By Jose M. Romero / RomeroJoseM
For FOX Deportes
It’s hard to argue that the heart of professional soccer in North American beats in the Pacific Northwest.
When Major League Soccer placed expansion teams in Seattle in 2009 and in Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C. two years later, the league re-ignited the flame of longtime soccer rivalries between the three cities. It re-established Cascadia – the name that residents of the region gave to their part of the world – as the hotbed of soccer in the U.S. and Canada. Rivalries between the three clubs that began in the North American Soccer League heyday – the mid-to-late 1970s – were rekindled at an even higher level.
The stakes are always higher when the Cascadia clubs face each other, and there is no more fierce a rivalry in all of MLS than Portland vs. Seattle. The two teams square off for the first time this season – the first of three regular-season meetings in 2012 – Sunday afternoon at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland.
These Sounders-Timbers matches are marquee in MLS, so much so that each one is set for national television. Sunday’s 2 p.m. PT match is on ESPN, right after England and Italy square off in the Euro 2012 quarterfinals.
Both Portland and Seattle are struggling, making this game very important for both sides. The Sounders (7-4-4) haven’t won a regular-season game since May 9, with six straight draws or losses, and they are in the middle of a difficult stretch of the season that has them playing seven matches in 22 days, including a non-league U.S. Open Cup game in San Francisco next Tuesday.
Seattle is in fourth place in the MLS Western Conference. The Timbers (3-6-4) are in a disappointing seventh, and need to put together a string of results to get back into the playoff race.
Coaches of both teams spoke this week about the upcoming match. The Sounders’ Sigi Schmid sounded less tense than his Portland counterpart John Spencer. Schmid said the rivalry is more fun-filled than pressure-filled.
“I think it’s the best rivalry in the league. I know other people are saying there are better rivalries and so forth, but I don’t think there’s a better rivalry in the league,” Schmid said. “There’s definitely a lot of pride at stake for each of the cities and as a result, it’s a game that brings out the uppermost emotions for all the players.”
Spencer said either team’s place in the standings and current form are thrown out in such games, and expects another wild atmosphere at always-packed Jeld-Wen Field. He couldn’t have been too happy that the first two questions he fielded Thursday in a conference call came from two Seattle-area writers who reminded Spencer of perhaps two of the most crushing defeats the MLS Timbers have endured, 3-2 to Seattle at home last season after Portland had a late lead, and 1-0 to a fifth-division club, Cal FC, in a U.S. Open Cup match in Portland last month.
“I’m a little bit disappointed that we’re not getting a chance to play under the lights,” Spencer said. “I’d much prefer the night games for big games.”
As for the Cal FC loss, Spencer was terse.
“We’re on here to talk about the Seattle game, correct?” he said. “So I don’t see how the Cal game has an effect on us playing against Seattle this weekend.”
The rivalry has been fairly one-sided in recent years. Seattle scored two big wins in Portland in the U.S. Open Cup in 2009 and 2010, then got a win and a draw when both teams were in MLS in 2011.
There’s much more to the rivalry, especially in recent times.
- Portland unveiled a huge billboard right near the Sounders’ stadium, CenturyLink Field, that read “Portland, Oregon – Soccer City USA” with the Timbers’ logo in green and yellow in 2011.
-Seattle’s fun-loving Roger Levesque is not popular at all with Timbers fans, Levesque having played key roles in Sounders wins before MLS play. When Levesque scored a goal at Portland in 2009, his celebration was to stand still and pretend to fall like a tree in the woods while a teammate pretended to chop him down.
-Sounders assistant coach Brian Schmetzer drilled into Schmid’s head the importance of beating the Timbers. Schmetzer has both played and coached against Portland.
“Brian is somebody who’s been involved in these games for a long time, being Seattle homegrown, and his appreciation of the rivalry goes all the way to his own youth playing days. So Brian made me pretty aware of how special it was,” Schmid said. “I sort of had a feeling of what it would be like. Then when we went into that game in 2009, it fulfilled everything that I was feeling. It didn’t fail. It wasn’t like you came out of that game and said, ‘Oh, it really isn’t as big as I thought it might be.’ If anything, it was bigger than I thought it would be.”
-The insults and jokes and potshots fly not just during match week, but all year long between Timbers and Sounders fans. Timbers fans have been known to go north for games between Seattle and other clubs just to cheer for the visiting team.
“It’s probably one of the best sporting events you’ll probably see in the U.S., in any sport,” Spencer, a Scotland native who has been a part of the storied Celtic-Rangers rivalry in that country, said. “The fans from both sides, the front offices and the players from both sides should be very proud to be involved in such a game.”
-One player might have a big axe to grind – former Sounders forward Mike Fucito, who was traded by Seattle to Montreal before the season in a move not totally kosher with Sounders fans, who enjoyed Fucito’s hard-nosed style. Fucito is still close to his former Seattle teammates, but is now in Timbers colors after Portland acquired him from Montreal recently.
“All I can say is since Mike’s been with us, he’s a tremendous character and he wasn’t as fit as we’d like him to be, but he’s worked ever so hard,” Spencer said. “Great trainer. Just an infectious little character. He actually reminds me a little of myself when I played and he puts a smile on my face every single day.”