Yes, we did! I’m so surprised I don’t even feel like I’m celebrating properly. I’m too amazed. Now it’s really like a dream, but then the thought … did we score too early?
6th minute. My spot looks right down a touchline, the Timbers have the ball, and a pass goes out of bounds. Damn. Then something weird happens again; Nagbe takes it and wheels away, passes it down the right side to Melano. Wait, that ball was out! Crew fans go crazy, but Melano crosses it, a flash of green comes in, and the net ripples! Holy shit! We scored again! Everybody in the south end leaps at the same time, and chaos reigns. We’re going crazy, the Timbers are celebrating right in front of their ultras, the ultras start throwing shit at the Timbers, and all I can do is jump and shout and wave my arms and feel completely astonished and happy. We’re all looking at each other in the south end with 30% I can’t believe it and 70% oh hell yes. Strangers are hugging each other and my voice is already going.
18th minute. A ball skies in front of the goal, right below us, Kawarasey somehow muffs it, there’s a scramble, and Kamara drills it home. They go crazy, we lift our scarves in defiance, and it occurs to me that this game might end up 6-5 … either way.
The rest of the first half: At some point, when you’re actually there, games become a blur. I remember being terrified every time Columbus broke or got a free kick. I remember thinking that Kamara is simply amazing in person. I remember that the Crew fans were getting pissed at the refs. I also remember one time where their guy just jumped on Villafana’s back and got no card. All I know is, we got to halftime at 2-1, and I felt relieved. It was like a two-leg playoff series where the first game was completely insane but we won. The second game … no idea whatsoever what’s gonna happen.
46th minute. As expected, the Crew come out on fire, pressing everywhere and making things highly nervous. Again, it’s hard to remember specifics. It’s an absolute rollercoaster of emotions. One minute you’re clutching either other in terror, the next you’re standing on your seat screaming Come on as the Timbers break towards you.
Eventually, though, three patterns emerge from the madness:
- Diego Chara is a beast. I can’t remember how many times he seemingly stopped like three guys on a break, or totally destroyed a series of passes, or went into a crowd and came out with the ball. I love that little Columbian pain in the ass!
- Used to be I didn’t know what Fanendo Adi did, exactly – other than be large in front of goal. But as I learn more about the game, specifically the phrase “hold-up play,” I get it. And when you see it in person, it’s so simple: we knock it down the field and Adi collects it, holds onto it for a second while the rest of the guys catch up, then passes it to a teammate. Thus we move forward.
- If there’s a better pair in MLS than Borchers and Ridgewell, somebody please point them out. Every cross that went into our area just bounced right out, usually off one of their heads or feet. And speaking of which ….
I had to stop and think about it, but somewhere around the 70th minute, it occurred to me: Columbus isn’t doing shit. They had one cross that a guy just missed, but otherwise, we’re running this thing. That’s when two things happened in very quick succession: It occurred to me that we’re probably about to win the league … and I got super freaking nervous.
??? Minute: Cross comes in, scramble, it’s going in, it’s off the bar! And then their guy’s hand! Ref doesn’t see it, they clear it, we’re all amazed at what’s happening.
??? Minute: Timbers cross comes in, Adi heads it, keeper flailing … and it hits the post! And then the keeper! And then goes just wide. What the hell just happened?
??? Minute: Another cross, Borchers all alone at the back post, right in front of me … this is it! And wait, what? That didn’t go in, either? What the hell is happening?
??? Minute: An evil thought gets into my head: Games like this, you wind up wishing you had cashed in just one of those almosts. At this point, I’m getting too nervous to sing, and I can’t stop looking at the clock. When it got into the upper 70s, my brain started to seize.
90th minute: Four minutes of injury time? Good god, I might not make it. I’m reduced to rocking back and forth, sometimes screaming, sometimes mute, sometimes just saying Oh my god oh my god oh my god. Every time we clear it’s the relief of a lifetime. Every time they come forward it’s the end of the world.
90something minute: After some action, I ask the guy in front of me, who keeps looking at his watch, and I say, “That was at least a minute, right?” He smiles and says “Almost.” Oh my god oh my god oh my god.
93rd minute: Another attack of theirs falls apart, the ball rolls over the line, and the people around me start losing it. That wasn’t four minutes, was it? Is this it? Are we about to … Kawarsey sends it upfield, and I see the ref, standing exactly in the center of the pitch, put both his arms into the air.
YES YES YES YES YES YES!!!!!
Ecstasy, relief, joy, thrill, release, pure energy. Jumping. Waving. Hugging. Scarf around and around in the air above your head. You hear yourself screaming Yes over and over. Everybody around you is doing the same thing – a complete surrender to the moment. On the field, you see players on their knees, players in a bouncing pile, photographers running onto the pitch, a stage being set up … and all of us in the south end are just jumping and screaming and hugging. On one level it’s surreal, like you keep thinking it couldn’t have really happened. On another you’re watching yourself celebrate. But mainly you’re just lost in it.
