A Great Northwest Rivalry: Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps

A trip north to Vancouver renews and expands a great soccer rivalry.

Rivalry. To build a truly great one it takes time, a bit of geography, and familiarity. Cascadia—the roughly defined northwest region of Oregon to British Columbia—shares much in common:  landscape, industry, weather, worldview. But within this large expanse, there is also competition for fame, bragging rights, and success. In soccer, this is no different. And when you have the Portland Timbers matching up against the Vancouver Whitecaps, you truly have something unique.

This past weekend's 2010 USSF Division-2 regular season finale marked a special chapter in the history of Timbers-Whitecaps relations. On a beautiful sunny crisp fall afternoon, a sold out, standing room-only crowd stocked with a healthy regiment of the Timbers Army, witnessed a back and forth barnburner of a draw with 2-2 the final score.

Though Vancouver led at the half 1-0 on a Terry Dunfield strike, the Timbers came storming out of the gate for the second half. Timbers midfielder Khalif Alhassan provided constant pressure and hustle throughout the match—his hard work and a nice ball from Doug DeMartin bringing a rewarding tying goal in the 46th minute. Forward Bright Dike continued his season-long strong play and had Vancouver defenders literally bouncing off of him. When midfielder Ryan Pore timed a perfect throughball to him, Dike was left with only the goalie to beat. He did not disappoint slotting home a go ahead goal in the 58th minute. Moreover, Steve Purdy led a solid Timbers backline by running up, running back, and providing excellennt shutdown defense. And yet despite all this, Vancouver pulled out a tie with a Cody Arnoux goal the 68th.

Off the pitch, fans—the lifeblood of a great rivalry—played their part. Cars and busloads of Timbers fans made the temporary migration north to support their squad. To add a unique and friendly twist to this rivalry, Vancouver’s fan group, the Southsiders, invited any and all Timbers Army fans to pre-game tailgating and post-game revelry. Though this breaking of bread kept diplomatic relations friendly for food and drink, matchday chants and song were as fiery as ever. With the game just about to start, you could see Timbers players, such as Ross Smith, make friendly waves to the sizeable contingent in the northeast corner of the stadium. Goals were celebrated among friends and post-game pictures were shared. In the journey back to the States, the gods of traffic conspired to have a large fan bus arrive at U.S. Customs minutes before the team. Rather than load up the bus and get back on the road to continue the long trip home, Timbers fans waited outside the building in the late-night dark for the team to emerge. Fans lined up two apart, arms and team scarves held aloft creating a human tunnel of honor for players to make the walk. Players literally walked across the border into the United States right into and with their diehard cheering fans.

In the league records, the game will be listed as simply as the close of the 2010 USSF Division 2 regular season. But this match means so much more in the greater Cascadian and Pacific Northwest soccer picture.

It is a rivalry that can be measured on a dizzyingly number of levels. To begin with, the two organizations’ North American Soccer League-era clashes helped lay a groundwork for competition. Add to that that for the past ten years, the Timbers and the Whitecaps have met 45 times. With all the changes that have occurred in the United Soccer League/USSF Division-2 over that time span, that number in and of itself is an accomplishment. Moreover, with the close of this 2010 USSF Division-2 season, both clubs have qualified for the playoffs and, low and behold, find that playoff seedings and fate have lined them up again for a home-and-home goal aggregate playoff series thus prolonging the struggle. By the end of these two playoff games, along with this past weekend’s great match, both teams will know each other’s players, coaches, tactics, and tics very intimately. All of this history will be expanded upon as both clubs move together towards Major League Soccer in 2011. 

With other sports’ various forms of expansion, when two or more clubs come into a league together, there is an automatic reaction to immediately begin comparing them. How do they structure themselves? What does their stadium look like? How do they stack up against each other? Against the rest of the league?

But with Portland and Vancouver, next year is not just about expansion bragging rights, but really about taking an historic grudge match to preserve and build upon. This past weekend’s match and this week’s two upcoming sure-to-be intense rivalry playoff games serve simultaneously as past, present, and prologue. It’s going to be a great week--and great future--for soccer.

Photo Caption:  A team ball filled with messages from Timbers fans was carried by the squad north to Vancouver.