PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Sal Zizzo shrugged when he was chided about his lack of gardening skills. The Portland Timbers' midfielder is from sunny San Diego, after all.
"Too much soccer, maybe?" Zizzo offered as an excuse.
But on Saturday he joined about 30 others in a community garden in Beaverton, where he got his hands dirty transplanting cabbage. The effort was part of the Timbers' Stand Together Week, an all-out volunteering effort by the team, front office staff, sponsors, former players and fans.
Despite a disappointing second season in Major League Soccer, the wildly popular Timbers are not letting a commitment to the community slide. Because the MLS had a break in play for World Cup qualifying, the Timbers decided it would be a good time to help out more than 30 nonprofit organizations
"We have the privilege of being a sports team in a city that really appreciates us," Timbers Chief Executive Officer Mike Golub said. "It's just fundamentally the right thing to do to use the power of sports to give back to the community that makes it possible for us to exist."
With the help of Hands On Greater Portland, which matches volunteers with causes across the region, the Timbers estimate that they have brought as many 900 people to help out on projects focusing mostly on youth and the environment. The "volunteer-a-palooza," as Golub puts it, wraps up Sunday.
Zizzo worked at Kennedy Gardens, which has been lent to the community for 13 yards by nearby St. Matthew Lutheran Church. Plots in the garden were filled with the last of the summer's vegetables and flowers.
"In Portland, the Timbers are somewhat of a big deal compared to other MLS cities to it's kind of cool to give back and show that we appreciate the fans." Zizzo said.
Patricia Davidson has volunteered at Kennedy Gardens for the past three years, tending to the plots and harvesting vegetables for Tualatin Valley Gleaners, a supplemental charity food program that helps families in need as well as the homebound.
"There's a huge need," Davidson said as she picked tomatoes.
The Timbers are 7-16-9 this season, in second-to-last last place in the league's Western Conference with two games left.
The team fired head coach John Spencer in July and replaced him for the rest of the season with general manager Gavin Wilkinson. Portland has already hired Caleb Porter, who has had success at the University of Akron for seven seasons, to be the team's new head coach starting in 2013.
The Timbers return to the pitch next Sunday when they visit the Vancouver Whitecaps, in the final game of the hotly contested Cascadia Cup rivalry between Portland, Vancouver and Seattle.
The original Cascadia Cup was introduced in 2004 when the Timbers, Whitecaps and Sounders were part of the United Soccer Leagues' first division. Fans pooled their money to buy a 2-foot tall trophy, which went to the team that finishes with the best record in head-to-head matches among the trio, based on a points system.
Seattle now has nine points to lead the cup race, thanks goal differential, but Portland could claim the cup with a win at Vancouver. A draw or a Whitecaps victory would keep the regional trophy in Seattle.
Claiming the Cascadia Cup would help take the sting out of the season. But for the moment, the Timbers are focused on being good "Cascadians."
"Frankly, I'd hold up our community relations platform to any team in sports, anywhere," Golub said. "We're really, really proud of what we've done in the community, and when I say we, I mean the organization and also our fans."