Seattle vs Portland: The Great Northwest Derby

WORDS: LAYTH YOUSIF

The MLS may be a relatively new league, but the passion of the Great Northwest Derby, between Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers, runs deep. We take a look at a rivalry based on two distinct civic identities, with a hostility driven by subtle distinctions in principles and ethos…

Scenes in Portland as the Timbers take the lead over Seattle Sounders in the 2012 Cascadia Cup

Image: Sharat Ganapati (via Flickr)

In early March, the MLS dedicated the third round of their 2013 season to ‘rivalry week’. It was no surprise that the showpiece match was to be the Seattle Sounders vs Portland Timbers derby.

Quite simply it is the fiercest MLS fixture in America. Ex-Fulham and Cardiff striker Eddie Johnson who now plays for Seattle said “I played in some rivalries when I was in Europe [but] this is a pretty special game.’

Kasey Keller, who played for Millwall (including their last ever game at the Old Den) has compared it to the enmity between the Lions and West Ham United, saying that the off-field opposition between the two Pacific Coast Football teams was a ‘cool thing’, whilst stressing he did not condone violence.

Likening relations between Sounders and the Timbers to a century old East End Blood feud may be stretching the point, but the fact is that Seattle vs Portland is associated with rancour and ill-will. More so than any other fixture – or ‘match-up’ as the Americans call it – in the MLS.

Major League Soccer was created in 1993, as part of America’s bid to host the 1994 World Cup. In a league that is only 20 years old, the two Pacific Northwest giants have a history which stretches way back to the 1970s and the glamorous, but ill-fated NASL. In MLS terms that makes it positively prehistoric.

The teams are two-and-a-half hours’ drive apart (miniscule to US tastes), and they lack the big city feel of New York or Chicago, where traditional sporting teams are entrenched, invariably choking aspiring newcomers. The Seattle Supersonics NBA Basketball team were also recently relocated to Oklahoma amidst much acrimony. This leaves the only professional sporting contest between Seattle and Portland as the MLS derby in this sports obsessed region. Further strengthening the belief that this rivalry, already huge, will grow even larger.

It already stretches back almost 40 years, encompassing six different league or cup competitions. In their first ever meeting on May 2 1975, Portland beat Seattle in a NASL play-off game, causing the majority of Timbers fans in the 31,000 crowd to storm the field in ‘raucous fashion’. It was a provocative act that some from Seattle have never forgotten.

Other notable incidents have included the Timbers Army, the Portland hard-core supporters or tifosi, as they prefer, constructing a 20-foot-high banner of the club’s mascot Timber Jim – a reference to the Portland’s extensive logging tradition, pivotal to the town’s early years. The artwork showed him sawing down a representation of Seattle’s iconic Space Needle tower with a chainsaw. So intrinsic is the structure to the city of Seattle’s consciousness, and so offended were many from Seattle by the artwork, it would be like Sunderland fans displaying a 20 foot banner of the Tyne Bridge being destroyed, at the Stadium of Light, before the start of a Tyne-Wear derby.

Local cult figure – and ex-Portland Timbers forward – Roger Levesque also fanned the flames when he scored for Seattle against Portland a few seasons back. He celebrated provocatively by impersonating a falling tree, with team-mate Nate Jaqua miming a woodcutter using an imaginary axe at his feet. (Seattle legend Levesque is so hated by Timbers fans that when he once played for Portland as a guest player in a friendly they incessantly booed his every touch.)

There have even been reported instances of trouble away from the stadium between the two sets of fans, although everyone is keen to stress that official tifosi from both sides were not involved. Thankfully organised trouble is unheard of.

Derbies can revolve around geography, economics, politics or religion. In the region the two teams were born into, the Great Northwest, their rivalry has been described as an argument about civic identity, with a hostility driven by subtle distinctions in principles and ethos.

Songs from both sets of tifosi reflect this.

Sounders fans can often be heard to sing,

‘Port-scum, Port-scum

Seedy little city on a river of piss

We’ll drink your beer and shag your sis’,

with the Timbers replying, to the tune of Oh My Darling Clementine:

“Build a bonfire, build a bonfire,

Put Seattle on the top,

Put Vancouver in the middle,

And we’ll burn the bloody lot”

Seattle call those from Portland drunk, laid-back, work-shy hippies, with the reverse mocking those from the bigger city of Seattle as dilettante pseudo-sophisticates: in other words fair weather prawn-sandwich-eating-pretenders waiting for the next fashionable thing to be seen at.

Yet, to level that accusation at all Sounders fans would be as unfair as to describe every Manchester United or Arsenal fan as such. The reality is that the team from the Emerald City appear to be a progressive and well-run club (incidentally the nickname is a reference to the evergreen forests of the area. With the emerald influence being seen in Seattle’s bright green current home top, the colours of which, apart from the embossed Space Needle as their badge, have been described somewhat intriguingly as ‘rave green and capital blue’).

All season ticket holders can vote on the direction of the club, including the fate of the general manager, a concept taken from the Barcelona model of elections for team presidents. Indeed, the Sounders have sold more season tickets than any other MLS club in the league’s 13-year existence and proudly boast a higher average attendance than that of Tottenham Hotpsur.

