Humanist Goals: Confessions of a Major League Soccer Ultra

By Krattenmaker, Tom | The Humanist, January-February 2018 | Go to article overview

Humanist Goals: Confessions of a Major League Soccer Ultra


Krattenmaker, Tom, The Humanist


I used to scoff when I heard sports commentators glorify a teams supporters by saying things like, "Football is a religion for [team name here] fans." How, I thought, is that an advertisement for them? And if that's their religion, if that's their source of meaning, it's a poor excuse for one!

That was before I became a Portland Timbers ultra.

If you don't know a lot about global soccer--and given the tendency of humanists to look askance at big-time spectator sports, there's a good chance you don't--here's a primer: The Portland Timbers are a team in Major League Soccer (MLS), the top-level professional league in the United States and Canada. Despite its rising popularity, soccer remains the "other" sport in this country, overlooked by media relative to the "big four" (football, basketball, baseball, and hockey) and altogether other in its traditions and vibe.

Soccer fans who take their energy and loyalty to the top level are often called "ultras." They are typically grouped in a particular section at the stadium, where they sing, chant, and wave scarves and flags with unrelenting ardor. Soccer's fan culture is more edgy, progressive, and D.I.Y. than what you witness at, for instance, a pro basketball game, where simplistic cheers are spoon-fed by high-wattage scoreboard graphics and over-the-top public address systems.

When you're with the 5,000 ultras in the north end of the stadium at a Timbers game in Portland, Oregon, you can't even hear the PA. Instead, you're swept up in a constant torrent of songs and chants belted out by you and the thousands of other fans, all testifying to the awesomeness of the team, the supporters, and the city, and sung to melodies ranging from "Winter Wonderland" to "Anarchy in the UK," by the Sex Pistols (I am a Timbers FAN! I am an OregoniAN!)

And the seats are as superfluous as the PA. You stand--for the whole game. Mix the full-throated soundtrack with the smoke bombs, the sea of green-and-gold flags, and the chainsaw-wielding, jersey-clad lumberjack who saws off a slice of Pacific Northwest "victory log" when the Timbers score--ah, the joy that erupts when Portland finds the back of the net--and you have something that the Timbers Army website describes as "part carnival, part mosh pit, part revival meeting, part Christmas morning."

Me? I call it a fun and friendly riot--and something more. Something that rises to the level of that over-stretched word "community'

The "meaning" of the Portland Timbers and their supporters' culture became clearest to me only after my wife and I left Portland to chase a job opportunity on the East Coast. We were disconsolate about surrendering our season tickets in the Timbers Army section--there's a miles-long waiting list for those prized tickets--and saddened to know that we'd have to settle for watching games online.

Then, a wondrous discovery: Timbers fans on the East Coast! Including in our new city of New Haven, Connecticut! And not just a few interested people talking on social media but a well-organized East Coast Platoon of the Timbers Army.

Let me say here that it's understandable to be put off by that martial imagery--or the logging homage, for that matter. Here's the reality: Timbers Army members tend to be non-militaristic, eco-conscious, LGBT-embracing, craft-beer-loving liberals whose ranks include lots of women and who are practiced at the art of appropriating and subverting tropes you might normally associate with conservative sports culture.

Now my wife and I attend Timbers away games up and down the East Coast. We Timbers supporters show up in organized masses several hundred strong, marching into opposing teams' stadium with our drums, songs, and colors to show our rivals what a proper group of ultras looks like.

I'll long relish the way we took Manhattan by storm on my first outing with the East Coast contingent, singing our paeans to Portland every inch of the way as we thronged from a midtown pub to the subway and then to the stadium to see the Timbers beat New York City FC (which stands for Football Club). …

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