Long before the Timbers were MLS Cup Champions, long before the MLS Cup was even a goal, we have dreamed of this moment. This moment is why many of us that had been around in the USL days cherish the US Open Cup. For a decade, it was our one way to qualify for CONCACAF Champions League. To get there, we repeatedly faced incredible odds as we worked our way up the table to lose, frequently to teams with single players making more than our entire squad. Despite this, Our Boys would give everything they had and more for the Badge above their hearts as we would drive them on with every ounce of intensity and civic pride we could muster in an effort to get to this moment. Landon Donovan, in an interview after one such match, said it was the only place he’d played where the supporters were so constantly loud with our chants, would get louder after being scored on, and louder still with subsequent goals against us. That was back when RCTID was the loudest chant we did as a motivation for Our Boys when they needed it most. I say all this because there were very few discussions about CCL that did not include the dream of Costa Rica Away. It has often been injected into a simple mention of the tourney as a common parsing within the Timbers Army nomenclature. How could it not be the top of any list of countries to travel to in CONCACAF?
When it was announced that Costa Rica Away was finally happening, we scrambled to see if we could swing it, but needing to replace our roof this year meant we couldn’t afford to do any away days outside Cascadia this year. After waiting for so long for this moment in Timbers history, needless to say I was super bummed. Then, the Timbers FO asked the 107ist board if they could send a writer and a photographer with them on their chartered flight and stay in their hotel. When they asked me to be the writer less than a week from the flight, I could not say no. I scrambled to get my life covered while prepping for the match. With no security call and little communication with Saprissa security, we moved to cover our bases by amassing flags, painting banners, loading streamers, and figuring out the logistics of getting a drum down there. My wife actually called me at one in the morning before our flight telling me to put down my brushes and come home. Like a child trying to deal with the nervous energy on the eve of Christmas, I wasn’t going to be able to sleep much without being Very Prepared.
I’ve been supporting this club for a long time and have built a lot of casual relationships with much of the staff. I left my fanboy days behind me a long time ago, so respecting the privacy of the players is pretty easy for me. After all, we were there to cover the experience from the point of view of the TA, not to do an exposé on the club. That said, if any of them wanted to initiate conversation with us, we would gladly talk with them. As the team and staff rolled up, many stopped by to say hi and say they were glad we were chosen to capture this moment for the TA.
We got into the hotel after dark and there wasn’t much around the hotel (felt more like a resort) other than a huge modern mall across the street and a casino in a neighboring hotel. So, we chose to hang out in the bar off the lobby for some fabulous mojitos before bed. Some of the FO staff was in there with us and GW bought us a drink on their tab.
We in the Timbers Army have a great travel reputation that extends far outside the stadiums we visit. When we travel we share our passion for the Rose City and Our Club through (mostly) respectful evangelism, or as we call it, Spreading the Love. Getting in late, we did some of this the first night in the hotel bar with the bartenders and floor staff as we described our style of support and our excitement at being there to do so. While they were all fans of Saprissa and were all quick to talk about the difficulty we’d have getting a result in the Monster's Cave, they all pointed to a particular bartender as a huge Saprissa supporter. You could see it in his side-eye gaze that he wanted to have a go at us but couldn’t due to his job, and was really hesitant as we talked about what we do to support.
Later, Porter comes down looking a little beat. He had just watched six hours of match footage to prep for the next day’s training. We bought him a glass of wine before he went over to talk to his staff and he promised to make some time to talk to us during the trip.
The next morning, the eve of match day, the resort aspect of the team’s hotel was more evident as a constant flow of tour vans loaded up with gringos to head off to the countryside. We, on the other hand, were in a hurry to find our people in the heart of the city, so we hailed a cab. Some would complain about the traffic, but it provided a good pace for a visual introduction to the city as we admired the local street art with the numerous beautiful murals and intricately stylish graffiti, the many parks and open spaces bustling with activity, the city’s varying styles of architecture, and the ubiquity of the Costa Rican flag in all forms.
