LAKE OSWEGO, Ore. – What strikes you first as soon as you walk into Casa del Pollo, a humble homestyle restaurant located on a busy street corner in suburban Lake Oswego, are the photos of owner Jorge Zuniga's native Costa Rica and the posters celebrating Zuniga's two favorite soccer teams, the Portland Timbers and Deportivo Saprissa.
On Wednesday, the Timbers will play host to Saprissa in the final match of CONCACAF Champions League Group B play (7pm PT, CONCACAF Facebook, TICKETS). For the Timbers, this must-win match will determine which of these two teams will move on to next spring's quarterfinals.
For Zuniga and his son Mario, however, the match is the culmination of a familial soccer rivalry dating back over two decades.
The rivalry first began in the early 90s when Mario, then only 10 years-old, went to his father – a lifelong Saprissa fan – and handed over his Saprissa hat and celebratory trumpet.
“Dad, I'm going to Alajuela,” Zuniga remembers Mario telling him, Alajuela referring to Saprissa's bitter rival, Liga Deportiva Alajuelense.
“I was like, 'What are you doing?'” Zuniga recalls. “Since then, he's a rival.”
To understand what this would be like, imagine a young Timbers fan telling his father that he was abandoning the team to cheer for Seattle Sounders FC. Imagine the conflicting emotions that the father would feel and then magnify them.
“These two teams have such a strong hate for each other,” Timbers Army member and Costa Rica native Fernando Melo wrote of Alajuela and Saprissa in a blog post on the Timbers Army website, “it makes the Sounders rivalry feel like a thumb wrestling match.”
“All of a sudden this other team [Alajuelense], was just on fire,” Mario remembers of his decision to switch clubs. “They had an amazing team, a young team, a very strong team. I don't know what it is but I happened to like that team better. And I looked at the [Saprissa] colors – it was the wrong colors. And I literally said, 'Here's the hat. Here's the flag. Thanks, I'm switching teams.'”
But despite their conflicting allegiances, father and son are united by their equal passion for the game, for the Costa Rican National Team, and for their local team: the Portland Timbers.
“I like the fact that we have this team in the city,” says Mario. “It's in our backyard. We can go. We can cheer...We don't have to travel very far. The environment is very good. I like the organization. I like the team.”
While Mario says that he doesn't remember much of the first match he attended at Providence Park, he does remember the size and passion of the crowd outside the stadium after the match and how, if only for a moment, he felt transported back to Central America.
Unlike his son, though, Zuniga is understandably more conflicted heading into Wednesday's match.
“You know [Saprissa and the Timbers are] my two loves,” he says. “I don't think I'm going to lose [either way], but I'm worried about my Saprissa team...I cheer for the Timbers and love that the city has that love for soccer; it's a great thing and it's beautiful, sports. When I see the kids in winter, Friday nights, practicing even when it's raining outside I say, 'I think they got it.'”
Should the Timbers defeat Saprissa on Wednesday, Mario insists that there will be no gloating or teasing on the ride home. He doesn't take any pride, he says, in watching his father's favorite club lose, rivalry or no rivalry.
“It's a mutual respect,” he says. “We love each other very much. We just enjoy the game...Even back home we used to go to games together despite the fact that we cheer for different teams. There's no animosity whatsoever. There's just good old fun. That's all.”
Still, Mario will be wearing his black-and-red Timbers shirt on Wednesday – which also happen to be Alajuelense colors – if only to rub it in a little bit.
“He's wearing that shirt that night – the enemy['s colors] – so we don't get along in soccer now,” Zuniga says with a laugh. “But it's good. I respect [his choice].”