often considered a niche sport in North America, a late arrival on the sporting
landscape that has yet to challenge the historical hegemony of American football
and baseball – at least until you arrive in the Pacific Northwest.
The crucible of the
region’s football awakening is Seattle, where attending a game at the city’s
modern CenturyLink Field stadium is rapidly
becoming an essential Pacific Northwest experience. Pass through Seattle’s
Pioneer Square neighbourhood on a Saturday between March and October and you
will be swept up by a good-natured and ebullient mood that is more
characteristic of a street festival than a 90-minute spectator sport. Singing
supporters spill out of old-fashioned red-bricked pubs, blue and green banners
are hoisted high above crowded city squares, and a snaking procession called
the “March to the Match” lines up behind The Sound Wave, a fabulous 40-piece
Even if you haven’t
got a ticket for the game, it is worth visiting the pre-match parade in Occidental
Park to watch the band work through its quirky music and dance routine, and bear
witness to bevies of expectant Seattleites letting their hair down. Food carts
set up in side streets selling tacos and hot dogs, and small stalls ply team
scarves and memorabilia.
The object of
everybody’s affection is the beloved Seattle Sounders,
the third incarnation of a football team founded in 1974 who joined North
America’s pro league, the Major League Football (MLS), in 2009. United by their
love for the game and buoyed by a penchant for jazzy re-arrangements of 1980s
pop songs, the marching supporters hone in on CenturyLink Field, the deluxe
67,000-capacity stadium just south of Seattle’s downtown.
phenomenal early success – including three US Open Cup wins in their first
three seasons – the Sounders have quickly built up one of the sport’s largest
fan bases. The key lies in a network of grassroots supporters spearheaded by
the charismatic Emerald City Supporters and their accomplished marching band.
Large, ecstatic crowds are par for the course at Sounders matches: still only
in their fifth MLS season, the Sounders average home gate has reached 43,000,
double that of local Major League Baseball team, the Mariners, and greater than
all but five of the teams in the English Premier League, including –
astonishingly – 2012 Champions League winners, Chelsea.
So what has
prompted this unexpected football revolution?
supporters groups aside, Seattle’s rapid rise has coincided with a wider
renaissance within the MLS. In 2007, US football introduced its so-called “designated
player” rule, loosening restrictions on foreign players and flooding the league
with diverse overseas talent. David Beckham’s move to LA Galaxy was the first
and biggest coup, but he was quickly followed by other stars, including
ex-Arsenal ace Thierry Henry to the
New York Red Bulls. These moves upped the league’s quality and international
average gates double those of their nearest MLS cohorts, including LA Galaxy,
Seattle clearly has a few other tricks up its sleeve. The vociferous pre-match
entertainment starts long before the official kick-out, with fans using social
media to arrange meet ups in Pioneer Square’s pubs and parks. Off-duty players
and local celebrities can sometimes be found mingling with fans.
importantly, there is the Portland effect. Quiz any true Sounders fans about
what gets their competitive juices flowing, and they will talk at length about
the passions ignited by their intense rivalry with their Pacific Northwestern neighbours
the Portland Timbers.
Timbers fans, who are famous for their rich litany of
chants, play at the newly renovated Jeld-Wen Field which is close enough to Portland’s downtown
for supporters to stroll over after a pre-match beer in one of the city’s
legendary brew pubs. With or without alcoholic beverages, going to a Timbers game
can be a decidedly surreal experience. The team’s official
mascot is a real chain-saw welding lumberjack named “Timber Joey” who stands
behind the goal during home games guarding a scarf-draped log. Every time
Portland score a goal, he saws off a slice of wood amid an eruption of sawdust and
song. The hallowed slice is later presented to the goal scorer.
The Seattle-Portland face-off – by far the biggest derby match in the MLS – has
ebbed and flowed since the clubs first jousted in 1975, but has taken on new
meaning since the Timbers were incorporated into the MLS in 2011. Much of it
stems from the region’s sporting isolation. Portland has no pro football or
baseball teams to cheer for, while Seattle’s big league Seahawks and Mariners
are perennial underachievers in their respective sports. The hole was further
deepened in 2008 when Seattle’s pro basketball team, the Supersonics upped
sticks and relocated to Oklahoma City.
arguments go beyond football. Though Seattle and Portland are both pioneering
liberal-minded cities with strong community roots, they have long traded jibes
on non-sporting matters, such as the quality of their brew pubs, the hipster
rating of their alternative music scenes and the potency of their single origin
micro-roasted coffee. As the slightly larger, wealthier city, Seattle has
historically harboured the more successful and better-supported football team.
But, mention crowd numbers to self-consciously eccentric Portlanders (who
usually draw around 20,000), and they will argue that, what they lack in
numbers, they make up for in noise, passion and a commendable community
outreach programme. Timbers players, who are noticeably more down-to-earth than
their highly paid European counterparts, regularly interact with the local
community, partaking in hospital visits, school training camps and establishing
links with the city’s independently-minded small businesses.
On the field,
the rivalry continues to be played out in what is perhaps one of the most
electric sporting occasions outside the Superbowl. When Portland and Seattle
met at CenturyLink Field in October 2012, more than 66,000 supporters (the
second biggest crowd in MLS history) turned up and sang themselves hoarse. The
two teams meet again on 25 August 2013 when Seattle will be unveiling their
latest signing, US international Clint Dempsey, a record $32 million capture
from the UK’s Tottenham Hotspur. With CenturyLink’s 67,000 seats already sold
out and the club allowing standing-room only tickets for the first time ever,
pundits are predicting the biggest crowd in MLS history.
Going to a Sounders game is
relatively easy as long as you book tickets a few weeks in advance. Fixture
lists are printed on the club’s official website. To soak up the pre-match
atmosphere, arrive in Pioneer Square’s Occidental Park an hour before kick-off,
when the marching band starts its rousing entertainment. Good local watering
holes include the Owl ‘n’ Thistle, a football-friendly Irish
pub, and Fuel, a more boisterous sports bar. The March
to the Match is a short but noisy affair where first-time visitors can hold
their new scarves aloft and rehearse the simple, sometimes humorous chants that
are repeated throughout the game.
Portland Timbers’ Jeld-Wen Field is situated just off
the city’s bisecting north-south freeway I-405 and is served by its own MAX
light rail station. Check the website for upcoming fixtures and plan well ahead.
Fans warm up in pubs such as nearby Ringlers, attached to the historic Crystal Ballroom run
by local micro-brewing pioneers, the McMenamin Brothers.