PORTLAND, Ore. – Before Portland’s soccer culture ever included craft beer or the crazed Timbers Army supporters, it had wooden benches, the same benches the Timbers Army pounds on in the north end of Providence Park. Think of the oldest stadium to ever host a MLS All-Star game—against Bayern Munich on Wednesday, Aug. 6—as part 1926 history and part modern-day Portland.
While early incarnations of the Timbers have called Providence Park—the name is new this year, previously dubbed Jeld-Wen Field, traditionally Civic Stadium and historically Multnomah Stadium—home off and on for decades, a 2011 remodel carved out this urban stadium specifically for soccer.
And while the $40 million makeover removed the multi-purpose and baseball awkwardness from the venue in downtown Portland, it still left major pieces of the 1926-built stadium, including those now 88-year-old wooden benches.
Boasting a sellout crowd for every MLS game since, the 20,814-seat venue comes alive for the Timbers and the reigning NWSL champion Portland Thorns, with the 6,000 supporters swaying in the north end, just as they always have, able to move freely in the general admission section, an unusual opportunity in pro sports.
“They grew up in section 107 right behind the net,” Mike Golub, the Timbers’ president of business operations, told SI.com. “It grew exponentially over the years and there was never any doubt they’d be behind the goal.”
But it isn’t just an Army and Timber Joey sawing logs when the home team scores that keeps the stadium hopping.
“It is an amazing downtown stadium with high soccer tradition,” Golub says. “We wanted to build a foundation and be a club that authentically reflects the city.”
Located downtown on a light rail line, the 15,500 season ticket holders—5,500 of those are in the Army section who enjoy input on major club decisions—enjoy the seamless merging of the new and old.
The west side contains the bulk of the historic charm with seating that once pointed to an Elvis concert, two presidential visits and the NFL’s first-ever overtime game. The stadium even hosted Pelé’s final professional game in 1977. A heavy dose of the stadium’s seats rest in this original grandstand.
The horseshoe bowl flows to the north end—past 24 stacked suites installed in 2000—where the old fully enclosed concourse merges with the new and opens to the intersection of Southwest Morrison Street and Southwest 18th Avenue. The east side showcases modern touches with the 5,200-square-foot KeyBank Club with covered seating, a team store and an open-air concourse that spills onto 18th Avenue, separated only by iron fencing.
The south end, nestled against the historic, yet drab, Multnomah Athletic Club and its windows and decks that peer straight onto the FieldTurf pitch in Portland’s own rooftop-style viewing, features a food cart patio and a 9,250-square-foot party deck behind the goal.
To fill the food cart, concessioner Centerplate and the Timbers worked with the Portland Food Cart Alliance to invite a mix of local carts into the park over the years before settling on the four most popular this year, Ben Forsythe, local Centerplate general manager, said.
“The food cart culture is alive in Portland and people love it,” Golub added. “It is how you reach out to the community and involve them.”
Food carts may scream Portland culture, but so does alcohol and buying local, two things the Timbers have instilled on the concourse, with 15 beer flavors at 200 total taps combined with on-tap hard cider and kegged local wine, options usually reserved for the suites.
The finishing touch, though, on providing fans a “definite Portland experience,” as Golub calls it, moves us back to the pitch, where the urban location requires the tight dimension of 110 yards by 75 yards drops 35 feet below the streets above it in a natural bowl, allowing the fans perched on 88-year-old wooden benches to voice their, well, historic character.
Tim Newcomb covers stadium, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter @tdnewcomb.