Now that the United States national team has assured itself a place in the 2010 World Cup, the American soccer community can turn its attention back to the domestic game. This season has been unlike any other in recent memory, as both Major League Soccer and the United Soccer Leagues have produced compelling story lines throughout 2009. Many will argue that some of those stories have negatively impacted the development of top-flight football in this country, as the recent sale of the USL has caused dissension among the league’s clubs.
Nevertheless, football’s collective stock has never been higher in the United States, as Major League Soccer has consolidated its brand and the league’s future appears extremely bright. Readers should bear in mind that MLS is only fourteen years old, and while the early years were marred by attempts to “Americanize” the world’s game (see club names like Tampa Bay Mutiny et al.), the league office has now created a single party line intent on establishing a viable form of professional football. The knock-on effect from the David Beckham experiment has exposed MLS to new audiences, and the league is now mentioned alongside AC Milan on Sky Sports News and in La Gazzettta dello Sport. Yet the recent success of MLS lies in the league’s ability to select markets capable of supporting true football culture.
There are many great sporting cities across the United States, but few are truly able to sustain the organic supporters subculture associated with the beautiful game. Lets face it, soccer supporters are a unique breed. While the gridiron faithful may claim that consuming copious amounts of red meat quantifies fandom, proper football fans know better. After all, the relationship between soccer supporters and their clubs is not forged by gross mass-marketing. Rather, football culture is a tribal experience that binds supporters to their individual sides through triumph and adversity. To see contemporary examples of this observe a football match in Barcelona, where a football club literally carried the language and traditions of the Catalan people under Fascist oppression. On Merseyside football is a distinct way of life, as lifestyles are determined by declaring allegiance to Everton or Liverpool Football Club. London, Rome, Buenos Aires – football culture is the beating heart of these various urban centers.
Major League Soccer took massive strides in cementing this type of fervent football passion in North America by bringing league play to the Pacific Northwest. That is not to say that fan culture in cities like Toronto and Washington D.C. is not stellar, but the obvious success of Seattle Sounders FC has raised the bar. Each weekend 35,000 supporters pack Qwest Field in an unprecedented display of support. There is no question that the chanting rave green masses have elevated the standard for supporters culture across MLS. If you don’t believe me simply scroll down this website to Major League Soccer’s glaring attendance figures.
Yet despite the attention surrounding the Sounders, Portland’s 2011 entrance into the American top-flight will raise the bar once more. Simply stated, Portland has the best set of supporters in American soccer. Before the backlash begins, allow me to explain. Working in the Pacific Northwest soccer scene has given me a unique insight into the Interstate 5 corridor. From Portland to Vancouver, this part of North America is rife with football support that stems from large expatriate communities and local ties to the defunct North American Soccer League. Carrying the self-proclaimed title of “Soccer City USA”, Portland can bear this label because no other city rallies behind a second tier club in the same manner as Timbers fans.
The Rose City has not seen top-flight football since the NASL folded in 1984, yet PGE Park’s attendances swell over 10,000 routinely in the second division. In fact the Timbers averaged 9,734 fans per match in 2009 while playing in the United Soccer Leagues. This figure becomes more significant when weighed against Seattle’s 2008 USL average attendance. While the current Sounders are renowned for their overwhelming fan support, in the USL the club could not muster more than 2,500 fans on a regular basis. Meanwhile, Vancouver sold out Swangard Stadium regularly in 2009, but the current ground seats just over 5,000 spectators for USL play.
When compared with their rivals Portland’s home support is staggering, and the fan base is hardly composed of fickle members. The main supporters group is known as the Timbers Army, and this ravenous hoard devotes itself to vocally imposing itself on Timbers matches for 90 minutes. The TA is invariably contrasted with Seattle’s Emerald City Supporters, and while the Sounders faithful have backed their team admirably this season, this same fervor was lacking in the USL. Portland’s fan base is primed for Major League Soccer, and the fantastic support that is on display each week in the USL will thrive once the Timbers make the jump to the top-flight.
Part of what makes football such a visceral experience is the rivalry that surrounds the sport. The size of the United States and Canada makes traditional derby matches difficult to come by, but this is not the case in the Pacific Northwest. Once Portland and Vancouver join Seattle in MLS the North American soccer public will see mass away support for the first time in the continent’s history. Yes, a fair number of fans make the trek from Toronto to Columbus each year, but those numbers will pale in comparison to the away support in 2011.
The Portland-Seattle derby is of particular interest. With the two cities only two and a half hours from each other fans will be eager to renew this great rivalry. In the summer of 2009 the two sides squared off in the U.S. Open Cup and the atmosphere at PGE Park was simply the best I have encountered in North America. It was reminiscent of an English F.A. Cup match-up between a Premier League side and a relegated second division rival. Over 16,000 supporters packed the ground, and Seattle’s 1,000 away fans were a sign of things to come. The Timbers Army was incredibly vocal, orchestrating brilliant displays and waving numerous green and white checkered flags. Derby matches are crucial in developing the intensity of the American game, and Portland’s arrival will signal a new era in this regard.
Lastly, the current Timbers side isn’t half bad either. In 2009 the club claimed the Commissioner’s Cup as regular season champions, as Portland went on a 24-match unbeaten run and led the USL First Division in scoring. Manager Gavin Wilkinson was named Coach of the Year, and club President Merritt Paulson announced this week that Wilkinson will remain on board for the 2010 season. While it remains to be seen if Wilkinson will be at the helm in 2011, one thing is clear: this is a football club that can make an immediate impact at the next level. PGE Park is an intimate football venue, and with renovations on the way this atmosphere will only improve. Wilkinson is a top manager, and there are a number of players on the current roster that could continue playing at the next level. Goalkeeper Steve Cronin was recently loaned to D.C. United for the remainder of their season, while Mandjou Keita set the USL alight this season by scoring 11 goals.
If Major League Soccer is truly going to become a top domestic league passionate fan bases are needed to support well organized clubs. While this concept appears relatively obvious, it is a much more difficult notion to master. Clubs like Toronto and Seattle have certainly done their part, and Portland will add another level of authenticity in 2011. After all authenticity is the key. Portland’s fan base is already incredibly loyal in the second division, and this zeal will continue to grow once the club is playing in MLS. Derby matches are essential in fostering passion for this sport, and once Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver begin playing each other in MLS a new era will be underway. For anyone interested in seeing the beautiful game thrive in our corner of the world this will be a decisive moment, and personally I can’t wait.