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KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS



TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Quarterback Shane Austin of the Portland Steel unloads a long touchdown pass to James Perry, just before taking a hit from the Tampa Bay Storm's Nick Addison, as Portland receiver Tyrone Goard runs a shorter route Friday night at Moda Center.The monkey the Portland Steel unloaded from their lumbar regions Friday night at Moda Center was rather large.

“Felt like it was King Kong,” shrugged coach Ron James after the Steel’s 68-35 rout of the Tampa Bay Storm, their first win after eight Arena Football League defeats this season. “But I knew all along we had a good club. We’ve just had some tough situations we’ve had to fight through.”

The jury is out on whether the Steel will become a good club through the second half of the season. Tampa Bay (1-8) hardly qualifies as a juggernaut. No question about those tough situations, though.

The Steel have put themselves in losing positions by not taking care of the ball. They entered Friday having yielded a league-worst average of 63.9 points and having been outscored 511-282 in their first eight games. You wouldn’t know it by total offense figures in those games; Portland actually won that battle by an average of 268 yards to 253. But the Steel had committed 32 turnovers to their opponents’ 10.

The numbers flipped Friday night. Tampa Bay dominated the total offense duel 331 yards to 161. But the Storm committed six turnovers to Portland’s one, and had 12 penalties to the Steel’s two.

“It’s all about turnovers and possessions in this game,” James says. ‘“You have to have almost that hybrid football/basketball mentality — take care of your possessions and make sure you score when you have the ball. When you’re scoring because you have a long field, those statistics look great. But if you come up empty, that long yardage means nothing.”

Then there’s the matter of road weariness. Portland lost 80-28 to Arizona at home in its season opener on April Fool’s Day. No joke — the Steel haven’t played at home since. They were supposed to play the L.A. Kiss at home on May 7, but the Trail Blazers’ home playoff game against the L.A. Clippers sent the game to Staples Center.

The Steel had played seven straight road games before Friday. They flew to Cleveland on May 12 and were supposed to play the Gladiators on the 13th, but the Cavaliers’ home playoff dates postponed it to May 16. (During the extended stay, media relations director Brian Dancel underwent gall bladder surgery. Now, that’s adversity.) The Steel flew back to Portland on May 17, then headed East again on May 20 for a game at Jacksonville.

“We haven’t had a home game in eight weeks,” James said. “To get back here in front of our crowd and have a showing like we did was a very positive step.”

“Crowd” might be an exaggeration. Small gathering is more like it. If it wasn’t an “introduce the fans to the players” night at Moda Center, it was close. Attendance was announced at 5,136, but if there were half that many on hand, Olive Oyl has great pipes.

The Steel have no visibility in the city’s sports landscape. Many of the region’s sports followers aren’t even aware the team exists.

It’s the third straight season for the AFL franchise, but it was called the Thunder the first two seasons under the ownership of moving company magnate Terry Emmert. The league ousted Emmert after last season and, failing to find a new ownership group, took over the club itself, if for no other reason than to keep things balanced with eight teams.

“You don’t have ownership here in the city, which makes for some interesting situations,” says Dancel, who was hired by the AFL to run Portland’s media operations. “But it all gets handled.”

The AFL didn’t want to fold the Portland franchise.

“That was last resort,” said Joe Kleinsmith, the league’s senior director of football operations who was on hand for Friday’s game. “That’s not what we wanted to do for the city, for the fans, for the players. We fought to find local ownership. We’re still currently in that fight. It’s looking really well.”

I’m not going to take that at face value. The ideal situation would be if Blazers owner Paul Allen, who owns and operates Moda Center, would acquire the team. Allen has pretty much decided not to buy the Steel, though he is hopeful the league can find an owner who wants to keep the team in Portland and continue to be a tenant at Moda.

Emmett won’t return as owner. “That’s been ruled out,” Kleinsmith said.

If there’s somebody else who has the financial chops to take over the Steel, I’m all for it. I like Arena ball, though not as much as the outdoor game. It’s a welcome addition to the sports calendar in the city at a time when not much is going on.

The AFL would like to keep Portland as a member. The league recently spent into the six figures for operational costs, including a new field surface that sports the Steel’s logo instead of the old “Thunder” emblem that was still in place for the opener.

“That was pretty costly,” James says. “The league wouldn’t do that without hope that things will turn around and we’ll be able to stay here. This is a great market for the AFL. The league is committed to it.”

Friday’s game ran smoothly. Game operations were Trail Blazer quality, if a bit more limited. Media operations are solid. Game notes and a speed card were provided along with a nice little fish tacos plate pregame meal (I had two).

The Steel went out and played like a playoff contender, which they are, since every team makes the playoffs this season.

“Stone Cold” Shane Austin, the Steel’s fourth starting quarterback this season, threw for five touchdowns. Portland’s Kevin Myers — at 6-6, 370 pounds, “the biggest fullback in the history of football,” he said — rushed twice for five yards and had an auspicious leg-whip penalty.

Sergio Gilliam (Herm’s grandson, perhaps?) nabbed a pair of interceptions. Linebacker Dexter Davis Jr. out of Friends University in Wichita, Kansas — a private, non-denominational Christian NAIA school (I noticed he was holding hands in the defensive huddle) — deflected a couple of passes.

Portland plays five of its final seven regular-season games at home, and reinforcements are on the way. Receiver Jamar Howard, who led the AFL in receiving after five games with Portland last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury, will join the Steel for its game next Saturday at Arizona.

So maybe things are looking up. James, who doubles as the team’s general manager, is hoping the franchise stays put.

“I would love to stay here,” he says. “It’s my first time ever in Portland. I just love the community. I love the atmosphere.

“My marching orders are pretty simple — make sure we get a good product on the field, and that I put together a good organization that will be viable for years to come.”

If that happens, then those cool “Feel the Steel” T-shirts won’t be just collector’s items, but a show of support for a team the city’s sports fans are aware of.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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