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Merritt Paulson's soccer evolution continues with new USSF board role

Merritt Paulson, Caleb Porter Portland Timbers and Thorns owner Merritt Paulson, left with Timbers coach Caleb Porter, was recently elected to the U.S. Soccer board of directors. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Merritt Paulson, the 40-year-old owner of the Portland Timbers and Thorns, wasn’t always a “soccer guy.” Oh, he grew up watching the World Cup, but his interest was mainly in other sports, and he worked as an executive at NBA Entertainment until 2007.

Then he bought the Timbers and went down the soccer rabbit hole.

“It’s just an immersion,” said Paulson, who took it one step further last weekend by being elected to U.S. Soccer’s board of directors, replacing Kevin Payne. “One of the neat things about soccer is how infectious it is. The more you learn about it, the more you know what you don’t know. It’s such a nuanced sport, and it really does get in your system in a way that over time few other sports do.”

“I’m a zealot and unbelievably passionate about helping grow the sport of soccer,” he continued. “In that vein, I think this new post on the federation board is a terrific honor.”

Two weeks ago Paulson was asked to join the USSF board, a 17-member body with 15 voting members. A more-or-less pro forma election took place over the weekend at the federation’s annual general meeting in New York City. Paulson represents the Pro Council on the board with MLS commissioner Don Garber.

“Merritt is a smart and passionate owner of teams in MLS and the NWSL,” said U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who was re-elected to his third term over the weekend. “His two teams are among the most successful in our sport, in no small part due to Merritt’s stewardship. He’ll be a great addition to our board.”

Paulson’s Timbers joined MLS in 2011 and have been one of the most successful teams in the league, both on the field (finishing first in the 2013 Western Conference regular season) and in terms of local interest. Portland has 15,300 season-ticket holders (second in MLS behind Seattle) and a waiting list of more than 9,000. The Timbers have sold out every MLS home league game at 19,000-seat Providence Park (formerly Jeld-Wen Field), a streak of 53 games and counting.

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Meanwhile, Paulson’s Portland Thorns are the reigning NWSL champions and the flagship franchise of the women’s top flight. Led by Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair, Portland averaged 13,320 fans per home game last season, three times as many as any other team in the league.

Paulson is a hands-on owner of both teams, a guy whose day-to-day job is president of his two pro franchises. On Monday night, the first thing he did upon arriving back home in Portland was to attend the unveiling party of the Timbers’ new uniforms, which he oversaw.

On the face of it, Paulson isn’t the first person you think of when it comes to Portland, a bastion of lefty hipsterism. His father, Hank, who helped fund his son’s team purchases, is the former CEO of Goldman Sachs and was the U.S. Treasury Secretary during the George W. Bush administration. The senior Paulson helped guide the U.S. through the 2008 global economic crisis.

But Merritt Paulson, an outdoors enthusiast, says he and family have grown to love living in Portland and immersing themselves in the thriving soccer culture he has helped to grow.

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“Seeing the support firsthand and the unbelievable passion of our community and our supporters, it really is special,” he said. “That’s unique to soccer.”

That passion extends to Paulson, who loves to mix it up on Twitter and is one of the more entertaining follows in MLS. It also helps that Portland has become one of the league’s powerhouses under coach Caleb Porter as it heads into this season’s MLS opener on Saturday against Philadelphia.

“We will be holding trophies,” Paulson predicted. “That’s certainly the goal, and it’s a question of when, not if. I feel like we have as good a shot as any team in the league this year, but there’s a lot of great new talent in the league. It’s never as easy as people think it will be. Last year we crept up on some teams by surprise. We certainly have a target on us this year, and that’s great. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

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