Seattle, Portland, Vancouver in 3-way MLS rivalry

Seattle, Portland, Vancouver in 3-way MLS rivalry
A billboard advertising the Major League Soccer expansion Portland Timber team is seen just south of downtown Seattle.

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – Not far from Seattle's Qwest Field, a billboard went up recently above an auto repair shop. In bold letters it reads: "Portland, Oregon. Soccer City, USA. 2011." It includes the double-sided ax insignia of the Portland Timbers.

The billboard is a not-so-subtle marketing ploy to stoke the competition between the Timbers, who join Major League Soccer next year, and the MLS Seattle Sounders, who play at Qwest Field.

With Vancouver, British Columbia, also home to an expansion team next season, the MLS has smartly positioned itself to capitalize on a three-way Pacific Northwest rivalry that stems from the 1970s, when the teams were part of the old North American Soccer League.

"Sports are built on rivalries, and that's such an asset that we have – not just with Seattle, but also with Vancouver," Timbers owner Merritt Paulson said. "It's a good thing for the league. And, you know, the billboard got some national attention, so I think it can heighten the national consciousness to the rivalry that's going on here."

Commissioner amused
MLS Commissioner Don Garber said this week he was amused by the billboard. The league is keenly watching the development of the renewed rivalry in the region and whether the trio can build on the momentum of the Sounders' incredibly successful launch.

"We're a young sports league in a very crowded market," Garber said. "Our teams have to aggressively and creatively carve out their piece of the pie."

The hype has been building in Portland as the Timbers play out their final season in soccer's minor leagues. In the past month, the team has named a new head coach and brought aboard Alaska Airlines as its jersey sponsor, a coup in the lackluster economy.

After the Portland Beavers baseball team wrapped up their season at PGE Park recently, construction equipment moved on the field to transform the stadium from a multi-use facility to a soccer-specific venue.

The Timbers, who aren't releasing specific numbers yet, have sold more than 7,500 season tickets and are on pace to sell 10,000 by New Year's. It is expected that PGE Park will seat about 20,000 when the renovation is finished.

The Beavers, the Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres, were left with no home and are now up for sale after several failed efforts to build the team a new ballpark in and around Portland. Paulson, who also owns the Beavers, lamented the demise of baseball in Portland – but insists the fates of his teams were not connected – answering critics who suggested he abandoned the Beavers in favor of the Timbers.

The Whitecaps, meanwhile, are renovating BC Place Stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies for the Vancouver Olympics were held. They will open their inaugural season at Empire Fields, also the temporary home of the CFL's B.C. Lions.

The Whitecaps, whose ownership group includes Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash, reports they've sold more than 14,000 season tickets. The Whitecaps' kit sponsor, by the way, is Bell Canada.

The "rabid" MLS fan base
Both teams already have rabid fan groups: Portland has the Timbers Army and Vancouver has the Southsiders. And both teams are looking to follow the lead that the Sounders established.

The Seattle franchise sold 22,000 season tickets before the start of its inaugural season last year. At first, team officials covered parts of Qwest Field to make the matches more intimate. But demand forced them to increase the capacity several times. The Sounders sold out every home game in their first season and set a league record for average attendance.

The Sounders' success helped Portland and Vancouver win their bids for MLS franchises.

"What drove us throughout this process was knowing that if we prevailed, we would be able to capture something very special – the uniqueness of a passionate regional rivalry across three cities," Garber said.

The rivalry has been simmering in the Pacific Northwest since all three teams played in the NASL, which existed from 1968 to 1984.

After the Whitecaps won the league championship in 1979, some 100,000 people attended their homecoming parade. It's believed to be the biggest crowd to descend on the city until the Winter Games earlier this year.

Because many of the players in those days were foreigners who had long histories of playing with and against each other, the rivalries were largely low-key. After matches at Civic Stadium (later PGE Park) the teams would adjourn to a nearby pub.

In 2004, after the teams had jumped to the USL First Division, fans created the Cascadia Cup for the team that won the head-to-head series between the three clubs. When the Sounders went to MLS, the trophy went to the winner of the series between Portland and Vancouver. Next year, it again will include all three.

"There is a real rivalry there," Paulson said. "It certainly doesn't need any billboards to stoke the fire."

Spokane out

At least for now, the Sounders aren't joining in on any back-and-forth with the Timbers' marketing department because they're playing out the rest of their season, said Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer.

"We're not all that obsessed and focused with the rivalry building at this point," he said. "We will certainly devote an appropriate amount of energy to participating in building a big rivalry with Portland and Vancouver, but ultimately when they're in the league it's three points we're going to try to win – at home and away."

The Timbers and the Whitecaps are each headed for the playoffs in their final USSF Division-2 Pro League season. The Timbers will host their postseason games at the University of Portland's Merlo Field because of the PGE Park construction. The Whitecaps finish out 2010 at Swangard Stadium.

Garber says that, if successful, the Timbers-Sounders-Whitecaps battle could help the MLS set up other regional rivalries in the future.

"I think this serves as a talisman for the league ... potentially having a showcase that would help us break through as a professional sports league," he said.