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Paulson: From TARP to Soccer Hero?

The scene at the Bitter End Pub one recent Saturday was a sports bar’s dream: With the Colorado Rapids about to face the hometown Timbers in a professional soccer game across the street at Jeld-Wen Field, hundreds of supporters of both teams were shoulder to shoulder, laughing and toasting their team’s success.

Henry Paulson
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images
Henry Paulson

“This could not happen in England, even among friendly fans,” Chris Moyer, a Briton and member of a Rapids fan group, said of the bonhomie between rivals.

So maybe the spirit of American soccer fandom has not attained the open hostility that pervades the sport in much of the world. But what is playing out in Portland, where the Timbers are the hottest ticket in town in their inaugural season in Major League Soccer and passionate fans are embracing some of the trappings of their European counterparts, suggests that soccer might finally be poised to become a big-league sport in the United States.

Portland has embraced its new M.L.S. team like no other American city. The city’s once-unloved downtown stadium, with a capacity of about 19,000, has been revamped and hailed as a model of urban planning. Being a member of the Timbers Army, the team’s colorful fan club, has become a hip social statement among young, urban fans, many of whom also follow teams in the English Premier League or Spain’s La Liga.

It has not hurt that Portland has a healthy mix of men and women in their 20s and 30s — fans that advertisers and broadcasters crave.

None of this was lost on the Timbers’ owner, Merritt Paulson, who bought the right to operate the team in 2007 with his father, Henry M. Paulson Jr., the former chairman of Goldman Sachs and United States Treasury secretary.

The younger Paulson was looking for a growth opportunity and, after numerous visits, was convinced the Timbers were a winner. He paid about $15 million for the Timbers and the Beavers, the Class AAA baseball team in Pacific Coast League.

“This is a league on the rise,” Merritt Paulson said in his office overlooking the field. “We’ve hit that tipping point.”

The Timbers’ impressive M.L.S. debut comes on the heels of the league’s seemingly successful forays into Philadelphia, Toronto, Seattle and Vancouver, which also joined the league this year.

“It’s a cauldron of energy for our sport,” Don Garber, the commissioner of M.L.S., said of Portland and the Timbers. “You have a recipe for success that we hope to replicate elsewhere in the country.”

Portland’s heady mix of rabid fans, appealing stadium and healthy corporate boosters, though, may be harder to export to other cities, notably New York, which is expected to be awarded the league’s 20th club. Building a soccer stadium in New York is certain to be expensive, and fostering fan loyalty like that in Portland may be harder in a city dominated by so many other professional teams.

Portland may be more the exception among existing M.L.S. teams. D.C. United and New England, two charter clubs, have stumbled on the field and at the gate, while playing in large N.F.L.-size stadiums with little atmosphere. The Red Bulls, despite their new 25,000-seat arena in Harrison, N.J., have never won a league title and are often starved for attention. More broadly, M.L.S. lacks the rivalries needed to spark fan interest, either because the league is still relatively young or because the distances between cities is too great.

The Timbers’ move up to the top level of soccer in North America in Portland, the self-proclaimed Soccer City U.S.A., suggests that the league may have found the right formula. The Timbers have built on a rich history dating to the North American Soccer League. (Pelé played his last official pro game in Portland, the 1977 N.A.S.L. title game.)

After the league folded in the mid-’80s, the Timbers drifted in and out of existence before re-emerging in 2001 as part of the United Soccer Leagues.

The team performed well and captured the imaginations of a small but hearty group of fans known as the Timbers Army that seems to revel in its love of a game and a city that have been largely defined by their outsider status.

One Timbers Army fight song (sung to the tune of “You Are My Sunshine”) includes the lyrics “We are mental and we are green, we are the greatest football supporters that the world has ever seen.”

“We have a counterculture sense in Portland, and the Timbers Army made it more participatory,” said Dave Hoyt, the president of 107ist, a foundation associated with the group that has sold 10,000 of their custom-made team scarves, with the proceeds going to charity. “There’s a hunger to feel part of the community.”

Mr. Paulson seized on that sentiment when he purchased the rights to the team, although as wealthy outsiders in a left-leaning and sometimes insular city, the Paulsons were bound to raise eyebrows. While soccer fans applauded their efforts to win an M.L.S. team, for which the Paulsons paid a reported $35 million expansion fee, baseball fans felt snubbed when the Beavers were tossed out of their home so the Timbers could have a soccer stadium. After a fitful search for a new home, the Paulsons sold the Beavers, who were moved to Arizona.

Critics also felt that Merritt Paulson was heavy-handed in his dealings with the financially strapped city, which ultimately agreed to pay for about a third of the cost of the renovating the stadium, using money from ticket taxes and parking receipts at entertainment facilities, like the Rose Garden, home to the N.B.A. Trail Blazers, in Portland.

“Why the Paulson family needed public money is beside me,” said Jack Bogdanski, a professor of tax law at Lewis and Clark University. “He came into town highly suspect in my book.”

Others say the money was not well spent because, despite the renovation and M.L.S. guidelines for stadiums, the seats are still too narrow, the concourse cramped and the number of bathrooms inadequate.

The team, at least, enjoys unquestioned popularity. The hottest tickets are those behind one of the goals, where 3,600 members of the Timbers Army have seats. An hour before kickoff, with scalpers buzzing outside the park and valets busy parking bicycles, the Army was inside waving flags and singing fight songs, including “Bury Me in Timbers Green” and “Onward Rose City.” They did not sit down or stop singing until the final whistle.

“It’s the cheers and the players coming to the stands to celebrate with us that got me,” said Heidi Grossaint, who has followed the team for four years. “My friends lined up at 7 a.m. to get seats. There’s an atmosphere of hanging out.”

Timber Joey, who cuts slices from a hefty tree stump after Timbers goals, had to settle for revving up his chain saw to excite the crowd, the Timbers having failed to score. But as the Timbers Army often sings, “There’s no pity in the Rose City.”

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