Portland, self-proclaimed Soccer City USA, brings the Timbers into the MLS and dials up the rivalry with Sounders FC and Vancouver.
BEAVERTON, Ore. — “There’s no pity in the Rose City!”
Such is the proud rallying cry from Portland’s die-hard soccer fans. It’s a warning from self-proclaimed Soccer City USA to foes, one that grows louder as the Timbers’ introduction to MLS nears.
The cautionary chant comes from an established soccer community that has feverishly supported the game since 1975. But that history also carries the weight of a winning standard.
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Just returning to the big leagues isn’t enough for Portland.
No pity indeed.
“I think there are huge expectations, and rightfully so,” says general manager Gavin Wilkinson, whose personal history in the city dates to 2001, both as a player and a coach for the United Soccer Leagues (USL) version of the Timbers.
Wilkinson ticks off those expectations as if peppering shots on goal.
“I think we have to come in and we have to play great football,” he says. “We have to be a hardworking, attacking team and we have to fulfill what we’ve teased over the last few years. Now with MLS being in Portland, it’s time for us to deliver.”
The addition of Portland and Vancouver as MLS expansion teams resumes a three-way rivalry with Seattle that is rooted deep in the soccer fabric of the Pacific Northwest, one that dates to the North American Soccer League. But the Timbers’ goals go beyond wanting to get the best of their Cascadia foes.
Their ultimate goal is simple: making the playoffs, and Portland won’t use its first-year status as an excuse. In fact, coach John Spencer even takes exception to the term “expansion team.” The phrase, the fiery Scotsman says, sometimes comes with defeatist undertones.
“There’s always got to be demand placed on the players, the staff, the front office, year in and year out to be successful,” says the Glasgow native, whose accent bellows around the Timbers’ training complex during practice, barking instructions, criticism or encouragement.
“Manchester United and Chelsea, they all have traditions,” Spencer continues, “but there are still demands there on a daily basis to reach the goals that have been set — to go and be successful and win trophies.”
Motivation to succeed is also leaking down from Seattle, where the longtime rival Sounders have already earned two trophies in their short stint in MLS: U.S. Open Cup titles in 2009 and 2010.
Portland is well aware of the achievements up north and was in constant contact with Sounders FC’s front office as it prepared for its MLS leap. Then, last year the Timbers bought a snarky billboard advertisement a few blocks from Qwest Field that read: “Portland, Oregon: Soccer City USA.” The stunt irked many Sounders FC fans.
Back home, the team has added to the local buzz with another ad campaign. Dozens of Portland fans — men, women and children — are featured on posters and billboards posing with axes and chain saws.
As hostile as the rivalry is, the two cities and organizations share many of the same characteristics. Along with a commitment to connect with fans, each aspires to European-like authenticity in supporting the world’s game.
In Portland, however, there is less competition for the fans’ sports dollars than in Seattle, where Sounders FC carved out its remarkable support in a city it shares with the Seahawks, Mariners and Huskies.
“We only have to compete with the (NBA’s) Trail Blazers,” says forward Ryan Pore, who made the jump to MLS with the team after a stellar USL season last year. “It’s nice to have two big professional teams, and for soccer to be one of them is a bonus.”
But Portland players keep coming back to the rivalry. Timbers goalkeeper Troy Perkins, an MLS veteran acquired in an offseason trade with D.C. United, said players around the league want to be a part of the building excitement in the region.
“I think a lot of the rivalries on the East Coast have faded a little bit,” says Perkins, mentioning D.C.-New York and others. “The city relevance isn’t there. In football it is, but with soccer it’s just not there like it is here. For this up here, the Cascadia Cup is huge. It’s going to be fun.”
Mainstream media wants in, too. Many of the rivalry games will be on national television and journalists around the country are already planning trips to the Northwest.
Coaches feel the excitement as well. Spencer, a longtime assistant coach in Houston, says the city’s love for the game reminds him of his Glasgow home.
“The history is there,” he says of Portland. “We’re not trying to recreate something. The history between Seattle and Portland has been there since the 1970s and the NASL days, so it’s great that the passion is there, the fire — not the hatred. The animosity is there between the two sets of fans, which can only add fuel to the fire.”
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or firstname.lastname@example.org