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Portland carries a steep tradition of soccer from its NASL days

Portland has a unique point of reference when it comes to soccer history.

The city's PGE Park, then called Civic Stadium, was the site of Pelé's final competitive game, with the New York Cosmos taking a 2-1 win over the Seattle Sounders in the 1977 Soccer Bowl, the North American Soccer League championship game.

In choosing Portland as its newest expansion franchise to begin play in 2011, MLS choose a city rich in soccer lore. However, superstars did not win an MLS franchise for Portland. When the Timbers played in the NASL, they were a collection of veteran players from England's lower divisions, plus young prospects from clubs such as West Ham United. The Timbers were a working-class team, overachievers who captured the imagination, becoming a part of the cultural fabric of the region, along with the Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps.

In other areas of the U.S., professional soccer disappeared after the demise of the NASL in 1985. But the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps never went away entirely; the team names have had currency for three decades, which is an eternity for soccer teams in Canada and the U.S., and many of the players stayed around, cultivating the game at the youth level.

All of that history is converging as the MLS goes Northwest. Not to Miami or St. Louis. And not to Montreal or Ottawa.

Though the old Timbers were considered a hardscrabble team, their level of play should not be disparaged. The Timbers set standards at the time -- the city went from having no pro soccer to fielding what probably amounted to a decent second-division squad -- and the Portland team in the MLS would do well to produce a striker the caliber of Clyde Best (a Bermudian footballer who starred for Portland between 1979-80).

"A city with such a storied soccer tradition deserves an MLS team, and we are proud to have Portland join the top level of professional soccer in our region," MLS commissioner Don Garber said in a press conference. "Merritt Paulson and his family provide a vibrant and innovative ownership group that truly loves the world's game, and we believe PGE Park will provide a world-class soccer environment for soccer fans."

The MLS itself owes much to the NASL. And its Pacific Northwest representatives are virtually direct offsprings of the NASL. When Pelé traded his No. 10 shirt with Seattle's Jim McAlister after the '77 Soccer Bowl, the act symbolized the transfer of the game to the domestic player. It has taken a couple decades for that transfer to be completed.

"This whole town's abuzz," McAlister said in a phone interview from Seattle. "When we were playing in the '70s, it was very popular, and there is the same feel now. We had good owners, the Nordstrom family and John and Claudia Best, but there's a group here who could do a marketing 101 class for college. What they did was straight out of Hollywood, the whole city was a sea of green."

McAlister, who attended the Sounders' 3-0 win over New York on Thursday along with 15 former Sounder teammates, expects the rivalries to be revived.

"These are huge soccer towns, Seattle and Portland," McAlister said. "Portland and Vancouver are 2½ hours away, and I remember seeing bus after bus going through here from those cities. We were in the middle of the hub. And those games were hotly contested. Now, I talk to those guys we played against and we can't quite remember who won, but [the rivalry] is still something for all the ex-players."

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When McAlister was playing, he often was the only U.S.-born field player in the game. The NASL required one North American performer on the field, so teams tried to find a U.S.-born goalkeeper to go with 10 foreign field players; or they naturalized a foreign star, if possible.

"One thing that has changed is that [Thursday] night both teams were full of domestic players," McAlister said. "When I got to the Sounders, I was 19 years old and I was still learning how to play a 4-4-2. I was on the wing and just trying to run by guys. Now, my 13-year-olds can dissect a 4-4-2 and what it is supposed to do. It used to be, the coaches were the guys who drove the station wagon and the best player became the best player.

"Everywhere I go, I see coaches who played in the NASL. Kids now have more opportunities -- they have been playing the game at a higher level longer, they have academies, residencies in Bradenton where they are playing five days a week instead of twice a week, like when I was a player."

One of those Portland Timber players who stayed around was the late Clive Charles, who took over the University of Portland soccer program, developing professional players such as current Seattle striker Nate Jaqua, plus several U.S. women's team players. Jaqua grew up in Eugene, the son of a Washington Redskins' safety. Had the Timbers never existed, Jaqua might have followed his father's path into the NFL.

The NASL failed financially, but it provided role models for young soccer prospects and laid some of the groundwork for today's MLS franchises. No region better symbolizes that than the Pacific Northwest.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.


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