PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Legend has it that Portland laid claim to the title “Soccer City USA” back in 1975 when the Timbers played their first NASL season. The nickname was later captured on an expansive banner displayed during a visit by Pele.
Nearly 40 years later, the city is primed to solidify the moniker it hosts Major League Soccer’s All-Star game. The match Wednesday night will pit MLS players from across the league against Bundesliga power Bayern Munich.
Portland’s affection for the Beautiful Game has grown in the last four decades - pushed also by the success of the University of Portland’s soccer program - but it has exploded since the Timbers made the jump to MLS in 2011.
“All I know is that once the flame started, it kept building and building,” Timbers owner Merritt Paulson said, joking that he has given up trying to explain the phenomenon. “It’s something unique in and of itself, and bar none one of the best professional sports atmospheres, I believe, in North America. And the most authentic.”
In awarding Portland and Vancouver franchises, MLS wisely capitalized on the ready-made three-way Cascadia Cup rivalry with the Seattle Sounders that stemmed from the North American Soccer League days. Early supporters passed their love of the teams to the next generation, creating a burgeoning fan base.
But the league never could have anticipated the surge that resulted in the game’s popularity in the Pacific Northwest, with young urbanites jumping aboard and lending a kind of hipster-cool vibe to being a supporter.
The Timbers also tapped into the city’s fierce civic pride, a hallmark of the Portland Trail Blazers’ fan base since the team won the NBA championship in 1977.
The result? The Timbers have 10,000 fans on the waiting list to buy season tickets. Portland has sold out 62 regular-season matches - all of its home games since joining MLS.
“Honestly, the people here love to come out at support their town and their team,” said John Nyen, a Timbers supporter and a freelance writer who has covered the team. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that people would embrace the Timbers like they have.”
So even though Providence Park is more intimate with room for just about 20,000 fans, the decision to bring the All-Star game to soccer-crazy Portland was understandable. The match has long been a sellout and secondary market tickets were going for as much as $1,500.
Even the free tickets for Monday night’s homegrown game have all been claimed.
“One of the great stories in Major League Soccer over the last number of years has been the enormous fan passion, civic support and stadium atmosphere in Portland,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said earlier this year. “We look forward to showcasing this phenomenon to the rest of the world.”
There’s good reason for MLS to promote the success that Portland has had.
Major League Soccer is in the midst of its 19th season. While the league has shown steady growth - it is preparing to expand to 24 teams in the coming years - it remains somewhat of a feeder league with young American prodigies still leaving for the fame and lucrative contracts offered in Europe.
But there are signs of a shift, including the return of such stars as Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, new television contracts and the interest generated by the success of the men’s national team at the World Cup this summer.