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News / Clark County News

MLS commish optimistic for Timbers success

Garber in Portland to see PGE Park renovation first hand

By Paul Danzer, Columbian Soccer, hockey and Community Sports Reporter
Published: September 22, 2010, 12:00am

PORTLAND — Dignitaries shoveled some symbolic dirt on Tuesday at PGE Park.

Addressing gathered media and invited supporters, Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson talked a little about the “long, strange trip” it took to get the deal that will transform PGE Park from a multi-use facility to a soccer-specific venue.

Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber noted that Portland will be the 11th MLS franchise with its own soccer-first stadium, telling the gathering, “This is a project that’s close to my heart.”

Garber’s comments might have been heartfelt. No doubt the few light-hearted jabs other speakers directed at the Seattle Sounders warmed the hearts of Timbers fans in attendance.

But, the truth is, Tuesday’s ceremonial ground-breaking might not have happened if the Sounders hadn’t made such a splash with large crowds at Qwest Field when they joined MLS in 2009.

“We had success in Seattle, and all of a sudden we saw that the Pacific Northwest could be really powerful,” Garber said in a post-ceremony interview. “That got Merritt and his family more motivated, more excited.”

Garber said MLS never considered Portland for a franchise because PGE Park was a multi-use venue that didn’t have the soccer-friendly seating the league demands.

“Portland wasn’t on the (expansion) list,” Garber said. “When (Paulson) bought the team and said, ‘I’m going to find a way to renovate (PGE Park) and turn it into a soccer stadium,’ that’s when we turned our sights to Portland.”

Paulson bought the Timbers and the Portland Beavers baseball club in 2007. He said Tuesday that he had his eyes on MLS from the start.

“We expected baseball to have a significant role, but Major League Soccer is something that’s been on my radar screen for a long time,” Paulson said.

Baseball isn’t part of the story, except that the Portland Beavers will be playing somewhere else starting next April. Tuesday was about celebrating Paulson’s vision for turning PGE Park into an intimate gathering place for 20,000 soccer fans. The work of breaking apart the old to make room for the new construction is well under way as the race is on to complete the renovation in advance of the 2011 MLS kickoff in March.

“We’ll need a little cooperation from the weather, but right now — knock on wood — we’re right where we want to be,” Paulson said.

The Timbers and Vancouver (B.C.) Whitecaps will join Major League Soccer next year, with Montreal scheduled to become the league’s 19th team in 2012. Garber said he hopes to add a second New York franchise as the 20th team.

“I don’t know whether we’ll be able to pull that off, but we’ve still got a lot of growth in front of us,” the commissioner said.

The Timbers announced they have sold out 15 sections of season tickets and all but one of their luxury boxes for 2011. Paulson said the franchise will cap season ticket sales at 12,000, and expect to reach that number before the season opens.

“I think we’ll continue to learn from what’s making it work in Portland and making it work in Seattle, and try to have that formula in every other market,” Garber said.

Portland, Seattle and the New England Revolution are the only teams in the league that won’t have natural grass fields in 2011. Garber said that the league has never banned artificial turf, though it prefers grass.

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“Until the technology came into place to really replicate grass, I don’t think anybody in the soccer community would have been supportive of (artificial turf),” Garber said. “Right now, there’s nothing that beats a fresh-cut piece of grass, but this (new turf planned for PGE Park) is almost as close as you can get.”

For the Portland Timbers and their fans, Tuesday’s ceremony — and the thumping sounds of heavy equipment at work — was significant evidence that Portland’s MLS arrival is very close indeed.

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Columbian Soccer, hockey and Community Sports Reporter