First Time Around
As Portland celebrates winning an MLS franchise, memories are stirred of the Timbers’ debut season in the NASL
In March, Portland Timbers Football Club will become MLS's eighteenth team and will bring top-flight professional soccer back to Oregon after a 29-year hiatus. Lower division sides played under the Timbers' moniker between 1989-90 and 2001-10, but the return of a major franchise conjures memories of the inaugural team of 1975. Timbers players like Kasey Keller and Brent Sancho have helped re-establish Portland as 'Soccer City USA' in the interim, something that helped persuade MLS to choose the Rose City as they plotted their expansion. It was the success of the original side that helped generate Portland's self-image as a city where soccer should be played. It has a strong supporter culture, a historic downtown stadium and a relationship between club and city unsurpassed in North America. Portland Timbers may be new to MLS but they are certainly not new to the world of soccer.
The story of the North American Soccer League (NASL) is often defined in terms of pre-Pelé and post-Pelé eras. Pelé's arrival in the United States in the summer of 1975 was one of the biggest stories in the sporting world, completely changing the perception of the new football league in America. Inevitably, the arrival of the planet's most famous footballer and his entourage provoked a media blitz and, equally inevitably, with the eyes of the global media on New York and the Cosmos, everything else tended to fade into the background. The stories of the other franchises have been left largely untold, and few are as remarkable as that of the Timbers, an expansion side born at the eleventh hour in the twenty-team NASL.
With players hastily assembled from English clubs the Timbers were among the best teams in the league in 1975, winning the regular season title before falling in the Soccer Bowl. Their success took place almost as far as was possible from the glamour of New York, both in terms of distance and atmosphere and expectation; the Portland Timbers were a blue-collar bunch in a small, friendly city nestled between the Cascade Range and the Pacific Ocean.
The Timbers were founded in January 1975 as the fifth and final expansion team in a busy off-season for the NASL. Chicago, Tampa, San Antonio and Hartford were already signed up to join the increasingly successful league by the time the club's investors found enough pledged funding to convince the league of their fitness as an organisation. Founded as Oregon Soccer, Inc. in late 1974, the original investors were local to Portland and promised that their club would be exclusively an Oregon-based club in terms of finance. Being a city of under 400,000 in population and only the twenty-fifth largest television market in the country, Portlanders were hardly the ideal base for large-scale fund-raising for a professional soccer club. But the local lawyer John Gilbertson and the former NFL player Don Paul convinced enough friends to ante up the cash necessary to sway the NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam. The city was granted the twentieth franchise in late January, with the season due to start on May 2.
Having just three months to assemble a coaching staff and a full squad of players from scratch, and having opened for business too late to take part in the league's annual college draft, the club sought a manager as soon as possible. Gordon Jago of Millwall was the first choice, with the former Aston Villa boss Vic Crowe and the Birmingham City manager Freddie Goodwin also potential candidates. Each brought impressive credentials from their work in England, and each had experience either playing or coaching in the United States. When Millwall refused to allow Jago, their new manager, to leave The Den, the Portland club turned to Crowe who, after three seasons at the club, had been sacked by Villa the previous year. Two days after Crowe was introduced as manager, the club announced their new title. Fans had been asked to vote on the name, with the majority preferring Pioneers. That, though, was already being used by a local college, leaving the football club to go with the second-favourite, Timbers. By 8 March 1975 the club had a manager and a name — but still no players.
Crowe set off for England to recruit a squad, but with only eight weeks until the first game, he needed help to find players and convince them to sign. He turned to Leo Crowther, who had worked with him at Villa, leading the side that won the 1972 FA Youth Cup. The two began their hunt on home turf in the West Midlands.
The first two signings were both former Villa players: Mick Hoban, a 23-year-old defender who had spent his previous four summers in the NASL with Atlanta Chiefs and Denver Dynamo; and the 34-year-old Welsh midfielder Brian Godfrey, who had been Crowe's captain at Villa and was a veteran of more than 500 Football League matches. Hoban was sent to Portland to begin the process of readying the city for the arrival of a group of English footballers, his experience in other NASL cities preparing him well for the tasks of finding adequate housing, matching host families to attend to the needs of the imported players and whetting the appetite of the city for professional soccer.
