A 35-year rivalry that had seemed to go dormant will erupt again tonight as Seattle Sounders FC visits the Portland Timbers in a U.S. Open Cup third-round match.
“You have to go all the way back to 1975, when they first came in to the (North American Soccer League),” said Sounders assistant coach Brian Schmetzer, who has faced the Timbers as a Seattle player and coach. “Ever since that time, because of the proximity of the two cities – whether Portland didn’t like Seattle, or Seattleites didn’t like people from Portland, who’s to say? – but a very strong rivalry developed. It kind of went away because the NASL folded. But when the two USL teams came back together, it was almost like on a better scale because it was the most intense: It was the 4,000 really rabid Sounders fans that followed the USL team or the 6,000 or 7,000 rabid Timbers fans that packed the back end zone of their stadium. It’s been a very, very good rivalry for a long time.”
It began with the Timbers’ inaugural game in 1975, when Seattle visited what was then called Civic Stadium. The teams went on to play 21 times in the NASL. After that league folded, teams from Seattle and Portland met 13 more times in other leagues. And from 2001 to 2008, the USL Sounders and Timbers met 38 more times.
The rivalry seemed to go dark again with Seattle’s promotion to MLS – at least until the league announced expansion into Portland put it back on track for a 2011 revival.
That gave the rivalry not only a past, but a future. And then it suddenly reappeared in the present, thanks to the match-making of the U.S. Open Cup, which includes amateur and professional clubs at all levels of U.S. soccer.
The Sounders played their way in with victories over MLS sides Real Salt Lake and Colorado, while Portland advanced with wins over the Sonoma County (Calif.) Sol and the Kitsap Pumas.
Tonight’s winner will move on to the semifinals next week. But bragging rights will kick in immediately.
“There’s a huge buzz,” said Timbers coach Gavin Wilkinson, who has experienced the rivalry as a Portland player and a coach. “It’s phenomenal, actually. I think everyone’s been looking forward to this event. … The atmosphere will be tremendous. There definitely is a buzz in the community.”
As of Tuesday, about 14,000 tickets had been sold at PGE Park, which seats about 16,000 for soccer and must be expanded before the Timbers can enter MLS.
Hundreds of those tickets went to Sounders fans, who have chartered buses to travel down Interstate 5 in support of their team. But many more have been gobbled up by the Timbers Army, the infamous fans who pack the lower north end bowl – close enough to the players to make their presence known.
“They’re going to be extremely loud,” Schmetzer said. “They’re going to be – hopefully – well-behaved; because sometimes they use swear words, which we don’t like. Hopefully, they’re going to cheer for their team and be vocal. We’ve always come to appreciate those fans because they do bring a lot of energy to the game, and it’s better to play in front of a lively crowd. The one thing that I do know about the fans, though, is they seem to hate Roger Levesque.”
Both sides agree that Levesque has scored big goals against the Timbers. But Portland fans also say he earned their wrath with dirty play, including once stepping on their goalkeeper’s head.
Asked about that, Levesque laughed, denied it, and laughed again.
“I’ve been around a long time, scored a few goals, probably gotten in a few scuffles, probably have fallen down my fair share,” he said. “… I don’t know. They need something to cheer about, something to get behind, and it’s me sometimes.”
Levesque has appeared in only five games this season and has started none. So, whether the Timbers Army will aim taunts at Levesque, at the bench or the pitch remains an open question.
Sounders coach Sigi Schmid has said his club is serious about advancing in this tournament. Yet, he has relied heavily on reserves during the Open Cup play-in games.
However, those games didn’t approach the passion that has accompanied this one.
“It does weigh into it,” Schmid said. “We know it’s not going to be your ordinary Open Cup game. It’s a much bigger game because of the rivalry.”
Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808
SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC (MLS) AT PORTLAND TIMBERS (USL Division I)
Kickoff: 7 p.m., PGE Park, Portland.
Notes: The winner of this third-round match advances to the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup, the nation’s oldest soccer tournament. … Portland advanced with wins over the Kitsap Pumas (3-0) and the Sonoma County (Calif.) Sol (3-0). Seattle advanced with wins over Real Salt Lake (4-1) and Colorado (1-0). … The Sounders will be without midfielder Brad Evans (Team USA) and defender Tyrone Marshall (Jamaica) due to national team duities. Midfielder Osvaldo Alonso (groin) is out, and midfielder Steve Zakuani (ankle) is doubtful. Forward Jarrod Smith remains on the MLS injured reserve list, but he is eligible to play. … Portland is 7-1-5 in USL play, led by goalkeeper Steve Cronin (0.6 goals-against average), forward Mandjou Keita (4 goals) and midfielder Brian Farber (3 assists). … As of Tuesday, fewer than 800 tickets remained available. … If the game is tied at the end of regulation, it will go to a 30-minute overtime and then, if necessary, penalty kicks.
Next: If the Sounders advance, their Open Cup semifinal will be July 7 against Kansas City at Starfire Sports Stadium or at the Minnesota Thunder. If eliminated, their next game will be an MLS regular-season match July 11 at Qwest Field against Houston.
Don Ruiz, The News Tribune