'75 saw birth of Soccer City USA in Portland
On an August morning in 1975, my mother dropped me off at Civic Stadium. Actually, she dropped me off in front of the Multnomah Athletic Club, because by the time we arrived the line of fans there to buy tickets for the Portland Timbers' North American Soccer League semifinal match was approaching four blocks long.
At some point as the line inched along Southwest 18th Avenue, the team that had captured the city's imagination in four short months came jogging by. Having completed practice, players wanted to express appreciation for the fan support.
"It was crazy," said Willie Anderson, a winger for the team that sparked Portland's claim as Soccer City USA. "The line was about six deep, and it was all the way around the stadium."
It was crazy — crazy for a team that eight months earlier did not exist, a bunch of Brits playing a sport that few knew much about, to so quickly become a passion of Portland sports fans.
That original Timbers team will be enshrined into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame during its Tuesday induction banquet at the MAC.
Winning was part of the story. Guided by taskmaster coach Vic Crowe, Portland's expansion team finished 16-6, the best record in the NASL. But the legacy of the 1975 team goes much deeper than on-field success.
Between a 1-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders on May 2 in front of 6,913 fans — including a 13-year-old version of this columnist — and a 1-0 win over the St. Louis Stars on Aug. 17 in front of 33,503, those Timbers put down the roots that grew into a still-flourishing soccer culture.
With little time to build a roster, Crowe (who died in 2009) plucked players he knew from three English clubs: Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Birmingham City. Many of the players knew of each other, at least as rivals, and were chosen to play a hard-nosed, attack-oriented style of soccer that Portland fans quickly came to appreciate.
Arriving in Portland after their season ended in England, most of the Timbers had fewer than 10 days to prepare for the May 2 opener. The team bonded quickly, a process helped by sharing the same Beaverton apartment complex, where players and their families spent afternoons at the pool.
Mick Hoban was the first player to arrive, landing in Portland on April 10. Having played in the NASL in Atlanta and Denver, Hoban knew the league and knew the team needed to be visible in the community, if soccer was going to last in Portland. Working with legendary PR man Dennis O'Meara, Hoban pounded the pavement explaining who the Timbers were as well as the sport of soccer.
"We went through lots and lots of appearances at service clubs, with the media, at school assemblies," Hoban said. "In those days, you were selling the sport, not just the team."
Community engagement was a big factor in the success of the 1975 Timbers. The most innovative promotion involved the postgame parties in ballrooms at the Hilton and Benson hotels; they gave thousands of fans the opportunity to mingle with their new heroes.
"Some of the players on the team became stars overnight, like Jimmy Kelly and Tony Betts," Anderson said. "It had never happened for them before, so going to these after-game parties you were like a superstar. You were treated like gods. We loved it."
The only thing the players didn't like was the concrete-like Tartan turf surface at Civic Stadium, which had dirt cutouts for the baseball diamond.
"Civic Stadium was the worst field in the league," Anderson said.
Through trial and error, he settled on wearing green Adidas running shoes for dry home games and molded soccer cleats when it rained.
Having played for failed teams in Atlanta and a struggling operation in Denver, Portland was going to be the last shot Hoban gave to American soccer. He wasn't expecting it to become his lifelong home. But it didn't take long for him to sense that Portland was different from his previous NASL stops.
Five weeks into the season, the Timbers were attracting more than 14,000 fans per game.
"It was a relief," Hoban said of his reaction to the growing crowds.
The Trail Blazers had completed their fifth season and had not yet made the NBA playoffs. The Buckaroos' era of hockey dominance was over. Portland sports fans were thirsty for success, and the Timbers delivered in a big way.
"With early success, we quickly became prominent. And we got good media coverage, which was unusual in those days for soccer," Hoban said.
The tactics Crowe employed, playing the ball into space for speedy wingers Anderson and Kelly to feed 6-2 striker Peter Withe or an attacking midfielder on a late move forward, would be unique these days. So, too, would be the sweeper, either Hoban or team captain Brian Godfrey, backing up imposing center back Graham Day.
Despite a demanding schedule of 22 games in 14 weeks that included twice playing on consecutive days, Crowe relied on only 14 players for the bulk of the season. Hoban, Day, Barry Lynch and Ray Martin were the core of the defense. Godfrey, Barry Powell and Thomas McLaren were regulars in midfield, with Chris Dangerfield and Betts providing depth at midfield and forward. Goalkeeper Graham Brown started all but one match. Forward Roger Goldingay, in 1975 the only United States citizen on the roster, appeared sparingly. Ditto for Canadian defender Nick Nicolas and Jamaican forward Don Gardner.
"It was a team-first mentality over individual stars," Hoban said. "We had a forward line that was pretty potent. The rest of us knew our jobs to defend and win the ball and get it to the people who could score."
The team began to roll after the late-May arrival of the 28-year-old Anderson, a crafty winger who provided balance to Portland's attack opposite Kelly. Withe was dominant in the box, and the Timbers won 15 of 17 games between May 26 and July 29. They scored 43 goals in 22 regular-season games and were blanked only in their opener and the regular-season finale at Los Angeles.
Withe, who went on to successful seasons in England's First Division (now the Premier League), played all 22 games had 16 goals and six assists. He added one more in the playoffs. But the most memorable goal came from Betts.
On Aug. 12, Anderson sent a cross from the left wing that picked out Betts for a header from 7 yards that gave Portland an overtime win over Seattle and sent thousands from the crowd of more than 31,000 pouring onto the Civic Stadium field.
That goal had me among the thousands who lined up around the stadium and a crowd of more than 35,000 — thanks to bleachers surrounding the field — and who watched Withe's second-half goal beat St. Louis 1-0 on Aug. 17.
One week later, the Timbers were frustrated by the narrow football field at San Jose State's Spartan Stadium and lost Soccer Bowl '75 to the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
The 1975 Timbers are convinced they would have been champions had that match been played on a wider field.
"Our whole game was getting behind the defense with the wingers," Hoban noted. "To get width at Spartan Stadium, you had to be in the bleachers."
The disappointing final game is now an afterthought for players who consider the summer of 1975 a high point of their careers.
"I think everybody remembers it as their favorite season they ever played, whether it was in England or over here," Hoban said. "Not just because of the amount of victories or playing in the Soccer Bowl. In retrospect, everybody realized they experienced something special being part of the first year of a franchise."
They and Timbers who came later during eight NASL seasons helped bring the youth soccer explosion of the 1970s and '80s to the region.
Seeds planted by the 1975 Timbers later brought others who would make an impact in amazing ways, among them Clive Charles and Bill Irwin, coaches who built the University of Portland into a soccer power.
Of the 17 men who played for the Timbers in 1975, Anderson, Hoban, Kelly, Betts, Martin and Goldingay still live in the Portland area.
Anderson, who went into radio advertising sales after the Timbers folded in 1982, is a pregame analyst for Timbers games broadcast by FOX (12). The originals marvel at the buzz around the MLS version of the club.
"The only regret I have is that I wish I could play out there on the wing now," Anderson said. "It's such a great stadium and a great fan base. But I think that (1975) started all that."
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