We rolled up on Hotel Presidente, the base camp for the Timbers Army, to meet up with our people to explore the city. Half a block off a popular pedestrian street lined with retail storefronts and street vendors, it was night and day from where we were staying and provided us the opportunity to be among the real people of San José. We walked down the long avenue to the mercado and explored it using our best labyrinth strategy. Like similar markets around the world, it really gave us a sense of the local culture. From the smells of fresh and dried herbs and spices to the myriad fruit stands, from the glorious array of colors from various floral stands to the traditional children’s dresses hanging outside the various knick-knack shops, from the endless options for fresh seafood to the overwhelming options to grab something to eat, there were people everywhere. When I travel, I use the bbq technique to find out where to eat: look for the place that smells amazing and has a bunch of people eating there. However, this strategy was difficult to implement, as they all smelled wonderful and were packed with people. As someone would stand up, someone else would take their place, everywhere. Luckily, we met someone that could help us decide on a place and they steered us toward some remarkable empanadas in the traditional Costa Rican style. Legit.
After meandering back to base camp, we found the TA starting to gather together from their flights and, more frequently, from the forested mountains of the countryside. Listening to the stories of sloth hunts, monkeys in the trees outside their windows, and the plans to kick it on the coast for a few days after match day, it reinforced that I was doing it all wrong on this trip. The next time I go down will be very different, for sure.
As we broke off to explore different parts of the city and meet its people the way we do, we really got a chance to see, feel, and experience Pura Vida. Pura Vida has been the nation’s mantra for generations. It permeates the culture and is evident everywhere you go. While it directly translates to “pure life,” from my brief experience there, I translate it as a passion for living well—for no matter how bad things get for you, there is always someone who has it worse, so we all need to be here for each other. If you put yourself in a position to give to others, you’ll find yourself in a position to receive when you need it most. As a result, they value family, friendship and their relationship with nature and believe in living a simple, uncluttered life while doing so with passion, for life is short, so, Pura Vida. Personally, I found a lot of parallels with the pride we take in what makes Portland, and Oregon, different from other cities and states in the US and reminded me we could be doing much more. (Oh, and the bbq technique of finding somewhere to eat totally worked in the barrios of San José.)
There are many ways to measure the effects on the population. They have a higher life expectancy than we do. They have better access to healthcare and education. Every one of the many large public squares I walked through was bustling with people living with Pura Vida. It’s visible in their beautiful street art and intricate graffiti, in their friendly faces and open hearts, in their pride of place and support for Los Ticos, and, in San José, Deportivo Saprissa as members of the Nación Morada.
The Costa Rican people were as welcoming as their reputation would have you believe, as one of the greatest things about Pura Vida is the willingness to share it with others. The people were very approachable, helpful, and friendly. After people discovered we were there to support Our Club against their beloved Saprissa, they took great comfort in the strength of their team and the support they give them as the environment created by not only the Ultra Morada, but the Nación Morada as a whole, which is what makes their stadium the “Monster's Cave” (a translation of which even those with the most broken English would remind us). All made sure we knew it was a place to be feared—fear not for our safety as much as for our emotional well-being. They were confident in their ability to break the spirit of teams that play there and the supporters that follow them. This support, the way they make the entire stadium bounce and the lack of results from teams that play there, is one of the things I was looking forward to the most. They are very proud of this reputation, just as we are of the environment we create in support of the Rose City. Defending our indomitable spirit, the way we do, some started referring to us as "los gringos más locos que hay".
Some of us had been interviewed for a live video pod for the Nación Morada. The intent was to learn about us as supporters, our organization through the 107 Independent Supporters Trust, and our rivalries, and gain some insight into Our Boys. They were surprised and honored to learn what Costa Rica Away has meant through the history of the Timbers Army. They were also highly intrigued by our matter-of-fact claims that the Riveters lead the world as supporters of women’s soccer, along with the fact our women can drink beers the size of their faces. When asked which of our players they should keep an eye out for, we mentioned the beautiful play of Valeri as our maestro and waxed on about how much we were going to love their frustration with Chará. It was a really great talk, even though my proclivity for being suckered into a damn fine sangria may have impacted my side.
