Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How the Portland Timber And Seattle Sounders Can Save the MLS

Does the MLS need saving?  It wasn't that long ago when the NASL was one of the most popular leagues in American professional sports.  In the 1970's, football and hockey were just starting to gain popularity.  The NBA and the MLB were mainstays at the time, but many kids and young adults were looking for something different than what their Fathers were watching.  At the same time, professional soccer was starting to grow by leaps and bounds in the United States.  Relegated to the minor leagues for much of its early existence, the NASL started courting famous international soccer stars like Pele, Giorgio Chanalia and Franz Beckenbauer.  Soon, the league's popularity started soaring; teams were added at a break neck pace to keep up with National demand.  Two teams that personified this excitement back then were the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers.

I don't know what it is about the Pacific Northwest and soccer.  I asked my Brother, who lives in a suburb of Portland, why the sport was so popular back then.  He explains that he read that the 1975 playoffs really started the histrionics between the teams as the Timber defeated the Sounders in a fierce playoff battle.  Despite the rivalry, 1982 saw the Timbers and Sounders last game played against one another.  Portland folded after the 1982 season and Seattle followed suit in 1983.  They just couldn't keep up with their richer neighbors in New York.  Even the promise of indoor soccer (something most Pacific Northwesterners would have enjoyed) could not save these franchises from their overspending ways.

Timbers Army or G20 Summit?                           oregonlive.com
Fast forward 25 years to the MLS.  Begun in 1993 in reaction to the successes of the Men's and Women's US World Cup teams, (the U.S. women actually won the Cup the following year in 1994), the MLS had been similarly mired in the minor leagues of soccer, a stepping stone to the riches of the Barclays Premiere League, and the league has had difficulty shedding this reputation.  International imports such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry have been expensive busts, and the league has had to contend with controversies regarding both player salaries and team payrolls.  A familiar refrain for those businessmen desperate to make soccer succeed in the United States.  Interestingly enough, those same couple of teams that personified the electricity of the NASL, are being asked to inject new life into this league as well.

The Seattle Sounders started in the MLS in 2009, followed suit by the Portland Timbers in 2011.  These two franchises have the makings of a heated rivalry similar to the old rivalry enjoyed by the Portland Trailblazers and the former Seattle Supersonics.  Although the Sounders play in a stadium meant for Football and the Timbers play in a refurbished old stadium that only seats about 18,000 fans, these teams fans have been described as loyal, loud and rabid.  Games in these home venues are not only exciting but intimidating for rival clubs.  Something rarely seen in the MLS.  My Brother commented that the Timbers' fans get really excited about a lumberjack named "Timber Joey" who cuts a piece of wood at home games after every goal.  Sweet Jesus, that's corny.

11pm.  Home.  The Timbers are facing the Sounders at Qwest Field in the first rematch for the Cascadia Cup in 29 years.  The ESPN2 announcers, not surprisingly, lead off the program describing how loud and rambunctious each of the teams's fans really are, finishing the opening with a montage of Timbers fans flying their flags as they walk to their seats surrounded by the enemy Sounders' fans.  A melee almost erupts when the Timbers' contingent are told that Timber Joey couldn't wield his chainsaw for the match.  I'm serious.  29 years ago was their last meeting and it shows.  I sit down to watch the game and judge for myself how crazy these fans really are.

It's Emerald Green against Rose Red as the players begin the match.  The Sounders' best player, Fredy Montero, immediately heads out to make the first play of the game as he kicks the ball far right of the goal.  The fans groan in disappointment.  I notice that the field is wet from a heavy rainstorm that occasionally makes the picture appear fuzzy.  Welcome to Seattle, boys!  It doesn't seem to stop all the drunk rowdy Sounders' fans from engulfing the screen on every live action shot or temper their excitement as they playfully engage in a "We got spirit yes we do we got spirit how 'bout you?" shouting match with no one in particular.  A graphic is shown that shows that  Sounders attendance is 11,000 greater than its nearest rival the L.A. Galaxy (and this city couldn't hold onto its basketball team?  Where's the justice in that?)

A lot of back and forth action.  A lot of flopping (even the announcer a couple of times explained that he didn't see much contact, right before the little ESPN-sanctioned buzzer hurt his ear for saying something negative about ESPN programming.  A lot of back and forth action, a lot of groaning from the fans after every shot wide or high (or both).  At halftime the teams are still scoreless.  

I notice that Sounders' Forward, Alvaro Fernandez, starts the second half strong, shooting up and down the pitch just barely missing connections with his other forwards.  And right as I write that in my notes, he takes a ball that is failed to be cleared and shoots it past the outstretched arms of the Timbers' goalie for a 1-0 lead in the 52nd minute.  Pandemonium ensues.

Not for long though, as just 12 minutes later, the Timbers star from their win over Philadelphia in their previous match, Futty Danso, scores on a header off a free kick in the 64th minute tying the score at 1-1.  The play by play guys is delirious as proclaims Danso Portland's new folk hero for these last two goals.  Settle down big guy.  He didn't win the MLS Cup.  A lot more back and forth action through 90 minutes and 4 minutes of injury time.  But no more scoring.

The Game ends in the 1-1 tie.  The teams both remain in the middle of the pack in the Western Conference.  Seattle forward Nate Jaqua speaks for the all of his teammates when he dejectedly states that the Sounders need to win these home games to take advantage of their homefield advantage.

But back to the fans.  The MLS, after 10 disastrous years where it lost hundreds of millions of dollars, is finally starting to turn around toward profitability.  And it's not the international stars that it brings in that will bring the league success (Beckham's loan arrangement with AC Milan has tempered the bump the league got when he joined and Henry's appearance didn't even register with sports fans).  It will be the generation of the slow buzz at venues like Vancouver, Seattle and Portland that will prove the league successful.  Enjoying these crowds and the excitement that they bring will be the difference between the MLS becoming just like the NASL (a moderately successful league that folded under its own weight) or into the fifth major US sport.

Good luck to you fellas.  And here's to your fans.

1 comment:

  1. Seattle let go of our basketball team because they wanted a new stadium even though they couldn't make the play offs. the reason the sounders play at century link field is because it was a stipulation of the contract for the building of the stadium. It was always ment to house the Seahawks and an mls expansion team we paid for it to do that.