By Julie Cortez, El Hispanic News
The Rose City’s two “football clubs” — the Portland Timbers and the newly-formed Portland Thorns — share initials (PTFC), a home pitch, and a common goal of connecting with the Latino community.
Before the 2013-14 season even began for the Timbers on March 1, forward José Valencia visited the Milagro Theatre in February to give the cast of their upcoming show “Guapa” some tips on how to look like a convincing soccer player. On March 8, Timbers representatives will return to the César Chávez Leadership Conference (CCLC) in Monmouth for the second year in a row to present a workshop and announce the winners of this year’s Bilingual Reporter Program, which invites four local high school students to JELD-WEN Field to interview players and coaches. And they aren’t even in Portland yet and won’t begin play until April 13, but the Thorns’ two acquisitions from the Mexican National Team — Luz Saucedo and Marlene Sandoval — are already scheduled to make their own appearance at Milagro for a free soccer clinic on April 6.
In addition to the Timbers’ 34 regular season games and the Thorns’ 22, the players will be setting aside time throughout the year to distribute health kits, make appearances at schools, lead skills clinics, and much more, all part of a concerted effort to inspire youth to lead healthy, fulfilling, and ambitious lives — and, in the case of the Bilingual reporter program, “to show them there are great benefits of being bilingual and biculturalism,” says Kristel Wissel, the teams’ Hispanic business development manager.
Bilingualism is an important part of Wissel’s own job, which centers on outreach to the Latino community. Much of that outreach is behind the scenes: working with Latino media outlets, producing a bilingual magazine to engage and inform soccer-loving children and their parents, empowering young Latino athletes through scholarships to cover the costs of trying out for the Timbers development leagues. But also key to the effort is getting the faces and voices of players out into the community.
“I enjoy visiting the schools, playing with the kids, reaching out to them, educating them as much as possible, and having a good time,” says Rodney Wallace, a soft-spoken midfielder who moved from Costa Rica to the United States at age 9. Wallace is featured in a video about leadership slated to be shown at the CCLC.
“[The players are] all really accommodating and just love to share their time working with local kids,” Wissel asys. She remembers being particularly touched last year by an interaction between Colombian midfielder Diego Chará and a group of fifth graders at a migrant summer school in the Hillsboro area.
“One of the boys asked Diego what he ate for dinner because they were talking about health and nutrition. Diego said, ‘arroz con pollo, frijoles,’ you know, all of that, and the little boy was so excited because Diego Chará eats the same thing for dinner that he eats,” she recalls. “It’s something so simple, yet that player and that little kid had that instant connection. So it’s those types of experiences that we always want to continue to do.”
The opportunities for instant connections are expanding thanks to Portland’s representation in the new National Women’s Soccer League. In the last few years, during visits to meetings, practices, and tournaments for local Latino youth soccer leagues, Wissel would commonly receive variations on this query from coaches: “I love this, this is great — but I have a daughter. What can we do for her?”
“With the addition of the Thorns this year it just opens more doors to encourage young Latinas to be able to participate in sports and in health and education,” says Wissel, who has already begun talking to representatives of the Forest Grove-based Adelante Chicas program and other organizations that work with Hispanic girls and women “to find out ways that we can bring the Thorns players in and encourage healthy and active lifestyles.”
Of course, in addition to all this outreach there is soccer to be played. Wallace refuses to make concrete predictions about the season, but is optimistic about the impact the Timbers’ new coach and new players will have.
“I feel like every year we get better,” he says. “The fans are something that keeps us going. There’s a lot of history here, and I don’t think that’s ever going to go away, regardless of how the team does. Obviously, we’ve seen it: last year we didn’t do as well [and] they were still here supporting us and we expect them to come out this year for an exciting season.”
It is that loyal and passionate fan base that gives Wallace hope for the long-term success and viability of Portland’s women’s team. “I feel like this is the type of city that can make that happen,” he says.
For both teams, he adds, “There’s a lot of pressure, but it’s good pressure. … I’d say it’s the best place [to play soccer] in Pan-America.”
Thorns players will take part in “Fancy Fútbol Footwork,” a free soccer clinic for the entire family on April 6, from noon to 1:30 p.m., at El Centro Milagro (537 SE Stark St., Portland). Advance registration is required by calling 503-236-7253. The Portland Thorns will make their home debut April 21 against the Seattle Reign. Upcoming Timbers home games include March 9 vs. Montreal and April 4 vs. Houston. For tickets and information, visit portlandtimbers.com. For information in Spanish about Latino outreach events and the team’s Latino fan club — Somos Timbers — visit portlandtimbers.com/es/news.