Here are the official highlights:
Slowly we come back into our bodies, and some kind of official postgame something starts happening on the field. But we’re like an ocean of emotion, riding waves of joy when they players lift the cup and the fireworks go off. Another when Jewsbury plants the cup on the end line and they all slide around it, right in front of us. More for individual players when they come over: Borchers, who went into the crowd; Jewsbury, who let his little girl wave a green and white flag; Adi, who draped a Nigerian flag over his shoulders and danced around. Kawarasey, who leapt onto the retaining wall in front of us; and Urruti, who first climbed up onto the crossbar, then actually danced to his own name-song. The whole team came over and did the Tetris dance with us.
And all of us, all of us up there in the south end bleachers, we were just dancing and jumping and taking pictures and pointing out crazy or sweet shit that players were doing down there. Porter came over, planted his feet on the endline, pointed both index fingers right at us, and pumped his arms. We sang his name loud and proud. Paulson came over and acted the fool, and we loved him for it.
7 p.m. At some point, you have to actually leave the stadium. I shared my last hugs with my friends, wished them safe travels, and joined the joyous throngs dancing down the exit ramps.
7:05 p.m. Out in the lot, most of us went to the tailgate scene, and we all kind of looked at each with a combination of “That just happened!” and “What do we do now?” Some word started to spread about the Three Mules downtown, but in that moment I knew I was done. I was as sports-happy as I may ever be in my lifetime – I’ve never seen my real team win it all, much less in person. But I also had seven hours of sleep in the previous two nights combined, hadn’t eaten in 11 hours except a bag of M&Ms, and my 49-year-old legs were not happy that I just made them stand on metal bleachers for four hours.
7:10 p.m. Just outside the gate, on a side road, somebody shouts “Congratulations” out of their car. I yell back “Thanks!” I know their pain and appreciate their good form.
7:11 p.m. I see probably 15 people standing in little pods, all around people with cell phones out, many of them looking around, the people on the phone trying to explain where they are. Welcome to the new world of Uber.
7:12 p.m. Just around the corner, at a main entrance to the stadium, I find the cab stand and get in one. No wait, no frantic phone call, no paying extra just because they’re busy, no problem. Welcome to my world of taxis. Chumps.
7:25 p.m. The gate attendant at the stadium congratulated me, the cabbie congratulated me, the staff at the hotel smiled when I came through the door, some Timbers fans in the lobby raised their arms triumphantly when we saw each other … I think this is what life is like you support the champions.
8:15 p.m. Dinner, check. Bath, check. Phone plugged in, check. Messages on Facebook? Okay, I knock out a few, but the rest can wait. The Timbers are champions, my friends are sending their wishes, but I’m going to bed.
8 a.m. The shuttle driver to the airport says congratulations again, and when I try to answer I realize my voice is shot. Also, when I discuss particular details, I start to choke up.
8:30 a.m. The gate for the flight to Denver is almost all green, all looking exhausted, many looking hungover. When we make eye contact, we just smile and nod. Feels good to win, don’t it? Now let’s get back to Portland.
8:35 a.m. Because I’m Facebook friends with a reporter at KXL, I had recorded an interview on Friday morning, during which she somehow got me to sing. Some kind of jedi mind shit she pulled on me. Now, at the gate in Columbus, I record the follow-up, and again I have a hard time discussing it without chocking up. A couple of times I had to just stop talking. Am I actually about to cry about this? And on the damned radio? It’s just a game.
But it isn’t. The interviewer asked how I was doing, and I said I was exhausted with a mix of happiness and disbelief. He said that describes the whole city of Portland right now, and I thought about all the people back home, who had been doing the same thing in bars and living rooms and theaters and streets that we were doing in the south end. How when that referee raised his arms and blew his whistle, we all shared a moment that we hardly thought would happen – and may never happen again. Maybe Columbus was the place to be, but all of Portland was dancing.
They say soccer is the most important unimportant thing in the world. And what we had just been a part of in Columbus really did seem important, something that we’ll always have. I can still barely write about it without the emotions coming up.
9 a.m. The guy next to me on the plane is a Crew fan, headed to work in Denver. He looks me over and offers one last congratulations from one last Ohioan. He talks about how shocked they were at the start of the game, and I recall that one group’s ecstasy is another group’s agony. I tell him they’ve got great fans and a great stadium, and I know the feeling of losing, and even as I say it I know it’s condescending and awful and he doesn’t want to hear it. So I just say, “You know what? We both made it here, we both had fun. So let’s do it again next year. In Portland.”
They have a celebration at Providence Park. I am back in town, back in my world, getting back into life’s daily ups and downs … but I have to go. I walk over — in the drizzle, of course. And it’s just a total lovefest. At various points I think they shouldn’t give beers and microphones to soccer players, but it all works. The emotional highlight has to be when Timber Jim, the original, fires up the chainsaw. Might have been a few damp eyes in the house when he put his hand to his ear, like the old days.
All I can do at the end is share this one, which kind of says it all. Thanks, boys! See you next year!