In a league with historically unrelated names such as the New York Red Bulls, Seattle fans voted for the team’s name, which has historical links with the original Sounders of the NASL and the Seattle Sounders who played in the USL; they even have a 53-piece marching band, the Sound Wave – the only such band in MLS.

Yet, geography does have a part to play too. As Adrian Hanauer, a Seattle shareholder, said recently, “We’re pretty isolated up here, the only…cities until you get to California,” continuing, “There’s nobody else for us to hate and battle with.”

Just as there is pride in the Sounders from their fans, there is also a great regional satisfaction from Seattleites in their city as it undergoes an economic resurgence. Through being a hub for ‘green’ industry and sustainable development, the city is imperceptibly moving away from its more well-known corporate image of Microsoft, Boeing and Starbucks.

Jason Quillin, a London based Sounders fan who hails from Seattle, said, ‘Timbers fans are seen as quite rowdy Thirty-somethings, who view us as a bunch of sober families’, but, as he continued, ‘we get three times as many fans as them at all our games and have won far more trophies than they have. In fact they haven’t won anything. We consider them to be like our little brother, or our ‘noisy neighbour’. They’re still jealous Nirvana came from Washington State’.

This view was echoed by the Seattle tifosi and their intimidatingly large banner at last season’s game which simply read, ‘Decades of Dominance’. For a derby game in 2009 they displayed another to Portland, stating, ‘Tonight our History becomes legend’ – to which, in a cup game a few months later, The Timber Army with a huge effort of their own, cheekily replied, ‘Tonight your legend becomes History…’

Equally, the Timbers also have a reputation for being a club embedded within their community.

It may be a town that lies in the shadow of the corporate behemoths of Seattle, but it is a place where locally sourced food abounds, and nationwide chain stores are hard to find.

Perhaps because Portland supports local products, businesses and initiatives, they also support their local team. Think of a regionally proud and distinctive city such as Glasgow, Bilbao or Marseille, where you would be hard pressed to find a shirt from a team that lay outside its environs and apply that principle to Portland.

The Great Northwest is a place where innovation, change and risk-taking run deep – the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson called the region a ‘great, free and independent empire’. With that in mind, it is a tribute to its people – Sounders and Timbers fans alike – that their independent streak involves embracing the world’s favourite game far more than any other part of the United States.

This is a proud constituency that has bred timber logging, the aerospace industry, Microsoft, and re-invented the coffee shop; offered a musical platform to Paratrooper and guitarist Jimi Hendrix, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and of course Kurt Cobain. A place where interest in rugged activity is admired, where the spirit of free-thinking that goes against perceived opinion is respected, and with a counter-culture deeply embedded in its DNA that is greatly welcomed by its natives. Perhaps with these features in mind, it really is no surprise, that the Seattle vs Portland derby is the biggest in US football.

“Any other rivalry in this league has sort of been created,” said current Seattle boss Sigi Schmid, “This rivalry has history. That makes it the best rivalry in the league.”

…..

Note: The Sounders have a superior 42-29 (nine draws) head-to-head advantage dating back to 1975. Seattle fans have witnessed four second-division championships and three Open Cup titles, while the Timbers Army has yet to celebrate a trophy.

The last derby game, on 16th March 2013, ended in a 1-1 draw in front of 40,150 at the CenturyLink Field, Seattle, Washington State, with the Timbers Costa Rican striker, Rodney Wallace, scoring a 90th-minute equaliser to level Eddie Johnson’s 13th-minute opener – much to the joy of the 500 travelling members of the Timbers Army.

Seattle’s Space Needle was based on the Stuttgart Tower in Germany. In the 1999 film, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, it served as a base of operations for the villain Doctor Evil with the word Starbucks written across its saucer.

You can see more on the visual displays of the impressive pre-match derby banners, here:

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6 thoughts on “Seattle vs Portland: The Great Northwest Derby

  1. John says:

    It is amazing how big the attendance is compared to Tottenham.

  2. Matt bleasby says:

    I must admit I started reading the article with the stereotypical view that age old rivalries can and should only exist in Europe or South America
    But interesting to read about football in other areas of the world and challenge “traditional”thinking

  3. Keith says:

    I know nothing about football is the US- so informative but what is also captured is the story that sits beneath – having spent some time in portland last year we Brits have much in common with the NW – love of football- good food- beer and some fantastic coffee-just needed a mention of beth ditto and complete- cracking read!

  4. Seamus says:

    An insightful article, that gives a different perspective on American culture. Having visited America, including Portland and Seattle more times than I can count, this piece of writing challenged my stereotypical image of a society that embraces and preaches globalisation to the world. Mr Yousif uniquely captures a sense of proudness that is felt among Portland’s inhabitants through their eagerness to source local goods and the fact that not many famous retail names thrive there. This is a sharp contrast to the globalised brands (Starbucks, Amazon, Boeing) that have made Seattle a renowned globalised city. All of this is captured within the context of a football game, wonderful piece of writing.

  5. Pauline says:

    great piece, informative and illuminating, well done

  6. Steve says:

    The banners, the songs, the growing longevity of the rivalry are all great foundations for a football culture. There will be stories and reasons lost to all rhyme and reason but they will matter greatly. Hope they avoid some of the extremes we have endured but a really insightful article. Knew I wanted to visit Seattle one day – now keen to see Portland. Maybe even take in some games one day

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