Sounders FC-Timbers could quickly become best rivalry in Major League Soccer

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To understand the intensity of the Seattle-Portland sports rivalry, jump in a time machine. It’s telling that the venom began as the spinoff of a greater mission: to bring professional baseball to this region. It wasn’t exactly about supremacy back then. It was more like belonging.

Real cities had pro athletes entertaining them. So, in 1890, the Pacific Northwest League formed, starting this region’s long, awkward dance with the so-called big time. It had four teams: the Seattle Hustlers, the Portland Webfeet, the Tacoma Daisies and the Spokane Bunchgrassers. Fortunately, those wacky nicknames deferred to people’s tendency to put an “s” on their cities’ names (for instance, the Seattles) and refer to them that way.

The Pacific Northwest League folded in 1892, returned as the New Pacific League in 1896, folded and rose again as the Pacific Northwest League in 1901 and 1902. But it wasn’t sustainable in its provincial form.

If pro sports in this area were to succeed, people needed to dream bigger, and over time, Seattle and Portland grew to be the cities capable of completing the mission. But they’ve always been able to irritate each other.

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It’s the classic arc of a rivalry: born of the same motivation, raised in a competitive cocoon, separated, left to evolve and become different, reunited and told to fight for the highest stakes.

Now, 121 years later, they’re grown rivals that know each other way too well, that can’t avoid each other, that need each other, even if they’re too stubborn to admit it. And though the sentiment is often described as hate, history shows they respect each other.

“It hasn’t always been a rivalry, but during times when it is, it’s been quite intense,” local sports historian Russ Dille says. “There’s hatred, but there are so many connections, too. I guess that’s what happens when you’re so competitive, but so close.”

The Seattle Sounders FC and Portland Timbers play for the second time this season Sunday, a passionate soccer rivalry renewed because the Timbers joined Major League Soccer this season. These matches represent the biggest stage the Seattle/Portland tussle has had since the NBA moved the Sonics to Oklahoma City, renaming them the Thunder and ending the Blazers/Sonics showdowns.

The beauty of a regional rivalry lies as much in its similarities as its differences. From afar, Seattle and Portland are comparable cities, which fuels a tension reminiscent of two women who wear the same dress to an event, but when you observe them up close, their unique qualities and eccentricities become apparent. And the cities play their roles to perfection — Seattle, the larger city with an arrogantly dismissive attitude toward its southern neighbor; Portland, the feisty city that loves its quirks unconditionally and masks its inferiority complex with haughty declarations of its underappreciated brilliance.

“We used to think Portland’s fans were the rowdiest, and they used to think the same about us,” Dille says. “Seattle has always thought it’s a little above Portland. We figure, ‘Hey, we’re going to be in the big leagues. You don’t belong with the caliber of us.’ “

Says John Canzano, Oregonian sports columnist: “People here in Portland are crazy proud. People here look at Seattle and smirk and say, ‘We have better restaurants, a better downtown, better music, better beer, better weed.’ Portland is very provincial. It doesn’t want another city in the Pacific Northwest to steal its thunder.”

Really, they’re after the same thing: appreciation. Respect. To get it, though, they often need each other.

The fascinating part of the Sounders-Timbers rivalry is that it could become the greatest thing in American soccer. The sport is a hit in the Northwest, Vancouver included. If those clubs turn into the class of the league, the region could be known for its soccer dominance and its passion, not its isolation.

It’ll never be as intense as the Seattle Totems and Portland Buckaroos hockey games in the 1960s, but this is a higher stage. It’ll never be as captivating to a mainstream audience as Sonics-Blazers, but it might be more influential.

“People watch the Sounders and Timbers and say, ‘People in the Northwest are rabid about sports,’ ” Canzano says. “I’ve never heard that before. We have a shot at something special.”

Another shot, actually. Seattle and Portland have grown up a lot since 1890. They’ve grown together, too, even if they don’t recognize it.

Lucky for us, though, they still fight like kids.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer

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