No sports fan will forget the magic that was made at Qwest Field on Thursday. If you were there, adjectives aren’t necessary. If you weren’t there, adjectives won’t suffice.
But the future of pro soccer in the Pacific Northwest – the future of pro soccer in America, for that matter – was solidified by events that occurred the day before the Sounders’ opener – and the day after.
It was announced Wednesday that Vancouver would be awarded a Major League Soccer expansion franchise, beginning in 2011. On Friday, still another franchise, also scheduled for 2011, went to Portland, albeit with an asterisk: The city must come up $14 million to make PGE Park soccer specific while building a new home for the stadium’s summertime occupants – the Triple-A Portland Beavers – near the Rose Garden.
Barring any obstacles – and c’mon, how difficult can it be to muster up a measly $14 million amid the bleakest economic climate in decades? – the Northwest soon should be home to the kind of geographic-based rivalries responsible for much of soccer’s appeal throughout the world.
“This is a sport driven by rivalries” MLS commissioner Don Garber said the other night in Seattle. “It’s what makes the sport of football in England and Italy and Spain and Argentina what it is, and we don’t have enough of that. We need to have more rivalries, more regional rivalries.”
In the U.S., we’ve got Red Sox-Yankees in baseball, and Packers-Bears in football. Soccer has a version of these showdowns on every continent, from Boca Juniors-River Plate in Argentina to Al Ahly-El Zamalek in Egypt.
Some of oldest and most intense rivalries belong to the English and Scottish Premier Leagues, where many teams are headquartered a few miles from each other. (Or in the case of Liverpool-Everton, a few blocks from each other.)
Once in a while, the rivalry is only marginally related to sports. When Celtic (representing Catholicism and a nationalist political agenda in Northern Ireland) faced Rangers (Protestant and unionist) in the 1980 Scottish Cup final, it probably was inevitable that 9,000 fans would storm the field for a mass scrum following Celtic’s 1-0 victory.
In other words, they held a soccer game and the Jerry Springer Show broke out, only with fewer bodyguards and no folding chairs to throw.
Garber would rather not watch 9,000 fans spill onto the field to belabor cultural disputes that have been raging for centuries. But the idea of three pro soccer teams located within a few hours of each other, accessible to busloads of fans traveling the same highway? In soccer parlance, that’s a free kick for a commissioner whose league’s only established rivalry is between Chivas USA and the Los Angeles Galaxy. The co-tenants of the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., have been dueling each other twice a season since Chivas came into the league all the way back in 2005.
So there’s that, and another rivalry, less obvious, between Columbus and Toronto. Fans in both markets believed their Euro-flavored fervor to be unmatched in the MLS – at least until the Sounders showed up the other night in Qwest Field, where the bar was reset.
Despite the fact they’re neighbors close enough to qualify as roommates, Chivas and Galaxy share little history. Same with Columbus-Toronto, Before the MLS, Toronto’s rival was Montreal, its Canadian counterpart among the National Hockey League’s “Original Six.”
Seattle, Portland and Vancouver have competed against each other over the years in minor-league baseball, minor-league hockey and, for 38 years, NBA basketball. But never was the three-way Northwest rivalry more pronounced than when the cities were represented in the defunct North American Soccer League.
In their first year, the 1975 Portland Timbers finished 16-6, and advanced to the NASL Soccer Bowl. Although the Timbers were beaten by Tampa Bay, Portland thought enough of its team and its fans to rechristen itself “Soccer City USA.”
Seattle also got to the NASL championship game, in 1977, and returned in 1982. The Sounders not only filled the Kingdome once in a while, they rocked it.
And Vancouver? The Whitecaps were the only Northwest franchise to win the NASL title. Their 1979 championship parade on Robson Street drew a crowd estimated at 100,000.
When MLS decided to embrace Seattle, investment groups galvanized in Vancouver (where NBA star Steve Nash, a proud British Columbian, is a co-owner) and in Portland. And when Seattle recognized its soccer tradition by naming its new team the Sounders, it pretty much guaranteed that Vancouver’s MLS franchise would be called the Whitecaps, and Portland would be called the Timbers.
“This Pacific Northwest rivalry is going to be very special,” Garber said during halftime of the Sounders opener. “We want to bottle up what we have here today, get that in Vancouver, and maybe another city in this region.”
The next morning, Garber was in Soccer City USA, posing for photos with Portland owner Merritt Paulson. Garber’s league is 12 years old, but it took him only three days to resurrect naturally dynamic rivalries that have been dormant for too long.
Portland, Seattle, Vancouver: These markets don’t merely represent the upper-left corner of the MLS map. If the ground shifts and soccer’s breakthrough as a big-time spectator sport in America ranks as a seismic event, these markets will be seen as the epicenter.
John McGrath: 253-597-8742; ext. 6154