It isn’t often a group affiliated with a professional sports team comes to La Grande, unless it is passing through onto a larger city.

But last week, the youth soccer camps affiliated with Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers and the Portland Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League not only drove through town, but stopped in La Grande for a week-long camp.

It was the first time the Timbers and Thorns Youth Camps had come this far east from Portland.

Ethan Weinman, a youth department intern who served as camp director for the four-day camp at Eastern Oregon University, said it was a positive experience.

In fact, it surpassed what he expected. The first-time camp, for boys and girls age 5-18, drew roughly 40 participants.

“To be honest, the numbers here totally exceeded my expectations. I have had less kids at camps in Portland,” Weinman said. “I (recently) finished (an established Portland) camp that had 35 kids, so when I showed up here and saw 40 kids I was amazed. It’s our first camp.”

The reach to the east is part of an expansion by the Timbers outside of the Portland-metro area for their camps. The farthest east the Timbers previously held camps was in Hood River. This summer, the franchise has, or will have, camps as far south as Grants Pass and Medford, and in Hood River, Bend and La Grande to the east.

“We’re trying to expand our reach,” Weinman said. “I think this is a good opportunity.”

Having a Timbers camp in La Grande has been in the works for a couple of years. It started with Stan Rodrigues, a former EOU head men’s soccer coach, and Jessy Watson, the
current EOU assistant coach, reaching out to the Timbers.

Watson said he recently revisited the discussion with Erick Lyslo, the director of the Portland Timbers youth programs.

“We’d like to get something going out here,” Watson said he told Lyslo.

Though he’s on EOU’s staff and a board member of the Grande Ronde Valley Football Club, Watson said he wasn’t necessarily getting in touch with the Timbers because of those positions.

“I first reached out on behalf of the players really,” he said. “I would have loved to see something like that when I was younger.”

The discussion with Lyslo included long-term visions of moving a branch of operations to Eastern Oregon, but there first had to be a camp in order to evaluate the response.

“Erick thought this would be a good start to see where that’s going to go,” Watson said of the La Grande camp. “This camp was just the beginning.”

Weinman also sees the region as a place the Timbers could have a long-term presence, calling Eastern Oregon an untapped area.

“From talking to the kids about club team resources in the area, it sounds like it’s something where more expansion could happen. We could reach out into this area and try to have more of an impact.”

For starters, Weinman said Northeast Oregon is an “awesome place” to have a camp.

“The distance makes it a little tougher from Portland, but as far as having one or two camps every summer, I think this is a prime location,” he said. “The kids are fantastic. Not just skills-wise but personalities. We have some great kids out here.”

Weinman said it’s been a productive week, and he plans to tell his bosses the area is worth capitalizing on.

The premise of the Portland Timbers youth program camps, according to Weinman, is pretty simple: “Have a little fun with the kids and make sure they’re able to enjoy soccer and get a positive experience with soccer. We (also) try to reinforce as much skill training as we can.”

The camps aim to cater to beginning and younger athletes who have limited experience, while also building up the skills of those who have been playing the game for a while.

“I think the main thing that comes with working with a younger athlete or someone who might be trying to pick up the sport for the first time is trying to make it relatable and fun,” Weinman said. “I want them to leave the week of camp with that feeling of, ‘I have to get back on a soccer field.’”

The activities focused on the fundamentals of the game, including defending, passing, shooting and dribbling in a range of drills and games.

The majority of the campers fit into the 10-and-younger category, and Weinman said those who didn’t have as much experience on the field were finding their way by the end of the week.

“We’ve had some really good campers this week who started out not so comfortable (but) they’ve gotten their footing to where they’re able to find their way in the game,” he said.