The Cascadia Summit opens between Sounders FC, Vancouver and Portland Friday through Sunday, giving soccer fans a taste of Pacific Northwest rivalry that is the story of the 2011 MLS season.
TUKWILA — Forget David Beckham and Thierry Henry. Forget the complicated rules changes and a new playoff format. Attention around Major League Soccer in 2011 will be focused on one place: the Pacific Northwest.
“Honestly, from a national perspective, the off-field story of the season in MLS is going to be the Pacific Northwest rivalry,” said Grant Wahl, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. “Instantly, Seattle-Portland becomes the best rivalry in the league. It’s not even really close.”
And it’s what the league has been missing.
Portland and Vancouver’s reintroduction to the top tier of North American soccer is reverberating around the continent, and their venomous rivalry with Seattle resumes Friday after months of anticipation. Fans will get a taste of the lively marches, spirited chants and high-intensity games this weekend in a three-day, round-robin event at the Starfire Sports Complex called the Cascadia Summit.
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Let the games begin. Finally.
One person who has been waiting years for the resumption of the storied rivalry is Alan Hinton. The former star at England’s Derby County experienced the spectacle first hand with coaching stints in Seattle and Vancouver of the old North American Soccer League.
Hinton, who also played as a Whitecap, called the rivalry “absolutely spectacular.”
“At my age, it’s just like a dream that I didn’t think would happen in my lifetime,” the 68-year-old said. “It’s absolute magic.”
MLS will need that magic, and more, as it continues to grow and gain foothold in the sporting landscape. Wahl said the league’s recent choices for Northwest expansion franchises will set the new standard for rivalries, but the bar isn’t very high.
“That’s the problem with MLS: The rivalries really haven’t been that great,” said Wahl.
Locally that hasn’t been an issue. Even before preseason started, the animosity was fresh. Just ask Sounders FC goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who was heckled in January while attending an NBA game in Portland.
Keller, who played for the University of Portland and a semipro incarnation of the Timbers in 1989, first noticed some jeers midway through the first quarter.
Keller looked up to see himself on the big screen, and immediately heard the crowd’s reaction: “booo!”
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Keller said of the Interstate 5 rivalry with Portland. “I’m excited about it.”
Enthusiasm and passion is what initially motivated Sounders FC to hold an event like the Cascadia Summit. Not only is it a chance to prepare for the regular season, but it’s an opportunity for fans to communicate with each other before the gauntlet that awaits.
Along with the games this weekend, supporters from all three teams will have an hourlong forum to discuss issues Saturday. Coaches from all three teams will be available to answer questions as well. If things go well, Adrian Hanauer, one of the Sounders owners, said it’s possible the Cascadia Summit could become an annual event — one that rotates among the cities.
A lot will depend on fan behavior, however. While the three supporter groups in one place will provide a spirited atmosphere, there are pressing concerns as well.
“I think even before that rivalry kicks off, the league and our teams have made supporter security, culture, interaction a priority,” Hanauer said. “I think this just ramps up the level of prioritization.”
Sounders coach Sigi Schmid also stressed the fans’ responsibility.
“We don’t want to ever overstep those areas and turn the rivalry into something that it should not be or something that we’d be embarrassed to have show up,” he said. “I think the emotion of the fans and the interest and the support of their teams is something that is tremendous and we have a chance in U.S. soccer history to do really something that is very, very unique and very special and show that they’re going to be in a very intense rivalry without any of the negative impacts.”
• Julie Foudy, a legend of the U.S. women’s national team and member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, was at Sounders FC training Thursday. She is believed to be working on a Keller feature for ESPN’s First Kick coverage of the season opener March 15.
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or firstname.lastname@example.org