As Hoban began his circuit of schools, Rotary clubs and YMCAs, Crowe and Crowther scoured the Midlands. The familiar grounds of Villa Park, St Andrew's and Molineux were the starting points, but Crowe looked as far afield as Bristol, Cardiff and South Yorkshire. He considered not only a player's ability but also his personality, his capacity to adapt to a new environment, and, by the end of the first week of April, he had named nine new players in his squad. Four of them — the forwards Peter Withe and Chris Dangerfield, the winger Jimmy Kelly and the midfielder Barry Powell — came from Wolves; Birmingham provided the rugged defender Ray Martin; while the winger Willie Anderson and the full-back Barry Lynch were both former Villa players. The other two were both Fourth Division players: the Doncaster goalkeeper Graham Brown and the midfielder Tommy McLaren of Port Vale.
A fortnight later, Crowe announced the signings of three further English players: the 19-year-old Jamaica-born Wolves forward Donald Gardner, the Bristol Rovers defender Graham Day and the Villa forward Tony Betts. That gave the Timbers six First Division players, more than any other side in the NASL, establishing the club's reputation as a bastion of English strength. They were hardly, though, the superstars who would soon grace New York, the most glamorous figure by some way being Anderson, who had once played in the same Manchester United side as George Best.
In addition to the 14 British footballers they'd signed, the Timbers were compelled by league rules to sign a minimum of three North American players, who didn't necessarily have to play, but had to be included on the first-team roster. Crowe set up an open try-out and picked three players from the several hundred who turned up at a local high school on a miserable, rainy weekend: Roger Goldingay, a 24-year old forward from Seattle; Dave Landry, a 23-year old goalkeeper from Saskatchewan, Canada; and Nick Nicolas, a 23-year old Greece-born defender from San José, California. The Timbers had less than a week training together before their first game, a home match against Seattle Sounders, their closest neighbours to the north. The pitch at Civic Stadium, which was shared with minor league baseball as well as professional and collegiate American football teams, was formed of Astroturf, and even worse, because of construction work at the stadium, the Timbers had to bring in the touchlines reducing the width to 55 yards. In pouring rain, in front of a crowd of 6,913, the Timbers went down 1-0, Barry Powell having a penalty saved by the Sounders keeper Barry Watling. Crowther was furious, arguing the kick should have been retaken. Watling, he said, had "moved two or three yards before Barry kicked the ball and that's illegal." An auspicious start it was not.
Disappointing as the result was, the template was set for the rest of the season. Although Anderson had not yet arrived, remaining with Cardiff to play in the Welsh Cup final against Wrexham, Crowe employed two wingers in a 4-3-3 formation, with Gardner, who was more usually a central forward, and Kelly flanking the striker Peter Withe.
The tight touchlines seemed to hamper them and after three games, two at home and one on an equally narrow pitch at Denver, Portland had scored just twice — both goals going to Withe — and had a won one, lost two record. By the time they got to a wide playing area, away against their unbeaten Cascadia rivals Vancouver Whitecaps, they had been joined by Anderson. He took up his place on the right with Kelly, who would become increasingly exciting and effective, on the left. Day had been sent off in that game in Denver and his suspension forced Crowe into a tactical gamble: rather than bringing in Nicolas as a straight swap, he dropped Godfrey into the back-line to operate as a sweeper, with McLaren moving into the centre and Betts coming in to take his place on the left of midfield. Portland dominated the game and won 2-0 with goals from Powell and Betts, while Godfrey was so impressive he was named in the NASL's weekly all-star team as a defender. The Timbers never looked back.
They returned home to a newly-widened pitch, now 72 yards across, and with their wingers rampant, they won 14 of their next 16 games, scoring three or more goals in seven of them. The use of a sweeper was unusual for a club built on British lines — although Dave Mackay had operated in that way for Brian Clough's Derby County — but having seen how effective the ploy had been in Vancouver, Crowe stuck with it. The use of two wingers and a single striker, meanwhile, wasn't just rare; it was all but unique for an Anglocentric club. When the whole squad was available Hoban would operate as the sweeper, with Martin, Day and Lynch completing the back four, and Godfrey sitting deep in midfield. To his right Powell was an explosive box-to-box runner, while McLaren to his left was more of a distributor, receiving ball from the defence and Godfrey and looking to feed either the wingers or Powell. The wingers, meanwhile, were expected to drop back into midfield when the Timbers were out of possession.