Despite all their confidence in the Monster's Cave, we had gotten word from Timbers security after they finally met face to face with Saprissa’s that they were hitting us with major restrictions. They were really concerned about anything that could be thrown on the pitch. Despite our security’s assurances of our reputation as passionate yet well-behaved (within reason) away supporters, the word came down that we couldn’t bring the drum or other noisemakers, flags on poles, streamers, smoke, flares, cameras with detachable lenses (because throwing a lens is a thing, apparently), large overhead banners (due to the likelihood of someone lighting a flare under it being a fire hazard). However, they did say we could bring in our banners and hang them off the front railing, as well as the flags off poles. Even with the inconvenience, we were Very Prepared and ready for match day.
Getting back to the team hotel that night, we found Caleb hanging in the bar casually waiting to talk to us. We let the FO buy the round and ended up hanging out till one in the morning. We traded stories on a number of subjects, most of which were of course Timbers-related. We talked about events from the point of view of the TA. We talked about managing the constant roster changes and injuries. We talked about family and life in Portland. We talked about his youth, growing up as the son of a logger. The best story from the night was about the picture he has on an end table he had made out of a log slab. This picture is of him as a baby in 1975 sitting on a log slab with an axe in it. So, of course, we talked about fate. He’s very intense when it comes to doing his job (as we all see on the regular) and it was really nice to just chill with him in a casual environment.
The morning of match day we were kicking it in the lobby waiting to make sure our bags, flags, and the drum got on the bus, as we were leaving directly from the stadium to the airport after the match. While we were waiting, Porter rolled up and showed us some pictures on his phone of his strategic analysis of what he expected during the run of play. It was like flipping through a book of the famous middle games in chess history. He had things broken down into moments of the match like chapters and what we needed to do to respond to the things he knew they were going to do at different moments. He knew there isn’t a target forward in their league the size of Adi. He also knew there’d be a point when they'd come at us with everything they’ve got and we’d have to work hard to hold our shape and stay coordinated on defense. He had about a dozen scenarios diagrammed with intricate adjustments. He knew that if we pushed hard and set the pace in the first 10 minutes, we could show them our true spirit and welcome them to try and destroy it. A wise man once said, come strong or don’t come at all. With the team we brought down and the number of TA, that’s what we were gonna do. Our Boys are the pit bull and we’re the crazy guy.
A little later we were approached by the bartender from the first night who had given us the side-eye, and he was all giddy that he’d found us. Apparently, since meeting us he had watched a bunch of videos of the TA and, coupled with our passionate description of our style of support, had decided to wholeheartedly adopt the Timbers as his MLS team. He said he had been telling our story around his neighborhood and, even with early reluctance by many, he was able to get people to understand and appreciate the way we Spread the Love. This is why I brought scarves, so I scarfed him with an extra No Pity.
The traveling Timbers Army gathered before the match at a local Irish bar that was decked out in typical Irish bar fashion and included scarves from all over the world hanging from the walls and ceiling. They had a pretty impressive tap selection and good food (their fries were legit). They had opened early to accommodate us and, as our reputation goes, we drank well and tipped well, making it well worth their while. As a thank-you in addition to splashing mad cash, we presented them with a No Pity for their wall. Among many of the familiar faces, there were a few new ones from places like Alaska and Madrid, and a friend of Danger’s who was still biking back from a visit to the US on his way home to Colombia.
Something I haven’t mentioned yet: it was their Independence Day. We always knew the parade and festivities were going to be a logistical issue and, sure enough, our bus got caught behind someone running with a torch. Long story short, we did make it to the stadium before the match, but were about an hour behind schedule. The security plan for the drop-off and entry into the stadium worked well despite one grievance. A part of the security agreement was to not bring in items that could be used as a projectile. A little heads up that this included coinage would’ve been appreciated. The lady holding the gallon container with the slit in the top watched in amazement at the amount of money we, as a group, deposited as we passed. With several people having up to $10 in change to drop, we donated a quart of coins. I have no idea how much that is specifically, but, as a betting man, I’d say roughly $250, which collectively is not pocket change. If we aren’t going to get it back, I personally would appreciate assurances that it goes to some charity.
