Big-time clubs left Portland, Seattle and Vancouver 30 years ago, but their fans never did. Now the teams are back in MLS, and their reborn rivalries are turning the region into a hotbed of the sport
This is an article from the May 23, 2011 issue
"Please: Don't make it like Seattle."
—Portland's mayor (played by Kyle MacLachlan) on commissioning the city's new theme song in the IFC series Portlandia
The moment when the Pacific Northwest succumbed to soccer nirvana came during—what else?—a steady downpour at 8:03 p.m. last Saturday at Qwest Field in Seattle. On the night the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers resumed the fiercest rivalry in American club soccer, a sellout crowd of 36,593 watched in awe as the Emerald City Supporters unveiled a 23,000-square-foot display of nine green-and-blue banners telling the pictorial story of the Sounders' DECADES OF DOMINANCE over their Oregon neighbors—like cave paintings of a modern-day sports culture.
Over in the stadium's northeast corner more than 500 members of the Timbers Army had their own defiant banners proclaiming themselves KINGS OF CASCADIA and announcing WE'RE THE TIMBERS ARMY. WHO ARE YOU? And if the visuals weren't enough, well, there were the songs. Like the one Portland fans sing to the tune of Oh My Darling Clementine:
Build a bonfire, build a bonfire,
Put Seattle on the top,
Put Vancouver in the middle,
And we'll burn the bloody lot!
Or this serenade from Seattle fans:
Seedy little city on a river of piss,
We'll drink your beer and shag your sis!
Last week's showdown, which ended in a 1--1 tie, was just the latest evidence that the Cascadia region has become the hotbed of Major League Soccer. Two years after the Sounders joined the league, their average attendance at week's end (36,350) was far and away the highest in MLS—which has a leaguewide average of 17,150—and would have ranked ninth in the English Premier League, sixth in Spain's La Liga, second in France's Ligue 1 and fourth in Italy's Serie A. In Portland the expansion Timbers are the new darlings of MLS, winning their first four home games while boasting regular sellouts at Jeld-Wen Field (capacity: 18,627), as well as a chain saw--wielding human mascot who saws a slab off a giant log for every Portland goal and clean sheet. Meanwhile, the Vancouver Whitecaps have joined the Timbers as another expansion heavyweight, averaging 19,970 fans, nearing the top of MLS in sponsorships and generating celebrity buzz north of the border. (NBA star Steve Nash, a native son and lifelong soccer fanatic, is one of the owners.)
MLS is growing up in its 16th season, and while the Pacific Northwest teams have no desire to foster a violent hooligan culture—beefed-up security kept the Portland supporters apart from Seattle fans on Saturday—they aren't aiming for a G-rated atmosphere, either. "It's not a Disney movie in that way," says Joe Roth, the Sounders' majority owner, who knows whereof he speaks, having run Disney Studios from 1994 to 2000. Roth believes Sounders-Timbers has the chance to become one of the best rivalries in American sports.
The game capped a fevered week of anticipation from the Emerald City to the Rose City and all the way to Los Angeles, where Roth laid down the smack to Timbers owner Merritt Paulson at a league owners meeting three days before. "We're going to kick your ass this weekend," said Roth, playfully cuffing Paulson, the son of former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. "Take your best shot," replied Paulson, who (like most Oregonians) chafes at the notion of Portland as Seattle's little brother. "It's correct if you're talking about the size of the cities," he says, "but I have a lot of friends who've got two boys, and the elder boy is a little soft and the little one kicks his ass repeatedly."
While last week's game was the first Seattle-Portland meeting in MLS, the rivalry dates to 1975, when the North American Soccer League's Sounders and Timbers had some legendary battles (SI, Aug. 11, 1975). Seattle, Portland and Vancouver all competed in the NASL with the same franchise names, leaving a mark with fans who are still around. "When you tie in that history, it creates a sense of community and it adds a sense of richness to your club," says Keith Hodo, the copresident of Emerald City Supporters, the Sounders' leading fan club. After the NASL folded in 1985, the enmity between the Sounders and the Timbers only continued as the teams competed against each other in minor leagues and in the U.S. Open Cup, a knockout tournament like England's FA Cup. "Any other rivalry in this league has sort of been a created rivalry," says Seattle coach Sigi Schmid. "This rivalry has history. It's been there the last 30-plus years, and that makes it the best rivalry in the league."
Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller played for England's Millwall FC in its notoriously bitter rivalry with West Ham United and says he now sees some similarities in Seattle-Portland. "It's turning into that kind of rivalry here, and that's a cool thing to be in," Keller says, adding that he has no desire for there to be any Millwall-style fan violence. "It shows the healthiness of the sport and where it's moving." As if to prove the point, Keller was booed not long ago by Portland fans while attending a Trail Blazers game (even though he attended the University of Portland and briefly played for a semipro incarnation of the Timbers in 1989).
Fans on both sides of the divide can recall the rivalry's memorable moments. There was the time in 1975 when Portland beat Seattle on a sudden-death goal in the NASL playoffs and Timbers fans stormed the field like a college basketball crowd rushing the court after a huge upset. Or the time when the Timbers Army created a 20-foot-high banner display of Timber Jim, the team's mascot, taking a chain saw to the Space Needle. Or the time in 2009 when forward Roger Levesque scored for Seattle against Portland and celebrated by impersonating a falling tree, with teammate Nate Jaqua taking simulated ax swipes at his feet. (So despised is Levesque by Timbers fans that when he joined Portland for one game as a guest player in '07 they still booed him every time he touched the ball.)
