You go to Portland to experience hipster Disneyland: brewery every quarter-mile, menus that feature meat wrapped in more meat and vegetables fried in animal fat.
If you’re an East Coast native like myself, you go to smirk at the earnestness while enjoying its products. And, increasingly, if you’re an American soccer fan, you go to Portland because the city might be revolutionizing the MLS from the inside.
That was the real reason I traveled to Portland to watch the Timbers battle their bitter geographical and cultural rivals, the Seattle Sounders, on June 24.
Portland-Seattle has quickly become the gold standard—an example of how to market and root for the MLS.
Part I: Beginnings
The Portland Timbers name dates back to 1975 with a North American Soccer League (NASL) team, and was transferred to the United Soccer Leagues (USL) before catching on with the MLS.
The city of Portland has long proclaimed itself Soccer City, USA. There is some justification. The MLS Timbers have sold out their soccer-only stadium for every game this season. Season-tickets are also sold out. The Timbers Army is legendary. You'll see why a bit later.
But on June 24, when the Timbers met the Sounders in Portland, the home team found itself in an unfamiliar position.
Even though the Timbers’ history far outstrips the Sounders', who were founded in 2007,The Sounders have an equally lengthy franchise history, also originating in the 70's as part of the NASL, and Seattle has owned the teams' MLS rivalry so far. The crazed Timbers Army finds its (near) equal in the Emerald City Supporters, who traveled down I-5 by the thousands to sing, chant and generally be thorns in the side of the Rose City.
When Portland beat Seattle 2-1, the same Portland fans who lined up four hours before the game to tailgate streamed out the stadium to revel in victory.
They’d been at the stadium all day. First to drink and scream obscenities at visiting Seattle fans. Then to sing with drunken glee from the time the gates opened until the final whistle sounded. They were rewarded with exactly what they wanted.
The entire city was happy. It was a scene we’re told only happens in Europe, where the burden of history adds weight to every on-field failure and triumph. But this is America.
Part II: The Game
The Friday before the game, Seattle defender Brad Evans set the papers on fire by calling Portland fans “a bunch of drunk[s],” and claiming the Seattle organization was “a cut above” the Timbers.
The game itself was lively, with everything a neutral could want. Portland scored twice in a frenzied first half, and Seattle's Eddie Johnson pulled Seattle one back in the second half with a legitimate world-class back-to-the-goal finish.
As the minutes ticked down, the game got contentious. Seattle’s star striker Fredy Montero was red-carded in stoppage time along with Portland’s Lovel Palmer. Both teams finished with 10 men, mirroring the bad blood outside the stadium.
The result was an upset in many ways. Portland beat Seattle for the first time in three MLS meetings, and the winning goal came on the first goal of defender David Horst’s career. He enjoyed it.
It was a few minutes after that goal that the press box literally started shaking from side to side, as the Timbers Army jumped up and down rhythmically chanting the name of the home team. After the game, Horst spoke to the Seattle Times and put it in perspective:
“I'll never forget it. It's got to be one of the greatest moments of my life. To score against Seattle, in front of all these people, especially with the way we'd been playing lately. It's great to get a win for us, and the organization. I couldn't be more proud of the team today."
“It’s a tremendous game to win, a horrendous game to lose,” Portland coach John Spencer said, via Sporting News.
Part III—Good for Business
The significance of the game far outstrips what happens between the lines, and even travels beyond the Pacific Northwest. The MLS has scheduled Timbers-Sounders matchups throughout the season for national TV audiences on ESPN and NBC.
Howard Handler, the MLS’ acting chief marketing officer, explained the league’s thinking to the Portland Business Journal. “Rivalries bring this massive energy and urgency and atmosphere to the table...For us, it means great branding opportunities, and we’ll continue to take advantage of them.”
For the Timbers-Sounders game on the June 24, ESPN broadcast to a national audience—a soccer double-header with the England-Italy Euro 2012 quarterfinal—with former USA and Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller on scene to provide commentary.
In theory, for soccer to emerge as a major sport in America, this is what will have to happen. Homegrown stars have to go on to succeed in the world’s top leagues, drawing more interest in soccer at home. Increased TV viewership and attendance should make the MLS more profitable. This will allow for better player pay, better foreign talents and more hope to keep the best Americans at home.
When the quality of play in the MLS is on par with major European leagues, the viewership and marketing dollars should reach European levels—or higher—and America can finally become a real footballing nation.
A pipe dream? Maybe, but you can see how the Timbers-Sounders rivalry can be a key cog here.
By drumming up interest in the league locally and nationally, the rivalry helps set the stage for MLS to overtake, say, the NHL in popularity. It will be a slow climb, but those of us who love the sport know that if it continues to get exposure and the quality of play continues to rise, Americans will consume the sport in droves because it’s just that fun to watch.
According to a tweet from ESPN's Mac Nwulu, the rating for the June 24 game was the best MLS result since 2001. So, maybe the plan is working.
A little, at least.
Part IV—Let's All Get Misty-Eyed
It should be noted that this rivalry is not fueled merely by hipster anglophiles in two of America's most liberal cities. There’s some of that going on, but there’s also a lot of Americana. This is the video that first drew my attention to the rivalry:
An earnest Timbers Army sings the national anthem together. The players’ faces aren’t so much moved as perplexed. In a cynical time for the country, sports continues to offer something that brings us together—even if it's against someone else.
Even English papers find something American to report on here.
A few days after the latest Timbers-Sounders matchyo, Graham Parker of the Guardian captured the visual essence of the rivalry—the giant "tifos" the fans unfurl before rivalry matches. A textile-based tit-for-tat that culminated in the Timbers’ giant "LEGENDS ARE BORN WHEN THE PREVIOUS ARE SURPASSED" banner on June 24.
The legend honored under the Portland skyline is Clive Charles, who, before his passing in 2003, was a player for West Ham United in England, the Portland Timbers of the old NASL, and the head coach of the University of Portland men’s team from 1986-2003. (Want to see those 1975 Timbers jerseys? Here you go.)
At the University of Portland, Charles worked with future US men’s standouts Kasey Keller and Steve Cherundolo.
Some numbers about the tifo: 20,000+ sq ft; 1500+ lbs; 66 riggers on 22 ropes.And no mention of who we we were playing. EP-IC. #rctid— Shawn Levy (@shawnlevy) June 25, 2012
Immigrant comes to America bringing expertise with him. He proves himself so useful and loyal to his new hometown that he becomes a member of the local fabric, looked at as a founding father by future generations. His image and the stories surrounding his life become the subject of local legend, even though he wasn’t "from" there.
That’s about as American as it gets.