As we walked up to the security guard doing bag searches, I offered up the banner under my arm as well as the ones in my bag, asking if he needed to check them for offensiveness. He pulled me aside as I unfurled Hello Kitty holding a No Pity scarf. The looks on his face, going from shifty-eyed serious to confused amazement with a small touch of head shake to a pure smile, was great to watch. I started to pull out the others and he shook his head and waved me into the tunnel.
into the section, we started to get settled and set up the banners on the railing. We were immediately told that we couldn’t hang anything off the railing, which was counter to our agreement. They kept saying it was a CONCACAF ruling, but looking out at the banners in other parts of the stadium and the look in their eyes, I knew we weren’t getting the real truth. Timbers security jumped on it for us and got the right people to honor the agreement. Then, they said we couldn’t hang them with duct tape, so we replaced it with zip ties. Then, they said we couldn’t use zip ties or hang them from the rail, but could hold them. This changed again several times over the course of the match, which was really annoying especially given it was a different messenger each time.
Our section grew a little with the addition of some Timbers fans from other parts of the stadium. Two of these were a Portlander who had been living down there for the last eight years and his 3-year-old son. Don't worry, the kid got scarfed with his first No Pity.
As the first kick approached, the songs started. Their songbook was full of familiar tunes that span Central and South America, and they did them well. They didn’t blare out their chants as much as truly sing them with a unique melody all their own from a passion deep in their souls. I found myself dancing to many of their songs, especially the many that captured the entire stadium in unified song. Their version of “Esta es la Banda Loca” put chills down my spine as one of my personal favorites from the region. (There is a Timbers Army version out there, but it has way too much Spanish to make it into our official songbook. However, my offer to sing it on the spot will always stand.) While we tried to counter in song when we could, we were frequently drowned out in a battle for the terraces we were never going to win.
Porter had mentioned that we were going to be coming out strong, and Our Boys started the match with spirited, fearless pressure. It was obviously unexpected in the Monster's Cave as the crowd empowered their team to elevate the intensity of the match. When our early pressure resulted in Valeri’s goal in the 5th, we were overcome with an immeasurable joy and a bewildering feeling that we could actually pull off a result here where so few could. Porter’s comments about them being frustrated with Adi’s size culminated in them actually taking swings at him in the 20th. Our section was like watching the match from the beer garden in the Hollow, so we couldn’t tell most of what was happening on the other side of the pitch. All we really knew was that the crowd was not pleased with Gleeson, as they whistled whenever he touch the ball and even got up to catorce on a goal kick. And, just as we had told the Nación Morada people who interviewed us, Chará’s play frustrated the entire crowd. *Wipes tear of joy from eye*
As the ball found the back of the net for them, we were pummeled from all directions with an intensity that Seattle fans will never have. It felt like half the stadium was giving it to us in the Timbers Army section. Part payback for our early celebration and antics, everyone you could see was having a go. It was like the nicest guy you could meet doing the double bird dance at us. All we could really do is drink it in while we waited for "RCTID" to be heard past the immediate few around us.
We had been warned that they might take offense to some of our actions and, “as a proud people,” might retaliate in some way. This ended up mainly being in the form of stadium-wide whistling at some of our chants. When we sang O.J. Obatola’s chant at the top of our lungs, the way we do, after they sang a championship song to the same tune, they weren’t too impressed and let us know. (If you don’t know the Obatola chant, ask around. It’s the best chant we’ve ever done for one of our shortest-lived players.) Another case was after they were time-wasting with the ball when they were up, the crowd sang “OLE” with every pass; we did the same for our side to lighten the mood and they, again, let us know their displeasure. There were plenty of birds flying around the stadium, which seemed to be fine, but apparently shaking one's fist in an up-and-down motion causes great offense and resulted in three, maybe four, rocks being tossed in our direction from their north end. No one was seriously hurt, but one of our FO’s security took one in a knuckle which swelled up pretty good. Another was close enough to be felt passing by someone’s head.
One of the banners we made for the trip was to honor Timbers Legend and San José’s own Rodney Wallace, in a depiction of him doing the airplane after scoring the championship winner in Columbus—the goal that got us to this epic away day. Just before the half, some of their supporters that were in the box behind us asked if they could take pictures of the front of some of our banners. Knowing it would mean the most to them, we pulled this one up for them and you could immediately see the respect in their eyes as we honored one of their own. At the half, we walked it up and handed it to one of their elders as a gift. The elder supporter and those around him were honored to receive this gift and draped it in front of them with pride for the rest of the half for all to see. Of course, they pulled it up before the 2nd, but expecting them to fly our colors is silly. Hopefully it finds a way to fly for him at a national team match.
