The longest road trip in MLS history will mercifully come to an end for the Portland Timbers on Saturday when, after 12 away games to start the season, they’ll open new and improved Providence Park now that the venue’s $100 million facelift is finally complete.
Originally built a century ago, the stadium has become known for its raucous, league-best atmosphere since the Timbers made the jump from the second tier in 2011. With 4,000 additional seats covered by a roof, new video boards, an updated sound system and locker rooms and plenty of other enhancements, it has all the bells and whistles boasted by brand-new soccer arenas in rival cities.
But while new-look stadium is the most visible change for the Timbers (and its NWSL sister Thorns) this season, it’s far from the only one. With millions of additional dollars funneled toward other areas – including the teams’ Beaverton training facility and the Timbers’ academy and first-team roster – by owner Merritt Paulson, 2019 represents a near-total reboot for a club that was already among MLS’s most relevant.
“You can debate whether or not all the investment was necessarily warranted, and I guess time will tell,” Paulson said in a recent interview with Yahoo Sports. “If you told me when we started it this was going to be $100 million project just at the stadium, I’m not sure it would’ve been green-lit, to be candid. But in retrospect I’m just so pleased with how everything has come out.”
The price tag may have been higher than expected, but then MLS is a more mature operation than it was when the Timbers and Cascadia rival Vancouver Whitecaps arrived as expansion sides eight years ago. Bigger-market clubs such as Atlanta United and Toronto FC, the league’s last two champions, have set a new standard by spending big. When Atlanta beat Portland, which won its lone league title in 2015, in last year’s MLS Cup final, Paulson knew he’d have to do more to keep up on the field as well as off.
“When we were in the Cup last year, I felt that we were maybe a player short and that it’s not a position where I want it to be,” Paulson said. “I wouldn’t make massive investments in infrastructure without simultaneously making corresponding investments on the pitch. That doesn’t make any sense.”
Competing dollar-for-dollar with the big boys didn’t make sense, either. As the fourth-smallest media market in the league, Portland has to spend smart. Providence Park’s tight footprint – it’s sandwiched into a city block, with a light rail line on one side – meant than any expansion had to be vertical. The local architect commissioned to do the work, who happened to have followed the team since its 1975 inception, took inspiration from the famously urban La Bombonera stadium in Buenos Aires, home to Argentine titan Boca Juniors.
The roof will keep even more noise in, with the three additional levels of seats creating a wall of fans on the east side of the venue. Some of those will be of the higher-priced, premium variety, giving the club a badly-needed new revenue stream. But Paulson is committed to keeping matches affordable for the fans who have long made Providence Park the most daunting away trip in MLS; Timbers Army members pay just $24 per match for access to the rowdy general admission areas. With more than 13,000 names on the wait list for season subscriptions and just one other major sports team, the NBA’s Trail Blazers, in town, the club could easily charge more.
“That’s my decision, and the right decision,” Paulson said of the artificially deflated pricing. “Changing the number of general-admission tickets was a non-starter. That’s our lifeblood. I never want to get the real support priced out of the stadium.”
Against league-leading LAFC on Saturday, Timbers diehards will cheer a team riding a hot streak. The Timbers started the season by losing five of their first six games. Heading into their home opener, though, they’ve won four of six. The turnaround has coincided with the arrival of striker Brian Fernandez, who was signed from Mexican club Necaxa earlier this month for a club-record transfer fee. Fernandez already has three goals in just 115 minutes of action so far.
Being able to showcase the club’s ambition in bricks and mortar – in addition to the stadium expansion, the Timbers have also tripled the size of their training facility – doesn’t hurt when trying to recruit international targets.
But there are other, more subtle ways the organization can carve out a competitive advantage. The Timbers have gained a strong reputation over the years among players, who appreciate the club’s attention to detail and the first-class manner in which they and their families are treated.
There’s the club house saunas and barber shop, the gifts sent to players’ wives on Mother’s Day. There’s the food; last year, the club lured Rich Meyer, a renowned Portland chef (and Timbers season ticket holder) from one of the city’s best restaurants. The sports-science department has been more than doubled in recent years, helping keep the athletes healthy. Several former players are employed in various roles. “People notice that stuff,” Paulson said. “It’s not an accident that we’ve got very good word-of-mouth in terms of [being] a good club to play for.”
A hybrid grass field could arrive by the 2022 season if the club’s lease with the city is amended, Paulson said, but until then the Timbers will play on a state-of-the-art synthetic pitch that puts the artificial surfaces in Atlanta, New England, Seattle and Vancouver to shame.
Combined, the upgrades leave the Timbers in position to remain among MLS’s marquee teams for years to come.
“It’s going to be a long time before this comes close to breaking even, but I’m a big believer in where this league is going long-term,” Paulson said. “We need to continue our league-wide investment not only in infrastructure but also in the product on the field. I think we can make a statement with the action we’re taking in Portland. It’s definitely a bet on the future of the league.”
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