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Timber Ho!: Bend is starting to love the Portland Timbers and you should, too 

The Portland Timbers appear to have more support than one might think given the increase in soccer fans right here in Central Oregon.

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In case you weren't paying attention, both of the United States national team's first-half goals against Mexico in the Concacaf Gold Cup final soccer match were announced by loud cheering, bar banging and bell ringing at Sidelines Sports Bar and Grill on Saturday night.

This was appreciated, given that I missed both scores even though I was at the downtown bar on Saturday for the specific purpose of watching soccer. Luckily, the excited patrons and the slow motion replays on the eight TVs (all that I could see from my seat - I'm sure there were more) clued me in after goals from Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan gave the U.S. an early lead. I'm no Frank Deford, but it seems like catching a goal in a 90-minute game where scores can be few and far between would be a pretty easy task, even for a fan like myself.

But I have an excuse. On at least four of the TVs was the Portland Timbers game - the match I had come to watch. In the end, FC Dallas, the third-best team in Major League Soccer's Western Conference, embarrassed the Timbers, winning 4-0 in Dallas (Portland is currently in seventh place out of the nine teams in the Western Conference with a 5-7-3 record).

Though most of the Sidelines crowd was there to watch the U.S. blow a 2-0 lead and eventually fall 4-2, it was pretty awesome to be surrounded by soccer and soccer fans.

And there are more soccer fans around than you might think. Which makes sense, come to think of it, given the following four observations of success: 1) our local high school programs (this past fall the Summit girls won the Class 5A state title); 2) Oregon Rush (which, aside from providing a strong presence in youth development, was recently awarded a Women's Premier Soccer League franchise); 3) the 2010 FIFA World Cup (everyone in Bend and beyond posed as longtime "futbol" fans and could be found piling into Sidelines at all hours to catch games; and 4) the Portland Timbers (read on).

"It's like being in a European soccer town at night," said Oregon Rush Executive Director John O'Sullivan, a local supporter who has been on hand for a number of Timbers home games over in Portland. "There's singing and dancing in the streets - it's one of the coolest things I've ever been a part of."

Sullivan attended the Timbers' home opener against Chicago in April, which was predictably cold and wet. But when the capacity crowd rallied to sing an a cappella version of the National Anthem, it quickly warmed the Bend fan (check the video at Portland went on to win the game 4-2.

The Timbers, one of two new MLS expansion teams this season (the other is the Vancouver Whitecaps FC, one of Portland's rivals), have quickly become a big damn deal and not only in Portland, but across Oregon and the rest of the Pacific Northwest.

Bend's Kyle Steinbaugh, an Oregon Rush junior development coach who lived and attended games in Naples, Italy, during the reign of Diego Maradona, one of the sport's most dazzling players, said Timbers games have at least as much energy as those Italian matches.

"It's just incredible. The fans start [revelling] before and don't end until well after the game," added Steinbaugh, who, this season has been on hand for all but two of the Timbers' home games.

The phenomenon has even gained national attention. The New York Times recently ran an article about the growing number of Timbers supporters - the Portland team has played in front of a capacity crowd of 18,627 in every home game thus far this season - and the electricity surrounding the team, prompting other MLS owners to scramble in an effort to replicate the same feel in their own soccer cities. And The Wall Street Journal acknowledged the scene with a piece on the ferocity surrounding the Sounders-Timbers rivalry with a tongue-in-cheek article in May ("The Great Hipster Soccer Showdown").

Though they have only lost two home games, the Timbers continue to struggle in their first year playing with the big boys and have lost four of their last five matches. They have not scored away from their newly renovated Jeld-Wen Field since a May 14 game in Seattle.

Portland supporters hardly seem to care. And if current trends continue, the Trailblazers may soon find themselves Portland's second-favorite team. We're only a half step behind here. Since Portland loves all things Euro and Bend loves all things Portland, it's only a matter of time until Bend is buzzing with Timbers talk.

"The wings are awesome here, but soccer is cool, too," offered the friendly casual fan to my left on Saturday at Sidelines. So maybe it's only a matter of time...


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