Seattle Sounders fans already scored a sweet little victory in the MLS rivalry about to ignite in the Pacific Northwest. Their club already made life tougher than it needed to be on the debuting teams in 2011 -- the very sides that are already Seattle's chief rivals.
The Sounders' success (and aberration) of an expansion season two years ago may have skewed expectations and inflated false hopes for Vancouver and Portland, cities that bookend the Sounders' Puget Sound to the north and south.
Sigi Schmid's smartly assembled roster in Seattle rode the wave of unprecedented home support in 2009, finishing with an unlikely playoff berth. But Seattle is the only MLS expansion side to crack the playoffs since 1998; debutantes in MLS generally land with the same ugly thump we see for new sides elsewhere in U.S. sports.
Remove Seattle, and four of the last five expansion sides finished at or near league bottom. Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA in 2005, Toronto in 2007 and San Jose in 2008 all finished pinned to the mat. Philadelphia was third lowest in points (31) among 16 teams last year, something of an achievement for coach Peter Nowak's group, all things considered.
Even if you include Seattle's splashy first-year sum (47 points), the last six expansion clubs have averaged just 29 points -- far from playoff contention. So, what can we expect from this year's new pair?
Portland coach John Spencer sounds optimistic. "Our main goal has to be, to be competitive and win games and try to achieve what everyone else sets out to achieve, and that is to make the playoffs and win a championship," said Spencer.
Spencer apprenticed under Dominic Kinnear, serving as assistant while the Dynamo built their winning pedigree with MLS titles in 2006 and 2007. (Those were Houston's first two years, but the Dynamo weren't a true expansion team. They relocated from San Jose along with the bulk of their roster.) So, like Houston, we can expect to see a physical Timbers team that competes for every ball and strives to outhustle opponents. That pretty much describes Spencer's game, too, when he was an undersized MLS forward who scrapped his way to 37 goals.
The problem is that his roster doesn't look anything like what Kinnear had in Houston. Spencer's defense looks suspect, similar to Philadelphia's at this time last year -- and Nowak's back line has been completely rebuilt since. Portland center back Eric Brunner had some good games in Columbus, but he usually had an All-Star in Chad Marshall beside him.
Steve Purdy is contending for a starting spot, although he was pushed out by better and younger defenders in Dallas two years ago. Rodney Wallace might go as far as his confidence takes him after two seasons in the RFK grinder for D.C. United. David Horst was well-liked at RSL but could never move up the depth chart.
Spencer's midfield looks even weaker. Adam Moffat, who was never the same in Columbus following 2009 knee surgery, is the strongest candidate to run the middle third.
Spencer does have two exciting attackers in Darlington Nagbe and Kenny Cooper. Nagbe was the No. 2 pick in January's draft, and his game looks mature beyond his 20 years. Spencer doesn't plan to nurse him along. "It's totally up to him," Spencer said. "If he's good enough, he'll play every game of the season. It's as simple as that. I've told him, 'If you play well, you're going to play a lot.' "
Spencer knows pressure and can carve ruts in the wrong places, but he believes Nagbe is up for it. Besides, the team also collected a proven scorer in Kenny Cooper to subtract some pressure from its touted rookie.
If Portland's roster seems a bit threadbare, Vancouver's is just puzzlingly barren. Coach Teitur Thordarson, with just 16 players under contract, seems to be putting enormous faith in young, untested internationals and in five holdovers from the side that competed in American soccer's second tier last year.
Thordarson is either a genius who has it all figured out, or he has something under his hat in terms of a late signing -- or he's completely in over his head. We'll know more soon, but it's hard to see many victories from the group currently assembled.
Signing big, confident center back Jay DeMerit was surely a positive stroke, but the U.S. national team World Cup starter can't do it all by himself. Hardworking midfielder John Thorrington had some great moments in Chicago. But can he be a primary force rather than a nice, complementary part as he was with the Fire? Goalkeeper Joe Cannon, 36, must rebound from a broken ankle that prematurely ended his 2010 season (and his days in San Jose, as it turned out).
All that, and we haven't even asked the big question: Who in the world might score goals? Atiba Harris is the No. 1 threat at the moment, and he's not even a true forward. Omar Salgado, the 17-year-old man-child and No. 1 MLS draft pick, may be a scoring force one day but remains a project for now. (Plus, FIFA eligibility laws will prevent Salgado from playing outside his homeland, the United States, until he turns 18 in September.)
At least no one questions how these sides will perform at the gate. Whitecaps officials haven't released a season-ticket total but did say over the weekend that they are quickly approaching their 16,500 cap. Same for the Timbers, who are approaching their cap of 12,000 season tickets at the renovated PGE Park.
The Whitecaps will reside for 14 games at 27,000-seat Empire Field, a stopgap facility that is hardly anything to be embarrassed about. It looks like a great place for MLS, even if it doesn't have the modern sheen that newly renovated BC Place will once it opens in the fall. The 54,000-seat facility is being spruced up to the tune of $563 million.
The three-headed Pacific Northwest rivalry will bring something new to MLS: traveling fans in close proximity who are highly motivated to make the short trips.
"I think the atmosphere at the Northwest matches is going to be better than at any other matches," Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi told TheCanadian Press. "You are going to have your visiting supporters that are going to make a lot of noise."
Especially because games against the fellow expansion side will represent some of the best chances for success this year.