5 Things an Englishman Learned While Watching Soccer in America

Posted by Craig Borlase on 9 July 2014

At some point during the preliminary discussions before a trip out to Portland last month, my soon-to-be host stopped talking business and started to get a little excited.

“…and then on the Saturday night we can go watch the Timbers play. I’ve got really good tickets for us.”

 Not being much of a soccer fan, I wasn’t exactly overjoyed at this suggestion. Couldn’t we go to the basketball the night before? Or the baseball? I’d even take my chances with Greco Roman wrestling. Any sport, in fact, just not soccer.

 Despite having grown up in the UK I’ve developed about as much love for our national sport as I have for Saturday night on the BBC, the last train home from Paddington and the way people behave on the roads in rush hour. However, being English and repressed to the point of not wanting to offend my host, I decided that I would just have to man up and go.

I went. The Timbers won. A weedy looking guy with an oversize coolbag threw hotdogs and pretzels and cracker jacks at me. And I had fun. 

Some time later, it struck me that the evening was more than just a pleasant surprise; it had some things to teach me about what happens when we sing.


1. Individualism Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be 

All soccer fans know that there's strength in numbers, and for those following the Portland Timbers there’s a whole army to belong to; literally. Joining the Timber’s Army means that you’re instantly part of a large and loud crowd that fill out section 107. And while I was sat in the nice seats with the generous amounts of legroom and free hotdogs, it was clear that the real fun was being had down there with the raucous lunatics dressed in green and gold. What would it be like if we dropped the ‘I’ from our worship and redefined ourselves once more as a collective?

2. Rules Are OK

After the match I googled them and found an impressive array of information and instruction on TimbersArmy.org. There you can be taught how to sing, how to move and how to handle the banners that get passed overhead. There are policies on flares and advice on etiquette. If a church service was run this way we’d probably call it a cult, but the rules don’t seem to be putting a whole load of people off. In our attempt to make it as easy as possible for people to belong, have we lost some of the value that keep them there?

3. Singing Sounds Better When It Has Purpose

From the start - in fact, even from before the start - the singing was loud, funny and varied. And while it was obvious that it was masses of fun to be part of the thousands-strong choir, it struck me that their singing was intrinsically linked to something bigger. They were trying to alter the outcome of the match, to sway the action on the pitch through the power of their combined voices. I doubted whether many of them were choosing not to sing the songs that didn’t quite move them as much. No, they sang because of what they saw going on in front of them, not because of how it made them feel. How different would things be if the same could be said of us?

4. Leading Is Not The Same As Performing

The Timbers Army take their singing cues from a bunch of individuals who stand at the front of the section. It was strange to see them act so like a worship leader, yet also be so very different. They had no instruments to hide behind, no amplification or backup. It was just them, working as a team to lead the faithful. And though they were standing at the front, they were far from an attraction. They were not lost in ecstatic bliss, not trying to model the required levels of passion and energy, not trying to pretend that they were just going about business as usual. Instead they were looking people in the eye, calling the noise out of them. Could the answer to our angst about performance in worship be as simple as this; let the worshippers make the most noise?

5. Never mind the cliche…

Lastly, isn’t it a little cliche to be comparing the way we behave at a soccer match with the way we behave in church? Hasn’t it been done already? Yes, of course it has. Hasn’t everything? In our rush to find the new thing we’re so often in danger of forgetting the timeless truths that don’t change. Does our quest for innovation kill our creativity?

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