By James Morgan

The how and why of the Pacific Northwest becoming the hotbed of Anglo-American soccer enthusiasm are questions best left to future sports historians.  Was it the culmination of a series of random events? Was it simply a matter of good marketing?  Was the field already ripe and needed only the injection of a good excuse?  Does it have, improbable though it seems, to do with the climate, so similar as it is to that of the British Isles where soccer was born?

These are questions to be answered by later generations.  For the time being, what we know is that soccer matters more in the Pacific Northwest than in any other part of the English-speaking Americas.  Nowhere is this fact more evident than in the intense rivalry between the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders FC.


If it is true that the supporters, not the teams themselves, account for the majority of what makes for a truly dynamic and heated rivalry, the Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders FC is easily the most exciting in all of MLS.  While neither side has had an especially stellar season thus far, between them they represent arguably the two most well-supported teams in all of MLS.  That alone would make for an intense encounter, but add to it the fact that Portland and Seattle are only a few hours drive from one another and you have a recipe for a crowd atmosphere that is almost certain to compare favorably with any European or Latin American derby you may choose to name.

For the edification of skeptics, what follows is a brief primer on the I-5 rivalry/derby, named after the stretch of freeway that links Seattle and Portland, and not to be confused with the Cascadia Cup, which also includes the Vancouver Whitecaps.


The Basics:

The first thing to say about the Portland Timbers vs Seattle Sounders FC rivalry is that, despite what you may have been told, in its numbers and the intensity of its respective supporters, it is unlike any other that currently exists in MLS.

This is not to downplay the very real rivalries that exist between MLS sides such as The Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake, the NY Red Bulls and DC United and the former’s rapidly developing feud with the LA Galaxy, but if we are to be honest, it is a self-evident truth that if MLS has a world-class rivalry, for whatever reason, it’s between the Sounders FC and the Timbers.

True rivalries are not born over night and as such is the case, it should come as no surprise that the Portland/Seattle rivalry dates back 36 years through a series of organizational incarnations and through a long history of mutual municipal dislike.  What’s remained constant are the team names and the animosity.  The first meeting between sides called the Timbers and Sounders went down on May 2nd, 1975 in the old glory days of the NASL.  Since then, they have played 73 more matches against one another.  Saturday’s meeting will be the 75th.

On the Timbers end of the equation at least some of the animosity arises from Portland’s perennial role as the second city in the American Pacific Northwest.  Seattle, with its larger population, has long dominated the region’s reputation and economy, especially in professional sports, and to Portlanders, this has long been grounds for complaint, or at least a bit of a grudge.

In addition to Portland’s inferiority complex and the resentment that comes with it, there is the fact that over the last decade, Portland has had a much larger and more well-organized supporters culture than Seattle which, it must be said, had anemic attendance numbers prior to making the move to MLS in 2009.  There is a sense in Portland that Seattle supporters are largely neophytes who only showed up for the party once it was bought and paid for by big money from Hollywood and by Microsoft billionaire, Paul Allen.  The feeling is that Portland supporters culture is accordingly far more authentic than Seattle’s, and whatever the ultimate justice of such a claim, it has to be admitted that it’s born from at least a kernel of truth.

For its part, Seattle’s response has largely been a figurative, “who cares?  Look at our numbers?” and with their giant stadium, brilliant marketing and consistently sold-out games, it is very true that Sounders FC has done something unprecedented in US soccer.  While the beautiful game remains a dimly apprehended cipher on the sporting horizon for most Americans and is not about to overtake professional football, basketball or baseball, professional hockey, in the US at least, if not in Canada, has officially been put on notice that its days as the fourth most popular professional sport are almost certainly numbered.  This is thanks in no small part to the Seattle Sounders FC and their ability to consistently fill stadiums with rabid supporters.  The upshot here is that whatever Portlanders may say about Seattle, the fact is that they are clearly doing something right.


The Supporters Groups:

The two main supporters groups that need to be addressed are the Timbers Army (TA) and the Emerald City Supporters (ECS).  Of the two of them, it is a matter of objective fact that the TA is older, larger, and probably more well organized.  While the TA continues to grow and absolutely dominates the north end of Jeld-Wen Field in Portland, it is not at all clear that it will not eventually be eclipsed in size by the also rapidly growing ECS which, after all, has a larger population base from which to recruit members, as well as a much larger stadium.  On the flipside, a major weakness of the ECS is illustrated by its continued fragmentation into smaller sub-groups, a development that if taken to its logical extreme, does not speak well of its lasting power vs. a much more monolithic TA in Portland.  The explanation for this apparent disparity in centralization lies in the two groups’ very different histories.