We met another elder during the half who was a marvelous example of what Saprissa means to this community. At ninety-two years old, she attends every match and supports with a passion that we in the Timbers Army can respect and adore. Several of us walked up to show our respect as she reached down to us from her perch like a noble queen.
All in all, it was a beautiful night for some footy. There was a mist that lingered under the lights giving everything a surreal quality, and shortly after someone mentioned the great weather, we got just enough of a sprinkle to sing and dance “Let it Rain, Let it Pour, Let the Portland Timbers Score, Nana-Na-Na, Na-Nana, Na-Na.” This one went over with actual fanfare from the rest of crowd, and I’m sure it helped to solidify our reputation as "los gringos más locos que hay.”
As the match started to enter the final moments, a few of their fans started to head to the exits. We gave them a couple rounds of “We Can See You Sneaking Out,” to mixed fanfare (as always). This was the tip of the iceberg: as the final whistle blew and the exodus before us began, the flow of supporters offered constant reminders of the score and their passion, with everyone using the exit next to us giving us a go now that they could see the whites of our eyes. That intensity waned, for the most part, as we pelted them with invites to come to Portland, a cacophony of exclamations of “PURA VIDA!” with all the passion we could muster as TA, followed by an exclamation of our plans to go to the beach through a chant of “Vamos a la Playa, Oh Oh-Oh-Oh.” How could you be mad at that?
As the TA was shuffled off to the bus to take everybody back, we were escorted across the pitch to meet up with the team buses heading to the airport. While the team was wrapping up post-match interviews, MP was lividly pacing, silently trying to avoid the little drywall in the area. The guy is really protective of his players, I’ll give him that.
As our bus pulled away from the stadium and started the snaking path through the surrounding barrio, the celebrations of victory and independence were everywhere in the streets and doorways. A memorable young boy stood on a stoop as we passed. Lifting the badge above his heart far from his chest and holding up four fingers in rhythmic song, he gave me comfort that they’re raising ‘em right down there.
There’s been one other time I flew back on the same plane as Our Boys, and that was after Captain Jack lifted the Cascadia Cup in Vancouver. This time was completely different. Say what you will about the inability of refs from Cuba calling a match of this magnitude. Say what you will about the physical play in CONCACAF. I’m proud of the heart and spirit Our Boys brought onto the pitch in the Monster's Cave. Scoring two goals in that environment is no easy task. In my eyes, we stood our ground against an opponent that knows what it takes to be multiple time CCL Champions. Now, we travel to El Salvador to face DC Dragon in their house. Despite our road results this year, we need to show our dominance and crush their spirits like we were supposed to at home. Our passion; our fearlessness; our heart; our chemistry—let’s ride this thing. Saprissa is coming to our house next. Let’s show them how we do what we do.
Many from the US may look at the housing in the barrios of San José, and other areas of the world, and question the quality of life. With our current housing crisis here in Portland with the skyrocketing housing prices and rents forcing members of our community into various forms of hardship, the growing numbers of homeless Portlanders, and with no real solution in sight, one can argue that maybe we’re the ones doing it wrong. There’s something to be said for the benefits on the health of a community with close proximity versus many of our communities where people rarely see, let alone know, their neighbors. How much do we sacrifice in life to maintain our housing choices? Is it the difference between an economy based on single family home-ownership and one based on quality of life? I’m not sure. I would need to spend much more time studying this issue to say for sure but, I’m sure the answer is in the middle somewhere.
The transportation infrastructure, on the other hand, is a whole different story. Pedestrians need to be agile or you could end up in the storm sewer through a man-sized hole, the traffic was pretty bad, and I only saw one brave soul on a bike (wearing a respirator) near downtown San José. That said, there was a Critical Mass bike ride on the news while we were there, which is a solid step forward for their safety as cyclists.
Lastly, I’d like to invite the Nación Morada to come to our house with everything they can. Bring your banners, flags (on poles), and drums. There’s no pyro in the away section but please, bring your hearts full of song. You’re going to need it all to get a result in our house.