With just one chilly weekend separating the Portland Timbers from the start of their thirteenth season in Major League Soccer on Monday night against Sporting Kansas City at Providence Park, the dust has hardly settled from one of the most tumultuous periods in the club’s history.
Last October, an investigation conducted by U.S. Soccer found that Timbers and Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson and then-President of Soccer Gavin Wilkinson helped cover up and perpetuate the abuse of players in the National Women’s Soccer League by former Thorns coach Paul Riley.
It also found that Paulson, Wilkinson, and then-President of Business Mike Golub made sexist or inappropriate comments to Thorns personnel and the club as a whole attempted to impede the subsequent investigation. Golub was already under scrutiny after 10 former club employees in August accused him of inappropriate workplace conduct and creating a hostile environment for women.
The U.S. Soccer report was met with fury by supporters, who demanded that Wilkinson and Golub be fired and that Paulson sell both the Thorns and Timbers. The club also faced backlash from players and sponsors, some of whom pulled or threatened to withhold their sponsorship dollars pending developments at the club.
After several days, amid mounting pressure, Paulson finally did move to fire Wilkinson and Golub, the two men who had guided the Timbers’ front office throughout the entirety of their time in Major League Soccer (MLS).
In December, Paulson again bowed to public pressure and announced he would sell the Thorns—a move that will sever them from the Timbers after a decade in which they shared an owner, front office, and stadium. It is not yet clear when that sale might be completed or how exactly it will impact the Thorns, who will start their 2023 season in late March.
Off the Field
Wilkinson and Golub are gone, but Paulson—much to the chagrin of a vocal segment of the club’s support—is hanging on as the Timbers’ owner even as he has purportedly stepped back from the day-to-day operation of the clubs.
In late January, the Timbers hired former general counsel Heather Davis as the club’s new CEO. Davis did not endear herself to a segment of the fanbase when she effusively praised Paulson in her introductory press conference.
Despite the fact that Paulson is refusing to sell the Timbers, it appears no major demonstrations or boycotts are imminent from the club’s supporters.
On February 14, the 107 Independent Supporters Trust, the parent organization for the Timbers Army and the Rose City Riveters, published a blog post concerning its approach to the season—urging supporters to attend matches and vocally back the club’s players while continuing to push for institutional change.
“While the Timbers Army, Rose City Riveters, and 107IST board continue to push for accountability and changes in our Front Office, we are going to use the celebration of the players to help heal our community,” the blog post read. “Supporting the players in the stands doesn’t mean not holding the Front Office accountable.”
The post asked supporters to “to bring the energy, the noise, the passion” for the Timbers and Thorns starting on Saturday—and was immediately met with backlash from supporters who argued that the organization must go further in its efforts to force Paulson to sell the team by demonstrating in the stadium on match days or staying away entirely.
“Many of us aren’t quite ready to move forward,” the group Soccer City Accountability Now tweeted following the 107IST post. “This season will be interesting.”
The Timbers Army executed a memorable mass protest four years ago—staying silent for the first 33 minutes of a match against Seattle in an ultimately successful effort to force the league to allow supporters to display anti-fascist imagery in stadiums. Forcing Paulson out, however, when he has the support of MLS commissioner Don Garber, would likely be a much steeper climb.
On the Field
The 2022 season was a mess for the Timbers off the field. It wasn’t much to remember on the field, either. The club missed the MLS playoffs for the first time since 2016 and first time ever since Giovani Savarese took over as coach, finishing eighth in the Western Conference with just 11 wins in 34 matches.
The Timbers scored 53 goals last year, more than four of the teams who qualified ahead of them for the postseason, but they conceded 53 as well, tied for their second-worst defensive showing ever in MLS despite a breakout campaign from goalkeeper Aljaž Ivačič.
The team the Timbers are bringing back is almost identical to the one that failed to make the playoffs last year. Just two senior players departed the club, while only one was brought in: Brazilian midfielder Evander, brought to Portland from Danish side Midtjylland for a club-record fee reportedly around $10 million.
The hope is that Evander is a transcendent attacking player, a worthy replacement for the retired Diego Valeri. But even if Evander is excellent, and even if the team’s front six continue to play well-above average soccer, the Timbers still have to answer the same questions that plagued them last year: Can they stay connected from back to front? Can they defend?
The club is reportedly looking to bring in a forward and a center back before the MLS transfer window shuts in April, which could be particularly important given their injury situation; Dairon Asprilla, Claudio Bravo, David Ayala, and Felipe Mora, and several other players will all start the year on the injured list.
How Can I Watch?
It’s a lot easier than it once was to get tickets to see the Timbers in person at Providence Park, with the club hawking various ticket packages with a fervor that was never necessary in the pre-stadium expansion, pre-COVID, pre-abuse scandals era.
It will also be much simpler to watch the team on television this year. That’s because MLS has entered into a new television partnership with Apple that will see all the league’s games broadcast on Apple TV+ for the next ten years with no blackouts or restrictions.
The MLS Season Pass subscription service required to watch the games and other league content costs $14.99 per month or $99 per year and is available to Apple TV+ subscribers at a slightly discounted rate. MLS season ticket holders get the subscription for free.
All the games will be broadcast in English and Spanish, with games involving the Canadian teams broadcast in French as well.
Longtime Timbers announcers Jake Zivin and Ross Smith have been hired to call games for Apple; the third member of the local broadcast crew, former captain Liam Ridgewell, has joined the club’s coaching staff. Valeri, who retired last year, will provide analysis in Spanish. The Timbers will still produce their own radio broadcasts.
The television deal promises to be a big step for MLS, with Apple devoting the kinds of resources to broadcasting games the league has never enjoyed before.
Some Dates to Circle?
Seattle makes its only visit of the season to Portland on April 15, after which the Timbers have to travel north to face the Sounders twice over the summer months. Expansion side St. Louis makes its first trip to the northwest on March 11, and reigning champion Los Angeles FC visits Providence Park in early September.
Also of note: Mexican powerhouse Tigres has been drawn in Portland’s group in Leagues Cup, meaning the Monterey-based club is likely to play at Providence Park over the summer.
Do We Still Have Diego Chará?
Oh yeah. The Colombian turns 37 in about a month, and says he wants to keep playing until he’s 40. He’s already set the MLS record for fouls, and is second all-time for yellow cards. Here’s hoping he breaks that record, too.