The Timbers Army was founded in 2001 as the Cascade Rangers.  A relatively small group of probably less than 100 members, by 2002 the group had changed its name to the Timbers Army so as not to risk association with the Glasgow Rangers.  It was felt that the Timbers, with their white and green kits, and with their superficially similar crest, had more in common with Glasgow Celtic FC, the Ranger’s perennial enemy.  (It does bear mentioning here that the irony of the Timbers’ current head coach, John Spencer, having played for the Rangers as a Glasgow-bred starter is not lost on TA stalwarts, though no one begrudges him his antecedents.)  The TA in its early years  continued to grow, and by 2004 numbered well over 200 ardent supporters on the north end of PGE Park (now called Jeld-Wen Field).  However, the group, consisting as it largely did of young white men, was met with suspicion on the part of the greater Portland public which, what with the city’s disagreeable history and reputation as home to some of North America’s most violent skinhead gangs, was understandably leery.

By 2005, with the participation of a far more varied demographic, the TA began to lose its sinister reputation within the greater community and began to attract members that were representative of a swath of Portlanders, including women, minorities and older citizens.  (There are a handful of people who deserve credit and recognition for bringing about this transformation, but doing so falls outside the scope of this piece.)

By 2008, the TA numbered well-over 2000 members and had definitively established itself as one of the largest soccer supporters groups in the US.  It further distinguished itself by becoming the driving force behind bringing an MLS expansion team to Portland.

In its current incarnation, numbering close to 4000, the TA enjoys a well-deserved reputation as one of, if not the, finest supporters groups in the US and Canada.

Meanwhile, a few hours to the north, Seattle’s ECS, though slower on the uptake, made up for lost time vs. their Portland counterparts by cobbling together a supporters group of almost equal size in a few short years.  Founded in 2005, the ECS consistently mustered several hundred supporters at all Seattle Sounders matches during the club’s USL days.  In 2009, when the Sounders were reconstituted as an MLS side, the ECS expanded accordingly and by the end of the Sounders FC opening season, the ECS numbered roughly 1400.  Currently the ECS are thought to number over 3000 and if they have yet to quite equal the TA, they are biting hard on its heels.

Which brings us to security at the Timbers/Sounders matches.

Those of us who are familiar with the two opposing supporters groups are not especially concerned.  While the mutual dislike is vehement, and while it’s known that a certain percentage of both groups will certainly consist of young, drunk meatheads, and while it’s true that a few aberrant members of both the TA and ECS have had minor dust-ups in the past, what is almost certainly not going to happen is the big scary soccer riot that’s been predicted by certain parties.  In a nutshell, there are simply too many people on both sides who care about seeing soccer succeed in the the US and Canada, and there are more of them on the street at any time than there are violent meatheads.

As the ECS, to it’s credit, has posted on its official site, “we know that everyone is pumped up for this match – and rightly so – but we do not want to tarnish this event with any sort of confrontation or violence. ECS leadership requires that its members refrain from interacting with traveling Portland supporters in ANY manner.”  The site goes on to state that, “any individual caught instigating altercations with Portland fans or supporters will be banned from the group – permanently – with all membership privileges revoked.”

This truth has not, however, stopped the management of the Seattle Sounders FC, Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps from making the asinine decision to limit to 500 the number of away tickets sold for each match.  Never mind that this approach has never worked anywhere else in the world.  Somehow, someway, it’s supposed to work in the Pacific Northwest.

In theory, the way it works is this: you sell only 500 tickets in Portland, they are all for the same section at Qwest Field and the TA and ECS are thereby kept separate.  Which sounds great, but here’s what happens in reality: the allotted TA tickets rapidly sell out, and then, determined TA members find other ways to get tickets with the result that instead of being cloistered in a single part of the stadium, they are scattered throughout where, inevitably, trouble starts.

Well, we will see what happens come Saturday evening.


The Teams:

It took a long time to get here, but eventually everyone must have known that we’d have to talk about the actual teams, even if they aren’t the most important ingredient in a vociferous derby.

So here’s the lowdown: Seattle looks much better on defense than does Portland and in general has played a more consistent game through the season thus far.  A deep side, the Sounders have the maturity and skill to pose a threat to any reputable team in MLS.

On the other hand, Portland has demonstrably explosive offensive capabilities and is rapidly making a case for itself as the fastest attacking side in MLS.  Drop your defense for a second, and Portland’s lighting-fast wings are likely to make you pay.

That said, Portland also has a deserved reputation for leaving itself wide open to counters that its porous backline is entirely incapable of dealing with.  Not only that, Portland has consistently under-performed in all of its away matches.  This being the case, the smart money has the Sounders beating the Timbers at Qwest Field this Saturday, possibly by as large a margin as 2-0.

But this is not by any means a foregone conclusion.  The Portland Timbers are nothing if not unpredictable and with the sizable TA contingent that is certain to be at Qwest Field, and given their demonstrated speed and explosive ability to sting when it counts, only a fool would rule them out entirely.

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