Portland and Seattle: Two cities part of the same soccer culture

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With two Sounders-Timbers games in a week on tap, Richard Farley provides inside perspective on truths and myths of MLS' best rivalry.

The only time I took the rivalry between the cities seriously was when I was deciding to move. I’d lived in California my whole life and was growing disgusted by my year in Los Angeles. I wanted to go green. The Northwest had two MLS markets. The Northwest was a place I’d spent weeks at a time as a child, on summer vacations. The Northwest had Seattle and Portland. It was time to make a move.

I eventually chose Portland because it was cheaper, but in the weeks I’d spend in Cascadia doing my due diligence, I got a small, deceiving glimpse of the region’s soccer culture. In the winter of 2009, random conversations in Rose City’s bars, trains and taxis portrayed a city, two years out from Major League Soccer, that was focused on its history.

One year later, in Seattle, a taxi driver went out of his way to drive by a Sounders billboard. Pointing up at an oversized Kasey Keller, my guide offered what I thought was a non sequitur: “They’re getting a team, but I bet you they’re still talking about us.”

I used to bring up that anecdote a lot. It seemed like a good way to transition into why I really chose one city over the other. Now, I regret I ever told it. If nearly six years in the Pacific Northwest has taught me anything, it’s that the divide between the cities is overblown. In the stands, the rivalry is miles beyond anything else Major League Soccer can offer. Across the region, though, the sides are two parts of the same culture.

That culture, though, includes people like my cab driver – those determined to play out the fan’s role to its safest extreme. Hardcore Portland fans do spend a lot of time talking about Seattle, but it’s not a one-sided obsession. For every 107 Independent Supporters’ Trust member in Portland that injects the word for excrement into the name of Seattle, there’s an Emerald City Supporter who’ll wholeheartedly insist Portland fans are “scum.” With few exceptions, this kind of hardcore base exists in every MLS fan group, but in Cascadia, those bases have flourished.

I used to think it was cliché, as if that too common reflex to emulate England’s fans was being incubated by Cascadia’s numbers. On the ground, though, I started seeing meaningful differences. If somebody even hints at violence or undue negativity, as a then-107ist leader did a few years ago when he spoke out in violent tones against a Portland bar that served ECS members, both sides come together to quickly denounce it. It’s more common to see people join friends across the rivalry for beers at HotLips Pizza or Elysian Fields before games. Portland-Seattle games are among the least violent sporting events I go to.

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Timbers fans. (Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports)

That’s not to say the rivalry itself is friendly; there’s just always a recognition of scope. “Hate” truly has a benign, purely sporting context. I know Sounders fans that live in Portland, and Timbers fans that live in Seattle. I know relationships that cross the divide, sometimes happily so. Nobody is judged of hanging out with “scum” or said to smell like fish for visiting Seattle. At least, nobody does this in earnest.

It’s because Cascadians have too much in common to hate each other. Amazon and Microsoft imports aside, people come to and stay in this area for similar reasons. Demographically, often politically, and certainly culturally, people are far more alike than they are in most of this country’s significantly populated regions. That those qualities tend to align themselves with soccer fandom might explain why the Sounders and Timbers are so successful. It may also explain why the rivalry rarely strikes a harmful note.

That’s part of the reason why hundreds upon hundreds of fans can pack buses to travel for each derby. Thanks to CenturyLink’s huge capacity, Timbers fans seem to number in near a thousand, even when they don’t. Still, the cacophony of drumming from their bird’s-eye view at times, in the right circumstances, inches over the ire from the Brougham End which ECS calls home, just as the five, six hundred Sounders fans that invade Providence Park can drown out the Timbers Army at the south end of the park. We’ll see that scenario once in each market in the coming eight days.

Within the core of each supporters’ group, the rivalry is exactly as you’d see from afar: A bunch of people who love their teams and fellow fans, have bought into the role of supporter, and are playing the role out at its highest levels. They’re the people who rent the buses, make the tifo, and get the tattoos that end up shared across social media. They’re also the fans that lead ESPN promo reels and your favorite long-form culture pieces, but everytime I see that coverage, I think of the rest of the people that are filling the stadiums. They’re not the fans that fuel “hatred” any more than Lakers fans hate Clippers fans. They’re not taxi drivers that take me out of my way to justify their fandom, and they’re not people staying late in bars to talk about games two years out.

They’re people who recognize the place of rivalries but don’t define their fandom by them. They define their fandom by going to games, the occasional bus trip, and just being a part of the sport. Soccer is their favorite hobby, not their life. In cities where you’re likely to be working beside University of Washington and University of Oregon alums, it takes too much energy to make sports into divisions.

Within Cascadia, Portland and Seattle were two products of the same style of life. One has become the hub of the region. The other has evolved into a complementary jewel."

I wish I’d known that six years ago. When I chose Portland’s lower cost of living, I expected the hype to play out, mostly because I had seen examples of that hype in the years before. But what I found were two cities that have as much in common as the cities I came from. Los Angeles and San Diego share a culture, just different implementations of it. Within Cascadia, Portland and Seattle were two products of the same style of life. One has become the hub of the region. The other has evolved into a complementary jewel.

That seems to be how people outside the Northwest see the region. When they think about soccer in Cascadia, they don’t marvel at why Portland is successful at the same time Seattle’s thriving. They don’t see it as coincidental, or even similar, no more so than something can be similar to itself. The two cities, cultures and fan bases exist as siblings: products of the same source.

Now I spend a week a month in Seattle. I usually spent another week outside the Northwest and two in Portland. For all the Portland friends I’ve made in six years in Cascadia (some of whom will vehemently disagree with this post), I seem to have just as many in Seattle. All seem to suspect I secretly support the other side, but seemingly with a pride at having made the region into an MLS nirvana, all have immensely helped my work since I moved north.

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Timbers tifo earlier this season. (Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s why, last month, I became a member of both the 107 Independent Supporters Trust and Emerald City Supporters. I’ve been reticent to write about it before, since using it gives the impression I only joined for the content; that isn’t the case. Ever since I moved to Portland, though, I promised myself I’d become a 107ist, if for no other reason than to have a voice in how soccer grows in a community I adore. However, when it came time to join, I realized I owe as much of my love for this region’s soccer to ECS as I do my neighbors in Portland.

Starting Sunday, the Sounders and Timbers play each other two times in eight days, games that could go a long way to deciding which of Cascadia’s teams make the postseason. With the Vancouver Whitecaps sitting between the two clubs in the standings, the region’s other team will be pulled into the fray, though as always, the focus will be on the other two.

Within that focus, the differences between the two soccer cultures will be magnified, and fans will surely claim to truly hate the others. In the broader picture, though, Cascadia derbies should be celebrations of what U.S. soccer has become. And for me, the coming week gives me two chances to appreciate what my communities are contributing to the sport.

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Richard Farley is the West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.