One of the greatest sports rivalries has been slowly growing for the last 40 years, and most don’t even know it exists. The Cascadia region has become a soccer hotbed in both youth soccer and professional. The Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps all have great fan bases, and an even greater history. But how did these teams come to dislike each other so much?
In this two part piece I attempt to dive into what has made these teams into the rivals we see today. From their inception in the early 70’s, their fall from grace in the 80’s and their renewed bitterness towards each other in the 2000’s, I’ll attempt to introduce you to the great sports culture that is the Cascadia Rivalry.
The Cascadia Rivalry: Long and Storied History
The Vancouver Whitecaps were established in 1973 and played their first season in 1974 at the old Empire Stadium. They were part of the expansion of the North American Soccer League (NASL), a league that had seen an explosion in popularity and was looking to capitalize in new markets. Vancouver’s first couple of seasons were tough as the new ownership group worked to keep up with the ever increasing spending that had become a league norm.
The New York Cosmos were setting the standards with high-profile signings, and the Whitecaps knew they had to spend to keep up with their competition. The Whitecaps drew solid crowds for their home games, especially whenever they were playing the Seattle Sounders, another new franchise that had taken roots down south.
The NASL was desperate to tap into west coast markets, and Seattle was already a well established sports market with the Seattle Supersonics (NBA) being established in 1967. Their close geographical location, and lack of other sports in the area that were in direct competition in those cities, would lead to a rivalry that would spread to other sports in the coming years.
1974 was a rough year for the Sounders, just like their neighbors to the north, but they managed to scrape a record of 10-3-7 out of it. They played their first two seasons at the Memorial Stadium and despite the inconsistent results they broke the NASL records for attendance.
The Whitecaps first played the Seattle Sounders on June 9th, 1974 at home, but lost 2-0. Over 11,000 fans came out to watch that game against their closest rival, but were sent home disappointed. The Whitecaps would lose their only other meeting that year, and would finish the season with only 5 wins. But all that would change in 1975 when the Whitecaps took on the Sounders in their second game of the season. Vancouver came out strong and defended their home turf with a 2-1 win.
The Portland Timbers, in 1975, burst onto the scene and took everyone by storm in the American soccer world. In a league that had just recently seen Pele sign in New York, the Timbers led the league in points at the end of the season, and made it all the way to the 1975 Soccer Bowl, the NASL final, before losing to the Tampa Bay Rowdies, another expansion team. Portland would face Seattle in the regular season just once that season, and the Sounders prevailed with a 3-2 victory over their new rivals. The playoffs, however, were a whole other story.
The Portland Timbers had arrived in 1975, and the Whitecaps season began to slip after losing to them 2-0 at home. The Timbers would beat them in all three of their meetings, but Vancouver had solved the issue of the Sounders and wouldn’t drop another match to them that season.
It was the first time any of these teams would meet in the playoffs, and it was Portland who would get the best of Seattle in the quarterfinals. The ’76 and ‘77 seasons brought the rivalry to a whole new level as Seattle and Vancouver would face off in the first round of the playoffs again, with Seattle winning both years with a score of 1-0. In 1978 Portland would beat the Whitecaps 2-0 in their first playoff meeting, but would eventually fall short in the semifinals.
And in 1979, the Vancouver Whitecaps went on the ride of their life. After winning their division with 20 wins and 10 losses, Vancouver went on to defeat Dallas, Los Angeles and the Cosmos before running up against the Tampa Bay Rowdies. In a hard-fought match, the Whitecaps squeaked out a 2-1 victory to make them the only Cascadia team to win the Soccer Bowl.
But the Whitecaps could never make it to the finals after the win in 1979. Bob Lenarduzzi, a Canadian soccer hero who played on the team, described it perfectly to MLSSoccer.com a few years ago.
“From very humble beginnings, within five years we were playing in front of 32,000 people and it looked like there was a lot to look forward to, [but] unfortunately, much like the five-year ascent from ’74 to ’79, the descent was just as quick from ’79 to ’84.” This wasn’t an isolated incident, the entire league was suffering and there would be casualties.
Down goes the NASL
It seems that almost every one of these teams withered and died between 1980 and 1984. The Portland Timbers, having achieved the glory of a semifinal appearance in 1978, had failed to win a playoff game since. In 1982, the team folded, having failed to keep up with the spending of the few remaining clubs.
The Seattle Sounders were on a rollercoaster of their own. One season would be successful, the next would be abysmal. In 1982 the Sounders made it all the way to the Soccer Bowl, but lost to the New York Cosmos 1-0. Poor attendance and growing expenses would make 1983 the last season the Sounders would play in the NASL. Only 12 teams were alive by 1983, leaving the Whitecaps the only team still operating in the league.
Vancouver didn’t wither though, they continued to compete and draw huge amounts of fans. In 1983, in the first game in the newly built BC Place, over 60,000 fans came to see them play the Sounders. Vancouver continued to make the playoffs every year from 1979-1983, but infighting amongst the players and coaches led to a turbulent atmosphere. In 1984 the NASL folded, along with the Vancouver Whitecaps.
After a successful Canadian appearance in the 1986 World Cup, the Canadian Soccer League (CSL) was formed and the Vancouver 86ers were created. Lenarduzzi and 85 other fans all pitched in $500 to try and create a team where this golden generation of Canadian players could keep developing locally. The 86ers were extremely successful in the CSL and continued to still play friendly matches against the newly created teams of F.C. Portland and F.C. Seattle.
F.C. Portland was created to provide amateur players in the Portland area somewhere to hone their craft in 1985. Eventually a league was formed, the Western Soccer Alliance, later to be known as the Western Soccer League. It included teams from San Jose, Seattle, LA, Hollywood and San Diego. The University of Portland had turned into a college soccer powerhouse and this gave the players, such as Kasey Keller, coming through the system somewhere to continue playing. Long before Keller played for the Sounders, he was a keeper for Portland. And in 1989 their name was changed. The Portland Timbers were back, if only for a brief time.