The fans never forget. Over pints of Cascade Autumn Gose and Lucky Lab No Pity last week at Bailey's Taproom in Portland, a half-dozen Timbers Army leaders described their fan group—which fills more than 3,600 seats in a designated section at all home games—and told their side of the grudgefest. "It's fair to say there's genuine malice toward each other," said Dave Hoyt, the group's president, a 33-year-old hospital administrator. "We have put a lot of time into cultivating the hate over the years."
"And a lot of the malice goes beyond soccer," added Garrett Dittfurth, 32, an analyst at a public relations firm. "Seattle was like the pinnacle of American coolness in the '90s, right? Now things have changed a little bit if you want to talk about creativity, arts and music."
"Then there's that big-city mentality they have in Seattle, and down here we're like, You've gotta be kidding me," added Dittfurth. "They have a lot more of an East Coast mentality than we do, and that kind of pervades on the field. You feel that air of superiority."
If the Emerald City Supporters group felt threatened by Portland's rise, they certainly didn't show it on Friday night at a warehouse party in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. As techno music thumped and a three-on-three soccer tournament took place on an indoor field, the youthful leaders of the ECS sipped from cups of Brougham Bitter (the fan group's official craft beer) and explained how they had set a new standard among MLS fans by leading stadium-wide chants, building a membership of 1,200 hard-core members and organizing group road trips to games around North and Central America. They laughed when reminded of the billboard the Timbers paid to put up last year near Seattle's Qwest Field:
SOCCER CITY USA 2011
"It was like shooting a tank with a pellet," said Hodo, a 28-year-old programmer, who was wearing a Mohawk and a black T-shirt for the punk band Rancid.
"We're at 32,000 season tickets, and they sold like 13,000," said copresident Greg Mockos, 28, an engineering consultant. "On their opening night you could argue that maybe they did exceed our passion, but tomorrow we'll remind them where they stand. And the same with Vancouver."
How did soccer get so big in the Pacific Northwest? While the area's NASL history certainly played a role, so did geography. "We're pretty isolated up here, the only three cities until you get to California," says Adrian Hanauer, the Sounders' general manager and a minority owner. "There's nobody else for us to hate and battle with."
That said, the relationship with Vancouver is slightly different. Yes, the Whitecaps have a history with Portland and Seattle, and the team that's most successful in games involving the trio each season wins a traveling trophy called the Cascadia Cup. But Vancouver has its own Canadian rivalry with Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact, who will move up next year from the second tier to become MLS's 19th team. Vancouver's fans also seem to be lacking in vitriol. "It's hard to dislike them because they're so nice," says Timbers Army member Scott Van Swearingen. As the ECS's Mockos says, "They're like the nice cousin that's never going to offend anyone at a party."
The Sounders made their MLS debut in 2009, filling the void left by the departure of the NBA's SuperSonics. As comedian Drew Carey puts it, "We were like, Hey, does your man treat you bad? Come out with us!" Carey joined the ownership group as a minority partner in '07 over a lunch in Los Angeles with Roth, during which he persuaded the Sounders' principal owner to embrace two unusual ideas: having a marching band for the team and allowing the fans to vote every four years on whether to keep the general manager. As an NFL fan, Carey had felt badly for supporters of the Detroit Lions, whose owners had kept Matt Millen in charge of the team for seven years despite his abject failures. "If they had the system the Sounders use in Detroit," Carey says, "the fans could have risen up and fired Matt Millen and made them hire somebody new."
Carey's populist idea (which he took from the elections for team presidents at clubs like Barcelona) was only part of an inaugural season in '09 that could not have gone any better. Seattle won the first of back-to-back U.S. Open Cups, qualified for the MLS playoffs and led the league in attendance by a wide margin. "I tell people, if you are a soccer fan, you've got to come to a game here," says Schmid, a two-time MLS champion coach, "because it's everything we'd always hoped it would be."
The same could be said for the Timbers' debut this year. Portland's renovated stadium isn't as big as Seattle's, but the Timbers Army is right on top of the field and sings throughout the game. Before the club won its home opener 4--2 against Chicago last month, the Army delivered a moving a cappella version of the national anthem. "I don't think you'll ever see an atmosphere better than this," says the Timbers' Scottish coach, John Spencer.
One of Portland's distinctive aspects is Timber Joey, a.k.a. logger Joey Webber, who (like his predecessor, Timber Jim) chain saws a slab of log in front of the fans whenever the team scores a goal. At the end of each home game, the Timbers players are presented their slabs and share in the celebration with the fans. Webber can tell you the exact day Timber Jim retired—Jan. 24, 2008—and from that moment he wanted to take the legend's place at the log. "It was such a piece of home to me to see these logging skills used in Portland that I didn't want it to go away," says Webber. "It's a great tradition," says forward Kenny Cooper. "I haven't seen anything like it before."
Security prevented Timber Joey from bringing his chain saw into the Qwest Field stands on Saturday, but you'd better believe he'll have it with him on July 10 when it's Portland's turn to host Seattle. The 1--1 tie last week was a positive result for the Timbers, who were tied for fifth with the Sounders in the Western Conference (with 14 points) but had played two fewer games. Afterward, Spencer could barely contain his glee over producing one of the most rewarding ties he had ever experienced. "I can't wait to get 'em down to Portland and let them see our superfans at home," the Timbers' coach said. "Let's see if they can control the game the way we did up here tonight."
And with that, the war of words started for the next installment of the best rivalry in American soccer.
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