If organic marketing is a term, the scene Sunday at Lumen Field is the visual.
Cascadia derbies don’t need hype. Seattle and Portland have been tussling in men’s soccer since the Timbers were founded in 1975 — a year after the Sounders FC. Women joined the fray through the founding of the NWSL in 2012, the Columbia River naturally marking the same enemy lines for OL Reign and the Portland Thorns FC.
Yet, the obvious commonalities have never been bound together. Until Sunday.
Marketed as the “Pacific Northwest Experience,” the Sounders are hosting the first Cascadia derby doubleheader at Lumen Field. The Reign — which moved its home field from Memorial Stadium to Cheney Stadium in Tacoma — kicks off first against the Thorns at 4 p.m. The Sounders play the Timbers at 7:30 p.m.
Music is the bridge. Doors to Lumen Field open at 3 p.m., and the facility will be dotted with stages for mini concerts, spots for beer gardens and space for food trucks, culminating in Seattle’s biggest musical icon — Jimi Hendrix — being honored posthumously with a Golden Scarf. Hendrix’s family is expected to attend and accept the honor.
“The occasion is going to be a great spectacle for everyone involved,” said Sounders wingback Brad Smith, whose club’s longstanding tradition is to play Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” before kickoff.
The Reign (7-10-3) could benefit the most from the event. The Timbers and Thorns have the same ownership group and share Providence Park as a home field. The fan base bleeds together like soccer clubs found in South America and Europe.
Portland has won two league titles and already has collected two trophies this season in the NWSL Challenge Cup and prestigious Women’s International Champions Cup, which crowns the world’s best women’s club. The Thorns coincidentally defeated the Reign’s parent club, Olympique Lyonnais, for the title this month.
Drawing large crowds has never been a problem for the Thorns (10-3-2). The first match against the Reign was played before 16,479 people in Portland in 2013. And the Thorns won 2-1. Its record attendance is 25,218 for an August 2019 match, which is the NWSL record.
The largest crowd to attend a Reign match was 7,479 for the World Cup Homecoming match against the Chicago Red Stars in July 2019.
On Sunday, one ticket provides access to both matches and all concerts, the Sounders expecting more than 45,000 fans as of Saturday afternoon. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the derby will be the largest crowd since a record 69,274 witnessed the Sounders win the 2019 MLS Cup at Lumen Field.
“Portland was the club that everyone looked at as sort of like the pinnacle a little bit, of what everyone wanted to be,” OL Reign coach Laura Harvey said of the inaugural NWSL season. “The geographical rivalry was apparent but, on the field, we were nowhere near them. We played them four times in the first year, and lost every game.
“That was sort of a catalyst for what the rivalry became for us. We didn’t want to be the quiet club in the northern corner of Portland. We wanted to be a club that could truly compete with them. That was a big driver for what it all became.”
The Thorns enter Sunday’s game on a 10-match unbeaten streak but are even at 12-12-4 across all competitions against the Reign. The last result between the sides was a 2-1 win for the Reign in May.
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer warned his team of the derby being a trap game for the club. Not only did Seattle blowout Portland 6-2 on Aug. 15 at Providence Park, the Sounders (12-3-6) followed with late road wins against Dallas and Columbus then sent six of its players to the MLS All-Star match, winning in a penalty shootout.
The Timbers (7-10-3) are limping into Sunday’s match after last week’s 3-1 road loss to Austin FC. But playing in Seattle has rejuvenated Portland lately. The Sounders haven’t defeated their rival at home since 2018.
“It’s a celebration of Seattle soccer,” Schmetzer said. “And sometimes those big events can be a little bit of a distraction. … We need to make sure we’re absolutely laser focused on what we need to do against a team that we haven’t had a lot of success at home against since 2018.”
Dreams of a doubleheader with the Sounders have been discussed since the Reign’s founding, according to Bill Predmore, a partial owner and CEO of the club. The trickiest part is getting the NWSL and MLS to line up the derby on the same day.
It aligned last season for a dual Pride match, but the pandemic hit and both leagues canceled their seasons. NWSL played a tournament and Fall Series without fans while MLS held a tournament and truncated regular-season schedule in empty stadiums.
COVID is still a factor for Sunday, especially with the highly contagious delta variant causing a surge in cases. Lumen Field is requiring masks for people ages 5 and older in indoor areas of the stadium, regardless of vaccination status. Fans will be permitted re-entry any time between 5:15 p.m. and 6:45 p.m. as long as they scan out at either the Northwest or Southwest gates.
Players are hoping the organic marketing becomes a tradition.
“This is a start,” Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock said. “What we’re trying to do is create something different. We’re trying to get two fan bases to merge together, not just for football but for also our community through football. The plus side to it is you have two fantastic teams with fantastic people who also want to help the community. That’s what we’re going to try to do with this.”