In other words, Crowe effectively pre-empted a modern 4-1-2-3 formation. He had a reputation as a defensive manager, but Crowe had used dual wingers along with a centre-forward before. In 1971 as Villa reached the League Cup final, where they lost to Tottenham, and were promoted as Third Division champions losing just eight of 46 games, they had Anderson and Ray Graydon either side of the centre-forward Andy Lochhead.
With such a slender squad, Crowe was aware of the damage injuries and suspensions could do, and encouraged his players to practise playing in two positions. When Hoban strained a thigh and missed the home game against Chicago Sting, for instance, Godfrey again dropped in to sweeper. Martin was set as a man-to-man marker on Gordon Hill, the Sting's creative fulcrum, with Day and Lynch operating zonally alongside him. With Hill neutered, the Sting offered little as an attacking force, and goals from Withe and Anderson gave the Timbers a 2-0 win.
At the time it was more usual for sides to play in three bands — 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 — but the NASL's offside law, which stipulated that a player could only be offside if he was within 35 yards of his opponent's goal, encouraged Crowe's experimentation with 4-1-2-3. Rather than defences pressing high up the pitch, shortening the effective playing area, they tended to sit deep, protecting the 35-yard line. Given neither Lynch nor Martin were particularly attacking, that suited the Timbers defensively, but the extra room available also allowed them to build attacks through midfield in a more considered way than was common in England at the time. The natural triangle formed by their midfield three, with Godfrey at the point and Powell and McLaren ahead of him, gave the Timbers a depth that other teams lacked. The wingers, of course, were most effective because they had such a devastating centre-forward. Withe was regarded as something of an unfulfilled talent in England — he still was when Clough took him to Nottingham Forest the following summer — but his aggression and aerial ability soon earned him the nickname 'the Wizard of Nod' in Portland, as he capitalised on the delivery from the wings either to score himself — 16 times that season — or to knock the ball down for the likes of Powell or Betts breaking from midfield.
Crowe's players, strangely, are sceptical about the notion of their former manager as a tactical visionary. Many, when asked, have chuckled or laughed outright. Betts described life under Crowe as being "run, kick, run". Crowther's description of training sessions sounds equally unsophisticated. "Once the aches and pains of the weekend game were suitably stretched and warmed up, we would go into a two-hour workout," he said. "Initially a jog or three around the pitch, pick up speed and do half-laps as quickly as possible. A slight cool down and several more laps with body exercises (abs, push-ups, star jumps, etc.) at maybe six spots around the perimeter. By now we were ready to do some short, but sharp sprints, maybe fifteen yards and back, repeated four, six, eight times." Perhaps Crowe was so intent on his side being fit — which was part of the loan agreements with many of the players' home clubs back in England — that the players did not care that they were being used in ways very rare in the Anglocentric footballing world. Or maybe the team, mostly made up of youngsters and players with experience in the West Midlands, were so focused on performing at Portland, either for the success at hand or to impress their home clubs, that they simply did not register the fact that the style they played for the Timbers was quite different from that practised by their NASL opponents.
Clough, of course, was regularly scathing of those who, as he saw it, "overcomplicated" football by preaching tactical philosophies, but would then talk for hours about the importance of balance in a side; in other words, he preferred to construct a side that would naturally fit together than to confuse players by giving them lengthy tactical instructions. The Timbers' success was similarly rooted in their team ethic, the willingness of every player on the pitch to perform his assigned role. "Vic's genius was in formulating a team comprised, mostly, of players from the same footballing culture," Hoban said. Then Crowe "establish[ed] clear roles for each player and demanded that players fulfilled their obligations." Having personally selected every member of the squad, Crowe had been able to find players for the exact roles he wanted and ultimately chose only those he thought fitted and would be prepared to submit to his tactical system. With many NASL clubs comprising players hailing from all corners of the world, creating an atmosphere of understanding between the manager and his players was particularly difficult. At Portland, though, Crowe, through a combination of timing and foresight, put together a side of like-minded players who could enact his directives without need for excessive explanation or delineation.
Impressive as the Timbers' winning run was, it passed almost unnoticed. Pelé made his debut for New York Cosmos on 15 June 1975, and his acquisition effectively sucked the eyes of media from every other club on to New York. In a sense that was understandable, in that it marked a new phase in the NASL's history, the beginning of an era of multi-million dollar signings. Yet the Cosmos that Pelé joined were just an average side, having won only three of their nine games and sitting fourth out of five in the NASL's North Division. His debut was broadcast in colour on CBS, one of only a handful of games to be shown on television that season, while teams that were actually winning games and playing attractive and interesting football were scrutinised only by the crowds in the bleachers and those tuned to local radio broadcasts.