F.C. Seattle was created with the same thing in mind. Also called the Seattle Storm, the team tried to build a semi-professional team through a grassroots effort. Seattle had become crowded with sports teams since the late 1970’s and the North American soccer community had already seen what quick expansion could do to a franchise.
In 1990 the teams joined the American Professional Soccer League, but after poor seasons from both teams and struggling finances, they both folded.
Vancouver wouldn’t face the Seattle Sounders in a competitive match until 1994 in the newly formed American Professional Soccer League. Leagues were created and leagues folded, but both the Vancouver 86ers and the Seattle Sounders would wind up in the United Soccer League (USL) A-League. And in 2001, the Portland Timbers would join them, renewing the rivalry once again. In addition to the arrival of competitive soccer once again to all of the Pacific Northwest, the Vancouver 86ers rebranded, reverting back to the Whitecaps. The USL A-League was like a rolodeck of teams, with new ones forming and old ones falling every year. But Portland, Seattle and Vancouver were here to stay.
A Dormant Monster Bubbles to the Surface
In 2002 Vancouver and Portland met in the playoffs for the first time since 1978, and payback was served as the Whitecaps beat the Timbers 2-0, and then dispatched the Sounders with an aggregate of 6-2. And in 2004 the Sounders and Timbers would face off in the playoffs, having last met in 1975.
From 2003 to 2005 the teams repeatedly met each other in the playoffs, but it was in 2004 that the Cascadia Cup was born. The three supporters groups got together and decided to host an unofficial tournament of sorts. It would come to be known as the Cascadia Cup, a competition between the three teams for who would hoist the cup. Every season the teams would play each other in regular season games, but a separate table was created to track how these teams did. Following the same scoring system as the regular league table, 3 points were awarded for a win, 1 for a draw, and no points for a loss, the rivalry would grow, spurred on by the piece of hardware attached to the victors. Like throwing gas on a flame, the rivalry grew. The calm before the storm that was the last 20 years were over, and in 2004 the vibrant soccer scene in the Pacific Northwest was back.
Since 2004 the Sounders have hoisted the trophy 3 times, as well have the Timbers, although two of those trophies come at a time when Seattle was not competing.. But the Whitecaps hold the record having won it 4 times, including the 2013 season, making them the current holders of the trophy.
The league would change its name in 2005, to USL. But the rivalry would continue, and would flare up between the Timbers and Sounders thanks to Roger Levesque. Having previously spoiled the party for the Whitecaps in 2003, Levesque decided to ruin Portland’s dreams with a hat trick against them. He was slowly becoming the number one enemy in Portland.
2009 and 2010 were tough years for the Timbers. The Whitecaps would knock them out of the playoffs in back-to-back wins. The Sounders had already moved up to Major League Soccer (MLS) by then, and in 2011 Vancouver and Portland would join them. With all three teams in the same league once again, the rivalry now had a national television audience.
But it wasn’t until 2013 that these teams would meet in the playoffs. In the Conference semifinals the Timbers exorcised their demons from the last two playoff meetings with the Sounders and eliminated them with an aggregate score of 3-2. All in all, these teams have faced each other in the playoffs 12 times collectively, with the Sounders having won 6, and Vancouver and Portland each winning 3.
The rivalry extends into the U.S. Open Cup
With Vancouver forced to sit this tournament out due to being a Canadian-based team, the Sounders and Timbers first faced off in the U.S. Open Cup in 2005 at PGE Park in Portland. This bitter rivalry carried over from regular season and Cascadia Cup play into the United States’ oldest soccer tournament. Teams from every league compete in this tournament, but it was two USL teams that would square off in the third round. Portland would go on and win this match but not without losing forward Byron Alvarez to a red card. The rivalry was getting ugly.
2007 would see these teams face off again, but this time a much more physical battle would take place. Roger Levesque of the Sounders would take an elbow to the jaw from Portland defender Cameron Knowles, resulting in Knowles’ ejection and a Levesque converting a penalty kick. Tempers flared, with two players getting cautioned after throwing the ball at one another, and Leighton O’Brien, a Sounders defender, took a knee to the back of his head early in the game and was taken to the hospital at half. He would need stitches and would be treated for a concussion. In what was surely the most physical battle between the two teams, Seattle would come out on top.
But in 2009 the scenery had changed. Seattle was now in its inaugural season in the MLS and had been attracting a record breaking number of fans. Portland was still in the USL, but it had been announced that they would move up to the MLS in 2011, and they were eager to show that they could hang with the big boys. Over 16,000 fans filed into PGE Park in Portland, but once again, Levesque would score in the first minute to lead the Sounders past the Timbers. Rubbing salt in the wounds, Levesque celebrated the only way he knew how, by having a teammate “chop” him down in the middle of the field.
Once again, in 2010, the Sounders would beat the Timbers in penalty kicks. Zach Scott, who had been with the Sounders since 2002, would slot home the winning kick from the spot, taking the Sounders on to win the Cup for the second time. And only last week Seattle beat Portland again in the U.S. Open cup to make it 9 years since Portland was able to get by the Sounders in this competition.
In 2014 this rivalry has risen to new heights. The Cascadia Cup is up for grabs, the playoffs are just around the corner, and these three teams are ready to fight for not just silverware, but for pride. In my next installment, I’ll go behind the curtain and talk to some of the boots on the ground. The fans have always been described as passionate and supportive in each of these cities, but how do they feel about their soccer neighbors. I’ll take you from the battle on the pitch, to the battle in the stands.
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