Zoom and gloom despite Timbers triumph
On Aug.11, a Tuesday evening, the Portland Timbers won the MLS is Back Cup — nicknamed the COVID Cup — after 40 days and 40 nights in the socially distanced bubble at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Florida.
Back home in Portland, the fans had to make their own atmosphere.
I was going to watch it with my cat on the couch, but a half-hour before kickoff I hopped on my bike to drop off my ballot at the library. In the street I saw a couple in Timbers gear who were going to watch the game at the Fields Bar in the Pearl. I haven't done anything remotely like that since March, so I headed there instead. I spent the first half eating nachos above my mask and trying to hear the Timbers game over the sound of the Blazers' Damian Lillard dropping 61 points on the Dallas Mavericks.
Seating was sparse and there was barely any atmosphere, but it was fun seeing the Timbers take an early lead. At halftime I dashed to the library with my eleventh-hour vote and made it back to my apartment in time to log into a Zoom call to watch the game with other fans.
I was welcomed in by the TACOs — Timbers Army: Covert Ops — group on their Zoom watch party. (They are covert ops because they live in Seattle and have to keep their colors discreet to get by day-to-day in Sounders land.) A couple of dozen fans, who know one another well from years behind enemy lines, were arranged on the screen in gallery mode, staring just off center, at the game. (Actually, some were watching on another screen and their Zoom cameras often featured a shoulder, an elbow, or a toddler playing.)
Although Zoom does a good job of streaming, TV does not. The game feeds were way out of sync. Several TACOs leaped up for the Timbers' winning goal while I was still watching someone boringly deliberate over who should take a throw-in. More than a minute later I got to celebrate, while others still stared impassively ahead. Pretty soon it was their turn. The pleasure went through us like a glitchy Mexican Wave in a socially distanced stadium.
The Zoom audio had that tinny, compressed quality that comes from voice-activated microphones trying to track the loudest talker. Sometimes that was ESPN commentator John Champion, thanks to the group watching in their yard on a cranked-up TV. The camera, too, would focus on the loudest person. Fortunately, that was often a guy in a gamer headset, Tom Davis, who provided nonspoiler commentary from the future. Were we still winning? Had we imploded? Was this going to be another Timbers disappointment? (Ninety-nine percent of following a soccer team is disappointment, but we never learn.)
I imagine this is how Timbers Army capos feel at Providence Park when they are facing the crowd to lead the singing. They keep their backs to the game except when it gets exciting, reading the fans' faces and trying to assess their energy. Sometimes I didn't know where to look. The game itself was quite entertaining, but off-season Florida on what looks like a parks and rec field is not exactly Disneyland.
When all the final whistles had blown, fans on the watch party toasted with shots and a few tried to do the Tetris win-only dance by moving their cameras around.
Megan Rabone invited me into the party. She added later that Kati, the owner/operator of their regular bar, Kate's Pub — dropped in with her little kids to say hi. "Earlier in the day she'd opened the pub on a day it's normally closed and cooked and delivered meals to about 10 of us," Rabone said. "We've been trying to work as a group to keep the pub afloat. We even opened a TA:CO tab there that those of us who can still work have donated to, so that TA:COs who are out of work can go get free meals on our tab and the money goes to Kati and the bar crew."
The MLS is Back tournament was a public health success. Only two teams dropped out because of coronavirus infections and no player tested positive after July 10. It should give hope to other sports, in particular the National Basketball Association and the European Champions (soccer) League, as they aim for closure in Orlando, Florida, and Lisbon, Portugal.
Instead of preprinted T-shirts, the Timbers players donned black COVID face masks with CHAMPIONS written across them in white. The unlikely hero and scorer of the winning goal, 28-year-old Croatian defender Dario Zuparic, wore his on his forehead in sheer delight. Timbers captain Diego Valeri took his off when he raised the trophy, because that yelling smile is everything fans live for.
The rest of the Timbers' MLS season will consist of 18 games. The Timbers will open against the Seattle Sounders at Providence Park on Aug. 23, without fans present. I haven't been there since March, either, and driving by the stadium feels like perpetual Monday.
Fans dropped out of the Zoom party within a few minutes, some having to make dinner or tend kids, some just done with that part of screen life. I slipped away even more quietly than I had lurked.
The whole experience underlined what we are missing under COVID-2020. Usually at sports games, it's no big deal to hug or at least high-five the stranger next to you. Here we were struggling to deal with cross talk, back lighting and lag as much as back line formations and anti-referee banter. Instead of the crush of the crowd and the smell of spilled beer, Zenner's sausages and pyro, I had my cat's ear to rub and ESPN's screensaver.
Joys that cannot be shared are diluted. MLS is Back taught me that much.
If we're well-behaved, can we have the rest of our lives back?
Reporter, The Business Tribune
Follow us on
Follow us on
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.