Fans of soccer all over the United States are buzzing with anticipation ahead of the first MLS meeting of the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers on Saturday. Even those that tend to ignore MLS in favor of European leagues have taken interest and I've had quite a few questions from folks that I talk soccer with from overseas about the renewal of the rivalry. It's a big deal, or at least as close to a big deal as the league has seen since the arrival of David Beckham, and it's certainly fair to call it one of the most anticipated contest in the league's (still short) history.
It seems fair to say that the reasons behind this aren't really related to what will be taking place on the pitch. Not that this shouldn't be a good game; derbies generally are, and there are numerous reasons to believe that given the styles these two teams play we're in for an open and entertaining affair come kickoff. But there are plenty of good on the field match-ups in MLS and beyond pretty much every day of the week; this game is special because the rivalry is unlike anything else in MLS, and the unique nature of fan support in soccer makes it unlike most anything else in American sports. No matter what happens on the field, what happens in the stands is likely to be worth watching. This rivalry means a great deal to both sides; Portland and Seattle are united in many ways, so it seems to make at least some sense that we'd put a great deal of energy into one of the few things which divides us.
I've known Paul DeBruler for a few years now, first connecting with him due to a shared love (for better or for worse) of the Seattle Mariners. As we got to know each other a bit better, we discovered a shared appreciation for a lot of other things; craft beer, borderline-scary Seattle dive bars and 1980s Northwest punk rock, to name just a few. We're not exactly alike of course; Paul has lived in Portland for a few years now (quite a bit longer than I've known him) and he's a die-hard Timbers fan, a season ticket holder since the USL days.I asked him to share some of his thoughts about what the rivalry means to him, and here's what he had to say:
On the face of it, it looks absurd, doesn't it? Three rivalries that are all over a century old, two of which have deep political as well as soccer dimensions, and there at the bottom of the list is a rivalry between two teams who, in their current incarnations, have yet to meet in league play.
But make no mistake, there is a huge rivalry there already - proximity sees to that, and many years of USL play for both teams helped set the table for this Saturday. The Timbers (and the Timbers Army) have been waiting for this day for two years; when their MLS status was announced, the first question on the lips of Timbers fans throughout Oregon was "When do we play Seattle?"
It would be lazy and reductionist to say that Portland is David to the Sounders' Goliath, or that Portland is the scrappy little brother to the big brother that is the Sounders. But facts are facts - Seattle was in MLS first, Seattle has two US Open Cups, and Portland is a brand new MLS team who is unbeatable at home but very beatable on the road. To reach into the Big Book Of Sports Clichés, though, on Saturday the form book goes out the window.
The Timbers have already proven they belong in MLS - beating Real Salt Lake will go a long way to establishing your credentials. But beating Seattle? That's huge. Beating Seattle would give Timbers fans something more important than a shiny tin pot to display on a shelf, more important than a star on the shirt. It would give them local bragging rights. That, for most Timbers fans, is the biggest thing that can come out of this first MLS season. Any fan in either city who tells you this is just a game is lying - this is going to be spectacular.
The Timbers' inaugural MLS season will not be a failure if Portland doesn't beat Seattle this weekend. But it will be so much sweeter if they do.
My sentiment clearly isn't the same as Paul's but much like our respective cities and their culture, there are far more similarities than there are differences. I've been an invested party in quite a few rivalries; Memphis-Tennessee (even if that rivalry only goes one way), Mariners-Angels, Seahawks-Rams, Aston Villa-Birmingham City spring immediately to mind. None of them mean more to me than this one, despite never observing it at this level.
I don't hate Portland; far from it. It's a wonderful city, full of places and people that I love. I don't hate Timbers Army, at least for much longer than one day at a time; I admire their support of and devotion to the team, and hating Timbers Army would be akin to hating an alternate-reality version of myself, because I'm sure that had I ended up in Portland all those years ago I'd be right there with them in the North End, loudly expressing my utter disdain for the Sounders.
Some teams you hate because they break your heart, some teams you hate because they play dirty, some teams you hate because they buy wins. I hate the Timbers because they're close. It's not exactly rational, but really, how much of the 'being a fan' elements of sports are the least bit rational? I wake up at 6:00 AM on weekends to watch soccer from all over Europe during fall, winter and spring. I've been known to watch baseball for twelve consecutive hours during the summer. That's way too much time to devote to sports for it to be considered rational, and hating a team simply for being slightly farther away from your house than another. But that's just about the oldest tradition there is, and it's given us a whole lot of memorable moments over the years.
This has been a tough start to the year for the Sounders in a lot of ways; the last-minute departure of Blaise Nkufo left the attack with a great deal of question marks, injuries have taken a major toll and there have been some disappointments on the pitch in terms of both poor luck and poor performance. But save for the way I felt after witnessing the severity of Steve Zakuani's broken leg, I can safely say that nothing would be more upsetting to me than the Sounders losing to Portland at Qwest.
And that's what makes rivalry games such as these so special; from a league standpoint, it's not an especially huge game. The Sounders aren't in much of a position to be dropping points if they have designs on winning the Supporters Shield, which might not end up being as difficult a task as it might have appeared a few short weeks ago, but the same could be said of a match against any visiting team that they'd be considered favorites to beat. From the Timbers standpoint, they're in need of a win on the road to prove to their doubters that they're legitimate contenders for a playoff spot. But the tangible importance of this game is completely secondary, and whether these teams were dueling it out for the Shield or battling to stay off the bottom of the standings the meaning and intensity would likely be the same. That's something that's sorely missing from professional sports in the northwest, and it's easy to understand why fans on both sides can't talk about much else this week.