We call it “the season” because the life of a fan is cyclical. Like the serfs of old, we may have some sense of the linear history of time, but for the most part, we see our world as a cycle, moving smoothly from season to season.
In this fan soccer almanac, there are just two seasons: The Season, and The Off-Season. And the most electric, religious moments—like the equinox of a farmer’s calendar—are the moments where the seasons change.
For us fans, The Off-Season is a time of faith, devotion, and imagination. Although a few preseason games are played, for the most part, you don’t see your real team. Players are coming in and going out; coaches may be replaced, or may be reworking tactics.
The mind races—maybe this new player will be the talisman who transforms everything, maybe this year the partnerships will gel and the tactics will perform. The phrase “So long as he doesn’t get injured” and “Due for a breakout season” are thrown around. Underneath it all is a little, quiet whispered hope: “Maybe this year is our year.”
But it’s all being played out on the field of the mind, with just faith and belief.
Until: Opening Day.
For Major League Soccer, Opening Day comes at the start of spring, and at Providence Park in Portland, the promised rain has failed to materialize.
21, 144 fans are gathered, including hundreds in Portland’s green and yellow at the North End, who are chanting “PT! FC! PT! FC!” in terrifying, joyful unison. Banners are held aloft—scarves that say “SOCCER CITY, USA”
The players from both teams file out, taking their place on the grass for the first time (in earnest) since the end of last Season.
“PT! FC! PT! FC! PT! FC!”
Two men with scraggly beards, Portland Timbers jerseys, and white hard-hats stand before the crowd. These are Timber Jim and Timber Joey, and they are living the dream of any fan—they are the physical embodiments of all of the love and devotion that the entire city of Portland have for their team. They are the people who stand in for the whole of the Timbers Army.
The announcer comes over the loudspeaker and introduces Timber Joey to the shouts and cheers of the vocal crowd, and he tugs at a pulley by his side. Up at the top of the North End, a banner is unveiled that says:
2015 MLS CUP CHAMPIONS
Cheering, screaming joyful madness from the Timbers Army. Their yellow and green shirts are carefully coordinated such that you can see the silhouette of the MLS Cup in green on a yellow background.
More pulleys are tugged, and more banners rise up from the crowd.
Dance. Kiss. Love.
You’ll always remember your first.
This is the moment that the Portland Timbers fans have been dreaming of since the moment they won their first MLS cup at the end of the 2015 season. The moment they announce themselves as champions.
A hush comes over the crowd, a silence as striking as the loud noise that preceded it. And then, with the count in from the Timbers Army capos, the crowd begins to sing in unison: the national anthem.
When I watched this opening ceremony, even I, no fan of Portland, felt an electric thrill. It was the dawn of a new day: the Timbers Army, one of the most dynamic and exciting fan groups (One of! One of! Save your angry emails!), was celebrating a team that was ready to rise to their vast expectations.
And yet the magic of opening day is that this is the last moment that the Portland Timbers are champions. Because once the echoes of that national anthem fade away and the ball is kicked off, we are no longer in The Off-Season and we are in The Season.
Three games in, Portland Timbers may be the 2015 Champions, but right now, they’re 1-1-2, 9th place in the Western Conference. And the memories of the worse stretches of 2015 will return. And the realities will return. The injuries, the national team call-ups of key players, and all the other teams’ whose Off-Season hopes will bump up against theirs.
Maybe the Timbers will return to being Champions, perhaps this year or perhaps in years future. But the Timbers will always have that moment, that turn from season-to-season, where all of the future and present potential felt real, felt palpable, and felt electric.