I sat in the first row of the then auxiliary press box, just above the scoreboard. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com)
PORTLAND – In 1977, a 25-year-old sportswriter put the cart in front of the proverbial horse.
He decided to book a trip to Portland, Ore., even though the team he was covering, the Rochester Lancers, were not guaranteed a spot at Soccer Bowl 77.
He figured he would be a winner either way. If Rochester didn’t make it, he would watch Pele in his final competitive match in the North American Soccer League final.
A few days later, the Cosmos eliminated the Lancers in the semifinals.
If you haven’t caught on, that sportswriter was me and I’m glad I went for so many reasons.
I also learned an important lesson and witnessed some history on Aug. 25, 1977, as the Cosmos defeated the Sounders, 2-1.
I flew into Portland (I was absolutely stunned by the beauty of the area, seeing it for the very first time) excited about covering my first national championship game.
Unfortunately, I was unaware of Powell’s Bookstore at the time, or my baggage would have been ridiculously weighed down by a ton of books, but I enjoyed my short stay.
My press credential said I would be situated in the auxiliary press box, wherever that was. I figured that probably would be close to the main press area, where the Portland, New York/New Jersey and Seattle area writers got first preference. I understood that.
The auxiliary press box was behind one of the goals. I would be lying if I didn’t say I was a bit perturbed. I had a whole three years of covering pro soccer games under my belt and I had never watched a game from behind a goal. Little did I know I was going to have a front seat to history.
In the 20th minute, Seattle goalkeeper Tony Chursky gathered in a long pass down the left side from Giorgio Chinaglia, which was intended for Steve Hunt. As Chursky turned toward to the goal, he started dribbling the ball toward the six-yard box. Hunt decided to follow him, managed to kick the ball towards the net while both players tried to reach the ball first. The ball trickled into the lower left corner while Chursky tackled the Cosmos winger.
I couldn’t believe what I had seen and that rare scoring sequence was forever seared into my mind. I remember it much more than Tommy Ord’s equalizer (he was former Lancer, incidentally) and Giorgio Chinaglia’s 77th-minute game-winner. Both of those goals were on the other end of the stadium.
The scene in the Cosmos’ crowded and raucous locker room was utterly surreal.
The Brazilian media sang and chanted the Black Pearl’s name, “Pele! Pele! Pele!” before they placed him on their shoulders and paraded him through the room.
Just wish we had cell phones to capture the commotion and chaos.
Later, while sitting at his locker, Pele looked at peace with the world. “God has been kind to me. Now I can die,” he said.
I still have my credential from that match. At the time, who knew that was the start of me covering more than one hundred finals (national, regional and world) at various levels. I would up covering six Soccer Bowls. This will be my 25th MLS Cup; COVID-19 won out last year. I’m fully vaccinated this time around.
I returned to Portland two decades later to witness the seeds that Pele had planted. Tab Ramos, who grew up in the shadow of Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., Pele’s home venue in 1977, came to town with the U.S. national team for a vital World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica on Sept. 7, 1997.
With one flick of his right foot, Ramos ended months of frustration in spectacular fashion. Sidelined for eight months due to an ACL injury, the midfielder scored to keep the U.S. alive and kicking in its bid to reach the 1998 World Cup with a 1-0 win before another sellout crowd of 27,396 at Civic Stadium.
Earnie Stewart, now the USMNT general manager, lofted a pass to the right side where second-half substitute Preki won the ball and passed into the penalty area to Marcelo Balboa. The defender fed Ramos, who drilled a shot from the penalty arc past goalkeeper Erick Lonnis into the right corner of the net.
A non-soccer aside: I got to go to Powell’s Book Store for the first time and brought back way too many books.
Six years later, I had a return engagement to the City of Rose when the U.S. women’s national team played Germany in the Women’s World Cup semifinals on Oct. 5, 2003, at PGE Park (the stadium had a name change).
The Americans suffered a stunning 3-0 loss to Germany. The result broke the hearts of the U.S. players and their supporters, plus two streaks. That included an 11-game tournament unbeaten run and the Americans’ 27-game home unbeaten streak (26-0-1).
Well, the trip wasn’t a total loss for at least one American. I got to go to Powell’s again.
So, here I am in my hotel room on Friday, Dec. 10, a day before the MLS Cup final at Providence Park (formerly known as Civic Stadium and PGE Park).
As we all know already, the Portland Timbers will play New York City FC in the MLS Cup on Saturday.
Regardless of the outcome, I feel I have a story that can’t miss. Either City will win its first MLS Cup or Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese will secure his first MLS championship. I just hope I won’t wind up in an auxiliary press box on the deep end of the stadium.
Well, I’ve got to call it a column. I’ve got to finish a couple of more stories before heading out to Powell’s one more time. You never know when you’re going to return to one of your favorite bookstores on the planet while getting another opportunity to cover another MLS Cup and the beautiful game.