Three years ago, the Pacific Northwest didn’t have a single Major League Soccer team. Now it has three within 300 miles of each other, which led MLS commissioner Don Garber to claim: “This is the most anticipated season in our history,” from his office 3000 miles away in New York City. The beautiful, rain-swept region that straddles the north-western corner of the United States and a south-western chunk of British Columbia, Canada, has breathed new life into the league, becoming – according to some – the epicentre of the North American soccer scene.
Many in the Northwest would argue that this has been the case for some time. All three of the region’s new top-flight sides - the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps - lined up in the old North American Soccer League (NASL) in the 1970s and 80s. In those early days, the game captured the imagination of the local populations and took hold in a big and lasting way.
Sounders' support leads the way
Seattle were first to bridge the gap between then and now; in 2009 they joined Major League Soccer amid much fanfare. They were an instant hit. Their bright green jerseys were spotted in bars and all over the streets of the vibrant city that four decades earlier took the then-unfamiliar game of football – treated with suspicion elsewhere in the country – to its bosom. In the NASL days, the Sounders averaged 20,000 fans for games and even lured the likes of current Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp and England legend Bobby Moore stateside.
The latest incarnation of the Sounders, which existed on and off in the USA’s lower leagues between the NASL folding and MLS inclusion, has set new records for ticket sales and witnesses a thriving fan culture that is breathing fresh air into a league that has struggled to draw huge crowds. Led by home-grown hero and goalkeeper Kasey Keller, the Sounders won back-to-back US Open Cups in their first two seasons. The buzz and excitement was not lost on league bean-counters and PR men back in NYC, and the Pacific Northwest had two more clubs in short order at the start of the current campaign last week: the Portland Timbers and, north of the border, the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Eclectic Portland embrace the underdog
Portland is two hours’ drive south down Interstate 5 from Seattle and is seen by many to have taken over the mantle once held by its larger northern neighbour as the informal capital of American cool. The City of Roses prides itself on individuality and the embracing of things dismissed elsewhere in the country. A giant sign downtown pleads 'Keep Portland Weird', summing up its style. “The region has always had a little counterculture that makes it different,” said Timbers owner Merritt Paulson explaining why the game has taken hold in the area. “It’s not just rhetoric; the capital of the sport of soccer in North America will be the Pacific Northwest.”
It’s not just rhetoric; the capital of the sport of soccer in North America will be the Pacific Northwest.
Portland earned the nickname 'Soccer City USA' in 1975 when the Timbers played their first season in the NASL and a team of largely English and American journeymen roared to a shock second-place finish. The city went wild for their team and former player, the late Clive Charles, remained after the club folded in 1982 to make a collegiate powerhouse of the University of Portland. The Timbers, like the Sounders, carried on in the intervening years in the lower leagues. They now have the likes of veteran goalkeeper Adin Brown, Kenny Cooper and the potential of one-time USA youth international Sal Zizzo in the side. The Timbers are hoping for the best after a 3-1 loss to defending champions Colorado Rapids in their opener, which fiery Scottish manager John Spencer claimed was “not the end of the world.”
Vancouver revive spirit of ‘79
The Vancouver Whitecaps became the second Canadian side in MLS when they beat the first, Toronto FC, 4-2 in their opener. The team’s president, Bob Lenarduzzi, is a direct connection to the old Whitecaps of the NASL days. He lined up for ten seasons, winning the NASL title in 1979 after the Whitecaps famously beat a New York Cosmos side complete with Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer. The club also employed the likes of European standouts Alan Ball, Peter Beardsley, Bruce Grobbelaar and Ruud Krol. “This (The Pacific Northwest) has the potential to be the hub of the game in North America,” said Lenarduzzi, a 50-cap Canadian international who lined up at the 1986 FIFA World Cup™ finals.
The three teams in the Northwest are finding their way with dedicated fan culture and grassroots community development, much of it driven by social media. The fans aren’t buying a product; they are part of a club. Also ,while teams in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York battle in crowded sports markets against gridiron, baseball, ice hockey and basketball franchises, the three new cities in the Northwest are more open to new sporting opportunities.
Culture and nostalgia aside, the trio of teams represent some of the longest-standing club rivalries in the history of American soccer, a point not lost on the powers-that-be. “It’s a huge deal for us,” Commissioner Garber said from New York league offices, where the formula for success has generally been signing the likes of David Beckham, Rafa Marquez and Thierry Henry. “Rivalries are a big part of the DNA of football overseas and those rivalries drive passion and make the sport the beautiful game.”