Friendly Rivals

The talk of Major League Soccer today is not the fact that David Beckham won’t be playing Sunday in Chicago for a third straight year but rather tonight’s MLS opening of JELD-WEN Field as the Portland Timbers welcome the Fire for the two club’s first-ever meeting.

Portland is a city steeped in soccer history dating back to the original NASL Timbers in 1975 and the USL side that reincarnated in 2001. Since the re-launch the club has slowly built towards tonight’s event both on the field, in the front office and in their supporter’s culture. 

The last of those developed at least in part through the friendly relationship that has been cultivated through the years between the Timber’s Army (the club’s supporter’s association) and Section 8 Chicago, according to TA board member Abram-Goldman Armstrong.

“Our friendship with Section 8 dates back a while now,” he said via phone earlier this week. “I can’t remember the year it started but we basically always had a mutual respect for Section 8 that really goes back to the early days of our USL years. Basically there were a few supporters groups around North America that got the culture in the same way we understand it here and we looked to them as an example.”

The relationship grew around 2004 when one of Section 8 Chicago’s founders Liam Murtagh visited Portland for a few games and some of the Timbers Army came to Chicago over the next few seasons in a scenario that seems almost like a supporters exchange program.

Eventually, with Portland’s hated USL rival Seattle becoming the first lower-league club to rise as an expansion team to MLS in 2009, a plan was hatched to show unity against the Sounders as the Fire visited Qwest Field for the first time on July 25, 2009 -- a quasi “the enemy of my enemy is my friend type thing”…

“We had the ‘Allied Invasion’ that year where Section 8 folks came out for our match vs. Puerto Rico on the Thursday and supported the Timbers and then on that Saturday we all went up together to see the Fire play against the Sounders, uniting against the common enemy in Seattle.”

Earlier that year, it was announced that Portland along with and Vancouver would be the next two expansion cities to come into Major League Soccer in 2011, going the similar route of building off the fan base cultivate from their in lower-levels of North American soccer.

Part of the push to get the Portland city council to bring an MLS franchise to the Rose City helped the Timbers Army gain organization where they looked in large part to Section 8 for guidance.

“The last time we sort of ‘launched’ there wasn’t really organization,” Goldman-Armstrong explained. “Through that process with the city, we developed a better organization which officially called the 107 Independent Supporters Trust that has a lot of similarities to Section 8. We spoke with them as we developed the organization and while its not exactly the same structure they have, we’re oriented not only on support in the stands but also community outreach, improving soccer in our community and working on other charitable causes.”

Aside for a dislike for Seattle, Section 8 Chairman Tom Dunmore explained why the two associations have been able to work so well together, despite supporting different teams.

“We were happy to help with advice when MLS granted Portland an expansion franchise,” said Dunmore. “Part of that relationship also is that we’re able to keep an eye on what they’re doing. It looks like they’ve done a great job in organization in preparation for this year and Thursday’s home opener. As a supporter, I’m looking forward to their tifo for tonight’s match.”

Though it may sound odd for supporters of two different clubs to be friendly with one another, it’s something that’s not foreign to world soccer, with Liverpool and Celtic supporters sharing a similar arrangement in Britain.

“Worldwide its very common that supporters of different teams have some kind of alliance or respectful relationship with another specific club,” said Dunmore. “You have a reason for that in the first place, formaing a bond with the Timbers Army even before they were in MLS. Clearly there are a lot of similarities in the way we support our clubs.”

Given that their sides will have to face each other twice a season, Dunmore notes that at least 180 minutes a year things won’t be quite as cozy.

“Obviously for 90 minutes we’re not friends and we don’t want them to do well on the field. Before and afterwards we can chat, talk about things and have a beer with each other. That’s just building off something that’s been going on for a long time and has an organic basis. It’s something very positive for supporter’s culture in the league.”

Be sure to tune in for the two club’s first ever meeting as well as well as the home MLS debut of Timber’s Army (inspired in part by Section 8 Chicago) tonight at 10pm CT LIVE on ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes.

For Fire fans unable to make the trek to Portland, head out to Small Bar Fullerton (1415 W. Fullerton) for the official Section 8 Chicago Watch Party tonight!

Jeff Crandall is the Team Writer for the Chicago Fire. Follow him on Twitter @JefeCrandall.