Cameron Knowles, USL Timbers, 2009
Photo by Dylan Higgins

Portland-Montreal soccer history goes back many years in second division and beyond

The Portland Timbers and Montreal Impact will add a new chapter to the 30-plus year history the clubs share when they meet for the first time in MLS at the Stade Olympique on Saturday (11am PT, KPDX TV, Timbers Television Network750AM The Game / La Pantera 940 AM).

Much of the history between the cross-continental rivals was forged over the last decade; the teams faced off 15 times from 2002 to 2010 in various iterations of North American soccer’s second division. The Timbers dominated the series, posting an 8-4-3 record against the Impact, including a 4-1-2 mark on French-Canadian soil.

However, the roots that connect the soccer-rich communities of Portland and Montreal reach further back than the last 10 years, all the way to the inception of professional soccer in the respective cities.

Before Portland and Montreal ever met on the pitch, they were linked by a player who became one of the Timbers’ most celebrated soccer stars. In 1971, Clive Charles laced up his boots in the NASL for Montreal Olympique while on loan from English side West Ham United, playing two seasons in Montreal before eventually arriving in the Pacific Northwest for Portland in 1978.

In 1981, Le Manic de Montreal served as a second incarnation of pro soccer in eastern Canada in the NASL though by that time, Charles had moved on from the Timbers.

Just over twenty years later, Portland hosted Montreal—sporting the now familiar Impact moniker—in its penultimate game of the USL A-League regular season. Despite playing down a man for the final 25 minutes, the Timbers cushioned a one-goal advantage with two late strikes to win the first USL era tête-à-tête 3-0. The scoreline proved an anomaly in what became a series of highly-dramatic, tightly-contested matches.

The momentum in the all-time series shifted to Portland in 2008 as the Timbers defeated the Impact 1-0 in the first USL regular season game played at Montreal’s newly constructed Saputo Stadium. The Timbers won the second encounter 2-1 back in Portland before the Impact were able to impart some revenge in a return to Montreal for the teams’ third match, notching a 2-0 victory - their largest over the Timbers.

2009 belonged to Portland as the team won all three matches against Montreal in the midst of a 24-game unbeaten run that helped claim the Commissioner’s Cup as USL Division 1 regular season champions.

A 4-0 home demolition of the Impact—Portland’s largest victory over Montreal—was sandwiched that season between two thrilling 1-0 triumphs for the Timbers. The first came on June 4 in Portland when then-Timbers defender now Timbers assistant coach Cameron Knowles (above, right in 2009) set up Keith Savage for his first professional goal; a 90th minute tap-in that Knowles remembers fondly.

“Yeah, that was a lot of fun that one,” remembered Knowles. “The ball was floated in, and I just remember thinking, ‘All I’ve got to try and do is get on the end of this, try and put it in a position for someone to make a play.’ I was drifting to the far post and managed to win the challenge in the air. Fortunately it found Keith to bang it in.”

Cameron Knowles in 2012 Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

When the venue switched to Montreal later in the season, the scoreline did not, as Ryan Pore grabbed an 83rd minute winner to seal the season sweep.

The postseason was a different matter for the Timbers, who fell in the second round while, as fate would have it, the Impact won their second USL championship.

In 2011, after a near two-year recovery and rehabilitation following a broken leg suffered coincidentally while playing for Portland in a match in Montreal, fan favorite Knowles made a comeback with the blue of Montreal for a short period. Having since retired from his playing career, Knowles has rejoined the Timbers as an assistant coach. He is eagerly awaiting this next chapter in the unique rivalry.

“We had a tough, physical game against them in preseason, and I don’t think that’s going to be any different this weekend,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough environment to go in a get points out of because they are going to be a physical team.”