Photo by Jose M. Romero
By JOSE M. ROMERO
CASA GRANDE, Ariz. — Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson was once a casual soccer fan who got most fired up for World Cups. As he got deeper involved in the game, he found the live soccer experience to be one of the best in sports.
He follows the NBA, too, and found that the atmosphere at games was generated through music and in-game production. But in soccer, such an atmosphere was generated organically through fans, and Paulson calls it "infectious and electric."
Paulson hopes the Timbers can have a similar effect on fans in the Rose City in the club's inaugural season. Soccer by Ives caught up with Paulson in Arizona recently, and he took the time to chat:
SBI: The season's almost here, are you getting excited?
Paulson: I'm excited. It's been fun watching it come together. I think we've made some progress on the field and off the field, and we've got some more ground to cover in both areas as well.
SBI: Is this fun?
Paulson: For me, it's kind of like everything. We worked so hard to get here and went through so much to actually looking at our guys out there, playing teams like Kansas City or Houston and moving from the second division, it's very, very exciting and rewarding, and sometimes you've got to pinch yourself to make sure you're not in a dream. It's been fun putting this team together and we're working hard on our (stadium) renovation and selling tickets and all that kind of stuff. There's a lot of hype in the city of Portland and it's a special time right now.
I feel like marketing-wise, I'd put our effort up there with anybody. It is the right message for the city, I think that's the key.
SBI: Update in season ticket sales?
Paulson: We're almost at a cap. We're flirting with it now. We had a really good week last week. Half-seasons (ticket packages) go on sale Monday.
SBI: What's the season-ticket cap?
Paulson: 12,000 full. We might go a touch over but not much. Our sellout (capacity) is something like 18,600, so we need to have some buffer in there for groups.
We have the ability to open up a couple of more rows that we're not selling on the north end (of PGE Park). We can get another 3,000 people in if we want to, but we want to see how the building stands stress before we make those decisions.
SBI: What kind of soccer do you want the Timbers to play?
Paulson: We're on record there. There's no question about it. We're trying to build a team that pushes the ball and plays an exciting, aggressive, offensive brand of soccer. An entertaining brand of soccer. It's what I like. I love Spain, the Spanish national team and Brazil. I think you can win and you can still be entertaining and Coach (John Spencer) happens to agree. So we've put a lot of emphasis on guys who can put the ball in the back of the net. But the notion that we've ignored our backline would be off. I feel pretty good about our backline. I think we're one of the strongest teams in Major League Soccer at goalkeeper.
We have some areas we'd like to fill out a little bit, especially in the middle (the club just signed MLS veteran Jack Jewsbury), but up top and on the wings right now I think we're in pretty good shape.
SBI: Why does soccer work in Portland?
Paulson: It dates back to 1975 and the NASL years, and it got the bug. It wasn't just Portland, the whole region kind of got the bug. It grew through the ups and downs of the various 'iterations' of second- division soccer. It retained the bug in a bigger way… we supported second-division minor-league soccer much more than Seattle did. These guys (fans) are hardcore. They're true-blue. We could put a team out there that doesn't put the ball in the net and embarrasses itself, and they're going to show up. But that's not something we're going to take advantage of. I'm from Chicago and I watch the Cubs and we don't want to be the lovable losers in Portland with faithful fans that doesn't have a winning team. It's very much about winning and doing it in the way that we should.
SBI: Is this your vision for the club?
Paulson: In terms of the product that we've got on the pitch right now, I would say that we should not look like an expansion team… You look at how many new components we have right now and we'll need a tweak and we'll need to add. I would say that there's a couple of clear positions that we'd like to add a big-name guy too. But we have some time to do that. We may be active in the next several weeks with a potential signing. You may see us in the summer transfer window make a move. And then I think at the end of the day, we're hopeful this team is going to be competitive. The goal is certainly make the playoffs, but you want to build from that and be in a position where you've got a core foundation next year that we can began to take off from there.
Nobody's writing this year off as an expansion year. There's definitely an expectation to win, starting with our coach and certainly with me. But I think we've got to be realistic, too.