In late July, by which time the Timbers had won 16 of 19 games, the New York Times published an article reminding readers that other clubs in the league, particularly Portland and Seattle, were having successful seasons far from the din surrounding Pelé and the Cosmos. "Soccer is taking its longest strides in the Pacific Northwest, of all places," wrote Alex Yannis. "That's 3000 miles from where Pelé is playing, but soccer fans in that area don't give a boot where Pelé is playing. They just care about their Sounders and Timbers, who are both attracting record crowds." The Timbers even defeated Pelé and the Cosmos 2-1 on the road with goals from Godfrey and Withe. McLaren man-marked Pelé, and although he could not prevent the Brazilian scoring with one header and banging another against the crossbar, the Scottish midfielder did enough to slow the world's most famous footballer to give the Timbers the edge. In keeping with the fly-by-night nature of the Timbers' season, Crowe wasn't there to see it, having left Crowther in charge as he flew back to England to placate a number of managers furious at how many of the players they'd loaned to the NASL had picked up injuries.
The Timbers topped the Western Division with a 16-6 record, something no side could better. That earned them a place in the quarter-finals, where they hosted Seattle in front of 31,523 at the Civic Stadium. Seattle took the lead, but Powell levelled and Betts, on as a substitute, headed the winner from an Anderson cross in over-time. Victory over their closest rivals prompted mass pitch invasions, an indication of just how important the Timbers had become to the city.
Many camped out overnight to secure tickets for the semi-final, with players coming to shake hands and chat with fans as they queued in their thousands around the ground, securing their status as local heroes. In the end, 33,503 packed the Civic Stadium to watch a 2-1 win over St Louis Stars, Withe scoring his final goal for the club with a trademark header past Peter Bonetti.
The Soccer Bowl was played in San José, which disadvantaged the Timbers because the pitch there was only 55 yards across. Their wingers were more easily contained, and the service to Withe never arrived. The Haiti international Arsène Auguste opened scoring for Tampa just after the hour and Clyde Best, who would join the Timbers in 1977, sealed a 2-0 win just before full-time.
Things were never quite so good again. Despite an average crowd of over 20,000 in 1976 — 2000 more than the Cosmos — Portland finished only fourth in the Western Division of the Pacific Conference. The Cosmos beat them in the National Conference final in 1978, and they didn't reach the play-offs again before folding in 1982, two years before the NASL itself gave up the ghost.
That group of players drawn largely from the West Midlands, though, would always have the magical summer of 1975 when, in a hard-working town relatively cut-off from the rest of the world, they trained hard, played hard, got involved in the community and earned legendary status as a result. Of course local supporters would not have cared how the team played so long as they won games, particularly at home. They were largely ignorant of the rules, never mind the tactics, of soccer. Crowe knew that his team not only needed to win games but also entertain the fans to get them back for the next game, and his effective attacking style won the favour of the supporters as they racked up the third-highest goals tally in the league while maintaining the best defensive record.
Most discussions of the NASL start with Pelé. His arrival paved the way for the likes of Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto to join the Cosmos and create a super-team that dominated the league. It also gave other clubs the chance to bring in star players like Rodney Marsh (Tampa), Bobby Moore (San Antonio) and George Best (Los Angeles and San José), while the Timbers made an ill-fated move for Robbie Rensenbrink in 1980.
But the NASL wasn't just about the big names. Portland Timbers were just one of seventy different teams that took to the pitch for at least one season in the NASL between 1967 and 1984 and that 1975 season was just the first of eight seasons they played. The NASL will always be viewed as a failure, but it sowed the seeds of football throughout the USA. Not only that, but in new pastures even the hardest-bitten found new depths. Vic Crowe was supposed to be the embodiment of old-school British management, yet his young side, playing a radical formation, achieved something spectacular. They may have lost the Soccer Bowl but they prepared the ground for the present side.
As Portland welcomes an MLS side in 2011, supporters can thank the heroes of '75. Without that initial success the Timbers might never have lasted long enough to become an institution in the Rose City. The former Chelsea forward John Spencer, Portland's new manager, himself a hard-nosed product of British football, gets to build his own team from the ground up, reprising the masterful job done by Vic Crowe in 1975.