Regional MLS rivalry hits national stage

Regional MLS rivalry hits national stage
Seattle Sounders' Josh Ford dives to deflect a ball during a drill at the team's first day of MLS soccer training camp, Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011, in Tukwila.
TUKWILA, Wash. (AP) - There are still two months before the Cascadia rivalry gets its Major League Soccer debut on a national stage May 14 when Seattle hosts Portland.

It's already the most heated regional rivalry in the MLS.

The smoke bombs set off by Portland's "Timbers Army" during an exhibition win over the Seattle Sounders on Friday night proved that.

"Nothing compares to this," Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said.

Supporters groups and coaches from Portland, Vancouver and Seattle gathered on Saturday as part of a three-day Cascadia Summit to discuss the first season of the Pacific Northwest trio playing a the highest level of soccer in North America.

The joint event Saturday was part of a larger weekend gathering that included round-robin exhibition games between the three teams. It began Friday night with Portland's 2-0 win over Seattle, continued Saturday with Portland and Vancouver playing and concludes Sunday with the Whitecaps and Sounders.

But for the supporters groups, it was an opportunity to address some of the concerns and issues that may flare up during the first season of the three cities facing each other.

It's the first time Vancouver, Portland and Seattle have had teams playing against each other at the top level of a professional sport since the Trail Blazers, Grizzlies and SuperSonics of the NBA in 2001 before the Grizzlies relocated to Memphis.

"I think the opportunity between the three Northwest franchises is very unique and special. It's special because there's a tremendous rivalry here and then the interest and the intensity that that generates by the fans coming out is huge," Schmid said. "But I think we also have the responsibility, all of us teams in the Northwest, to make sure the rivalry is on the field and is what it is. We don't ever want to overstep those areas and turn the rivalry into something that it should not be or something that we'd be embarrassed to have show up."

Safety and security is among the chief concerns for fans of the three teams traveling to the opposing cities. The management of Portland, Seattle and Vancouver agreed to set aside 500 seats for visiting fans for the games this season. Among the stipulations is those fans will be seated in one, secured area of the stadium in an attempt to keep any fan incidents from popping up.

"I want anyone who comes to PGE Park to be treated as a guest in a respectful way," said Jeremy Wright from Portland's Timbers Army.

Keith Hodo, co-president of the Emerald City Supporters, said the goal is to have the same atmosphere the three cities have become known for having at home matches, but hopefully without any major incidents.

"All we can do is prepare. That's all you can do because if you fail to prepare that's when things can possibly go wrong," Hodo said.

"Inevitably something might happen, but hopefully it's something small," he added.

The small number of available, secure tickets for the road games has some fans concerned, but was the number the three franchises were able to agree on. Seattle has the largest stadium; Portland the smallest. But Timbers owner Merritt Paulson said if the demand from the traveling fans is there, the teams may revisit the setup for future seasons.

"At some point there has to be a cap so it's got to be realistic," Paulson said. "But at least show us this first year that there is that excess demand. Nothing is written in stone."

Seattle and Portland will get the national stage for the first time on May 14 with the return match in Portland on July 10. Vancouver travels to Seattle June 11 with the Sounders going north on Sept. 24. The Whitecaps play at Portland on Aug. 20 and the Timbers become Vancouver's first opponent at remodeled B.C. Place stadium on Oct. 2.

"Ultimately, I want people to look at our fixtures and instead of saying 'I want to go to Europe,' they say, 'I want to go to Seattle, go to Portland, go to Vancouver because I know those game are going to have the best atmosphere," Wright said. "I think we're going to raise the bar here and we don't need to compare ourselves to overseas because we have ourselves to compare each other too."