For the first time in 853 days, the Timbers will play a game in Vancouver

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Vancouver’s BC Place is one of the best gameday experiences in Major League Soccer, even if it isn’t exactly the raucous, European soccer atmosphere that defines soccer tourism. Instead, the False Creek location is an easy walk from some of the streets, neighborhoods, and views that make the City of Glass one of the most attractive in the world. A morning at an AirBnB near the active parts of Robson Street could start a day of slow walks and intermittent stops that set Vancouver’s getaway apart.

That’s part of what these trips always were to Portland Timbers’ culture: getaways. They were matchdays, too, as well as a derbies, but for so many, Vancouver was one of the best trips of the year. The drive north, through Seattle and the Canada-United States border, takes roughly six hours, allowing the weekend to be bookended by the sites of a North Washington countryside – some of the most beautiful country on the West Coast. In between, time on the water, grouped on restaurant sidewalks, or gather on that Robson Street that closes to car traffic at night allowed Portlanders to soak in the city’s Vansterdam feel.

The Timbers are back in Vancouver tonight, but they’ll be without the throng of supporters that usually follow them north. At 7:00 p.m. Pacific, Portland will kick off their first game in British Columbia since COVID-19 engulfed the world. It’s been 853 days since the Timbers were last in Vancouver, with the Whitecaps having hosted derbies at Providence Park and in Sandy, Utah, since the teams met on May 10, 2019. Because of the nature of our world, though, it’s impractical for most Timbers fans to travel north.

Tonight’s game is hugely important for both teams. At least, it’s as hugely important as a game in the middle of September can be when a league lets 14 of its 27 teams into the playoffs. Those playoffs don’t even start for two more months. But after those months, there will be a line between those who go into MLS’s second season and those who go home. Right now, the Timbers are right on that line in the Western Conference. The Whitecaps are one point below.

Both teams are trending upward, which is why tonight’s result is so important. Both teams have reason to think they’re improving. Neither want to be shown they’re not. Vancouver, in all competitions, is undefeated in 10 games and have won their last four. They’re one of the hottest teams in the context of Major League Soccer, but on August 28, the Whitecaps lost in the Canadian Championship to Pacific FC, a team that plays in the Canadian Premier League. That result not only reminded the Whitecaps of their fragility; it cost head coach Marc Dos Santos his job.

There’s still a sense of fragility around the Timbers, too. They’ve won two in a row, and for only the second time this year, they’ve kept consecutive clean sheets. There’s a want to see that as a major turn because, well, it might be a major turn. Winning 2-0 at Seattle can’t be ignored. But with the talent on Portland’s roster, there’s been a season-long wait for a type of real Timbers to emerge. The wait’s been so long, some may be too eager to find it.

In recent years, games in Vancouver have almost always been hard – a stark reversal from the team’s first four years in Major League Soccer, when Portland didn’t lose up north. The second leg of the 2015 conference semifinals was probably the team’s most important win in Vancouver, but the 3-0 win the year before might have been more remarkable. All three goals came over the course of 29 minutes in the second half. New the end of a season where the team would miss the playoffs, it fed the feeling that BC Place was the Timbers’ second home.

Since then, the Whitecaps have rebounded, but the Timbers have still win five times in Vancouver since 2011. Given how many times they visit BC Place in a normal year (one or two) — along with how often MLS teams win on the road (25 percent of the time, this year) — that’s not bad. Portland is 5-5-2 all-time at BC Place. More important than the record, though, has been the memories. Winning a Cascadia Cup. Losing a Cascadia Cup. Advancing to a Western Conference final. Fans are always telling me about individual goals that stand out to them, some I would have never predicted. Supporters had so many memories in Vancouver, their list of favorites was broad.

To be fair, it’s still broad. So much of this article has been written in the past tense, but as I type, the next derby kicks off in 10 hours. As of yesterday’s flight north, the Timbers playing at Vancouver is an is, not a was. Still, from Portland’s perspective, Whitecaps weekends won’t be the same until still gets back to normal. And until it does, the distance between rivals will feel farther than six hours.

Tonight’s a great step one, though. The Whitecaps are back home. The rivalry returns to BC Place. Both teams will want three points out of that return, but in the occasion alone, a small victory’s already been won. The Timbers-Whitecaps derby is back in Vancouver.