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Seedy little city on a river of piss,
We'll drink your beer and shag your sis!
Last week's showdown, which ended in a 1--1 tie, was just the latest evidence that the Cascadia region has become the hotbed of Major League Soccer. Two years after the Sounders joined the league, their average attendance at week's end (36,350) was far and away the highest in MLS—which has a leaguewide average of 17,150—and would have ranked ninth in the English Premier League, sixth in Spain's La Liga, second in France's Ligue 1 and fourth in Italy's Serie A. In Portland the expansion Timbers are the new darlings of MLS, winning their first four home games while boasting regular sellouts at Jeld-Wen Field (capacity: 18,627), as well as a chain saw--wielding human mascot who saws a slab off a giant log for every Portland goal and clean sheet. Meanwhile, the Vancouver Whitecaps have joined the Timbers as another expansion heavyweight, averaging 19,970 fans, nearing the top of MLS in sponsorships and generating celebrity buzz north of the border. (NBA star Steve Nash, a native son and lifelong soccer fanatic, is one of the owners.)
MLS is growing up in its 16th season, and while the Pacific Northwest teams have no desire to foster a violent hooligan culture—beefed-up security kept the Portland supporters apart from Seattle fans on Saturday—they aren't aiming for a G-rated atmosphere, either. "It's not a Disney movie in that way," says Joe Roth, the Sounders' majority owner, who knows whereof he speaks, having run Disney Studios from 1994 to 2000. Roth believes Sounders-Timbers has the chance to become one of the best rivalries in American sports.
The game capped a fevered week of anticipation from the Emerald City to the Rose City and all the way to Los Angeles, where Roth laid down the smack to Timbers owner Merritt Paulson at a league owners meeting three days before. "We're going to kick your ass this weekend," said Roth, playfully cuffing Paulson, the son of former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. "Take your best shot," replied Paulson, who (like most Oregonians) chafes at the notion of Portland as Seattle's little brother. "It's correct if you're talking about the size of the cities," he says, "but I have a lot of friends who've got two boys, and the elder boy is a little soft and the little one kicks his ass repeatedly."
While last week's game was the first Seattle-Portland meeting in MLS, the rivalry dates to 1975, when the North American Soccer League's Sounders and Timbers had some legendary battles (SI, Aug. 11, 1975). Seattle, Portland and Vancouver all competed in the NASL with the same franchise names, leaving a mark with fans who are still around. "When you tie in that history, it creates a sense of community and it adds a sense of richness to your club," says Keith Hodo, the copresident of Emerald City Supporters, the Sounders' leading fan club. After the NASL folded in 1985, the enmity between the Sounders and the Timbers only continued as the teams competed against each other in minor leagues and in the U.S. Open Cup, a knockout tournament like England's FA Cup. "Any other rivalry in this league has sort of been a created rivalry," says Seattle coach Sigi Schmid. "This rivalry has history. It's been there the last 30-plus years, and that makes it the best rivalry in the league."
Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller played for England's Millwall FC in its notoriously bitter rivalry with West Ham United and says he now sees some similarities in Seattle-Portland. "It's turning into that kind of rivalry here, and that's a cool thing to be in," Keller says, adding that he has no desire for there to be any Millwall-style fan violence. "It shows the healthiness of the sport and where it's moving." As if to prove the point, Keller was booed not long ago by Portland fans while attending a Trail Blazers game (even though he attended the University of Portland and briefly played for a semipro incarnation of the Timbers in 1989).
Fans on both sides of the divide can recall the rivalry's memorable moments. There was the time in 1975 when Portland beat Seattle on a sudden-death goal in the NASL playoffs and Timbers fans stormed the field like a college basketball crowd rushing the court after a huge upset. Or the time when the Timbers Army created a 20-foot-high banner display of Timber Jim, the team's mascot, taking a chain saw to the Space Needle. Or the time in 2009 when forward Roger Levesque scored for Seattle against Portland and celebrated by impersonating a falling tree, with teammate Nate Jaqua taking simulated ax swipes at his feet. (So despised is Levesque by Timbers fans that when he joined Portland for one game as a guest player in '07 they still booed him every time he touched the ball.)
The fans never forget. Over pints of Cascade Autumn Gose and Lucky Lab No Pity last week at Bailey's Taproom in Portland, a half-dozen Timbers Army leaders described their fan group—which fills more than 3,600 seats in a designated section at all home games—and told their side of the grudgefest. "It's fair to say there's genuine malice toward each other," said Dave Hoyt, the group's president, a 33-year-old hospital administrator. "We have put a lot of time into cultivating the hate over the years."
"And a lot of the malice goes beyond soccer," added Garrett Dittfurth, 32, an analyst at a public relations firm. "Seattle was like the pinnacle of American coolness in the '90s, right? Now things have changed a little bit if you want to talk about creativity, arts and music."