In the 42 years that he's been a fan of the Portland Timbers and a season ticket holder across the NASL, USL and MLS eras, Don Cox has witnessed the birth and evolution of one of the oldest continuing rivalries in American professional soccer.
In May 1975, Cox – then 18 years-old – and his brother went out to Civic Stadium on a whim to catch Portland's newest professional sports team, the Timbers. The two sat in the pouring rain and watched, transfixed as the newly assembled Timbers fell 1-0 in a hard-fought battle with the Seattle Sounders.
Cox, who had never seen soccer before, fell in love.
“What I was seeing on the field was stuff I couldn't believe was happening with the skill that people had with just their feet and their head,” Cox says. “So I became immediately hooked that night and have followed it the rest of my life.”
That inaugural season brought its share of triumphs and heartbreaks, but none were more satisfying than the Timbers' 2-1 overtime defeat of the rival Sounders in the first round of that year's NASL Playoffs.
But to understand the emotions that came pouring out of the stands after that August 12 match, you must first rewind back to the final regular-season match between the two burgeoning rivals.
Don Cox interviewed in KICK's 2015 documentary, Roots of the Rivalry:
On August 2, the Sounders defeated the Timbers 3-2 in Seattle in a heated overtime contest where tensions boiled over both on the pitch – five cautions were given out in the first half alone – and off of it. At one point early in the game, a few Sounders fans grabbed a sign reading “Soccer City Says Sink the Sounders” carried by some visiting Timbers fans and tore it to shreds.
Cox, who was listening to the match on the radio at home, became increasingly agitated as the Sounders cynically fouled the Timbers without punishment by the referee.
“I just remember being really angry at Seattle because they were being very physical and taking some our players out it seemed at times,” he recalled. “I really disliked Mike England, their center [defender] because of how physical he was being with [Timbers forward Peter] Withe.”
It was emotions like Cox's, shared by many in the Civic Stadium stands, that came pouring out during that extraordinary playoff match on August 12.
The home crowd was often so loud, in fact, that Cox can remember having to put his lips right up to his brother's ear in order for him to be heard above the din. And with the match drawn at one goal apiece heading into overtime, the stands were bursting with nervous energy.
That energy finally boiled over when Tony Betts scored his legendary header to send the Timbers on to a semifinal matchup with the St. Louis Stars. Fans rushed onto the field and mobbed Betts and his teammates as bewildered Sounders players stood shock still in their penalty area.
“It was a combination of relief and excitement when we scored in overtime,” remembers Cox. “That, to me, triggered the rivalry in that game and it carried on through the successive years after that.”
The rivalry born that night would continue through the NASL years, be born again in the USL, and reach its apotheosis when the Timbers joined the Sounders in MLS in 2011. The latest chapter is set for this Saturday in Seattle in a nationally televised game kicking off at high noon on FOX.
Until recently, however, few of the rivalry matches had lived up to Cox's memory of that epic 1975 playoff showdown.
“If I had to say one particular game that got me giddy...the one U.S. Open Cup game [in 2015] up at Starfire [Sports Complex] where Dempsey got red-carded out and all the Seattle side lost their cool,” said Cox. “That still sits well with me.”
There remains one thing, though, that tops all the other memories – even that Tony Betts goal – for this lifelong Timbers fan.
“Of course getting the championship before they did,” Cox added with a laugh when asked about his favorite moments in the rivalry. “That sits really well too.”