Cascadia rivalry hits network television
On a day normally reserved for American football, football of the other sort will take a national stage Saturday with a rivalry match between the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers.
The NBC-televised game gives a wide audience a taste of soccer in the Pacific Northwest, with its fervent supporters' groups, the songs and chants, and the choreographed fan ''tifo'' displays in the stands.
And of course there's the match.
Many who happen across the broadcast may not be aware of the game's implications to the teams involved. The outcome could determine the winner of the Cascadia Cup, the annual head-to-head competition between the Sounders, the Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecaps.
It could also send Seattle to the Major League Soccer playoffs.
''As a player these are the games that you always want to be a part of, and when you're done as a player you will always remember,'' Timbers captain Jack Jewsbury said.
The original Cascadia Cup was introduced in 2004 when the Timbers, Whitecaps and Sounders were part of the United Soccer Leagues' first division. Fans pooled their money to buy a 2-foot tall trophy, which went to the team that finishes with the best record in head-to-head matches among the trio, based on a points system.
But the roots of the rivalry between the teams actually date back to 1975, when all three teams played in the North American Soccer League.
Saturday's match will be the first on national network television since 2008, when ABC broadcast the MLS Cup. NBC will also air the matches between New York and Chicago on Oct. 6, and New York at Philadelphia on Oct. 27.
Earlier this season when the Timbers played the Sounders on ESPN, the match drew the third-largest TV audience ever for an MLS regular season game.
''It's big. It's big for the rivalry, it's big for the league. It shows the continued growth of the game and certainly the game in the Northwest,'' Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer said about the network broadcast. ''Hopefully, a bunch of people that normally might not see it come across it and tune in and see the atmosphere down there. Hopefully, it's a good game and we pick up some more fans.''
MLS Commissioner Don Garber said the match was targeted at the start of the season by the league and NBC on the strength of the rivalry.
''There's a very special situation that exists for Major League Soccer in the Pacific Northwest that's actually over-delivered on our expectations,'' Garber said. ''People in the community have a real love for the game and a real commitment to their favorite teams. That's driven I think by the great history of professional soccer in the Pacific Northwest.''
The match itself is also intriguing because the Timbers would claim the Cascadia title with a victory. That would soften the blow of what has been a difficult season.
Portland (7-14-6) sits in last place in the league's Western Conference and is coming off a 3-0 loss to the Colorado Rapids last week. In July, the Timbers dismissed coach John Spencer, replacing him with GM Gavin Wilkinson for the rest of the year. The team recently announced it has hired University of Akron coach Caleb Porter as its head coach for the 2013 season.
The Sounders (13-6-8) will clinch a playoff spot with a win. They extended their unbeaten streak to four games with a 2-1 victory over Chivas USA last Saturday.
Denying the Timbers the Cascadia Cup seemed the most important task this week.
''I've been fortunate to play in some derby games in Europe, and I knew the expectations in those games. It doesn't matter what you've done all season - we don't perform in this game, we know our fans will kill us, we know the coaching staff wouldn't be too happy,'' Sounders forward Eddie Johnson said. ''This is like our World Cup final, we've got to go in there and approach like this is our MLS Cup this weekend. We want three points and nothing less, because if we don't win, we're out of the Cascadia Cup.''
Fans were already lining up outside of Jeld-Wen Field on Friday afternoon in anticipation of the match.
Still a mystery was the Timbers Army's plan for a tifo. Supporters' groups for the two teams have made it their own competition to out-do each other with the coordinated fan displays.
Last season the Emerald City Supporters set the bar high by unfurling massive banners over the south end of Qwest Field (now CenturyLink Field) proclaiming ''Decades of Dominance'' that depicted former Sounders players and an image of a fist crushing a Timbers logo.
The Timbers Army answered when the Sounders visited with a 17,000-square foot ''King of Clubs'' display covering the north end of Jeld-Wen.
''I've been involved in the rivalry as a player, as a general manager and as a coach,'' Wilkinson said. ''You always want to come out on the right side, and that's having won the game. The Cascadia Cup has always meant a lot to me, it's meant a lot to the fans, and it's one way to salvage the season.''