Katie Robeck of Sweet Home watched carefully as the Portland Timbers U23 team battled Starphire FC of Medford on Wednesday night, taking mental notes on positioning and communication.
"It's so cool to think one day you could be doing this," said the Sweet Home High School freshman, who plays on the Total Futbol Academy Under 15 team. "I'm glad we get to watch so we can learn, and see what we can work on."
That was part of the goal of bringing the Timbers' Salem-based Premiere Development League to South Albany High School on Wednesday for the preseason exhibition game against Medford.
The other part: simply giving the mid-valley a great experience watching high-level teams play soccer.
Close to 2,000 people crowded into the Rebel stadium to watch the game, which the Timbers won 2-0.
Timer Zhividze scored on a header, assisted by Alex Segovia, about a quarter of the way through the second half, and Alan Cruz scored on an 18-yard shot with just two and a half minutes to go.
The win was exciting — but not the point, said Logan Hoffman, director of coaching for TFA Willamette. It was to show his players, along with the rest of the community, what's possible when they work hard.
"They're getting exposed to some very high-level soccer," Hoffman said. "Kids in this community can do this. They can develop into high-level players growing up in Albany, Oregon."
And, in fact, two Albany players hit the field for the Timbers on Wednesday: Igor Hubenya, a 2015 South Albany graduate who's a starting holding center midfielder for the Salem team, and Marco Reyes, currently a South senior, who earned a trial spot during tryouts just a few weeks ago.
Hoffman joined forces with South boys soccer coach Tony Vandermeer and with Aaron Lewis, who coaches the Timbers U23 team and is also head soccer coach at Corban University in Salem, to bring the Timbers to Albany.
Lewis had played for Vandermeer when Corban was still known as Western Baptist. He brought the Corban team down last year for some scrimmages, and it went so well he suggested the Timbers come next.
TFA team members pre-sold tickets, going through more than 1,000 well before the game.
"We were hoping to sell 500 tickets," Hoffman said. "When we did that in the first week, I was pretty excited."
Proceeds from the sale will benefit soccer programs at South Albany, West Albany, Lebanon and Central Linn high schools, as well as scholarships for the 4-year-old TFA Willamette program, which provides opportunities for boys and girls ages 3-18 to play soccer year round.
TFA's motto is "More Than a Soccer Club," Hoffman said, and the group takes that to heart. It has partnerships with Greater Albany Public Schools and with the Boys & Girls Club of Albany and uses soccer as a platform to teach kids how to reach for all kinds of future goals: academic, career and leadership as well as athletic.
"We're trying to build a culture," Hoffman said.
Soccer itself is growing in popularity, however. When Hoffman started with TFA two years ago, the program had just 90 members. It's now at 322 and growing.
Jack and Marcia Farr of Turner, who came to watch grandson Nic play goalie for the Timbers, said they were excited to see the crowd. So was Mark Running of Brownsville, whose son, Colton, is a sophomore at Central Linn High School and has been playing soccer since second grade.
"It shows how much interest there is in soccer here," Running said.
Organizers said they hope to have another exhibition game next year, and maybe look for an opportunity to work with the Thorns, a professional women's soccer team based in Portland.
Kendall Walton, a freshman at West Albany High School who plays for TFA U15, said she'll definitely be in the stands for that game.
"It's important to have those role models," she said.