Photo via Max Aquino/Sounder at Heart
Seattle and Portland, Ore. A classic tale of two cities. One is a bustling metropolis with large corporations taking their stake on every corner with companies like Amazon, Google and you are always bound to see another Starbucks pop up. The other city prides itself on local business and keeping it weird. But in two cities that pride themselves on their differences, they have one glaring similarity that continues to draw an eye to the rainiest part of the country.
These two cities have found success in Major League Soccer since they were both introduced to the league: Seattle in 2009 and Portland in 2011. Seattle have won two MLS Cups, four U.S. Open Cups and one Supporters’ Shield. The Portland Timbers only have the one MLS Cup and an MLS is Back Cup but that does not mean they have not had their fair share of dominance in the Western Conference. Both these clubs pride themselves on victory and we have seen a fair share of brilliant players step on the pitch for both clubs. Clint Dempsey, Diego Valeri, Freddie Ljungberg, Fanendo Adi, Kasey Keller and Diego Chara. This is just a few names on a long list to wear the Timbers Green or Sounders Rave Green. But what is it that breeds this success? Why is it that in the last six MLS Cup finals, these two have been competing in them. It comes down to two words: culture and rivalry.
With Seattle getting their chance to hit the ground running, they had to establish what the Seattle Sounders were going to be all about. The front office had forked over the cash, the fans gave them the support and the players were ready. The roots of this club were ready to attack the league with everything. They certainly did that by claiming the U.S. Open Cup in their first season and sat just one point out of first place, finishing third in the West. The following season was the same result with another U.S. Open Cup and a fourth-place finish in the West. They did not make it past the first round of playoffs, but a trophy win in your first two seasons is nothing to turn a blind eye to. However, the 2011 season would be the moment that the league and the country would be put on notice of what the Pacific Northwest has to offer.
Following the success of their neighbors up north, the Portland Timbers were ready with a club of their own with similar attributes to their rave green rivals. The Timbers started off a little slower as they really did not make a splash until 2014 when they decided to sign club legend, Diego Valeri and add pieces around him to really start making a run at MLS Cup. The 2015 season is what put Portland on the map as they finished third in the West but beat the Columbus Crew to win their first MLS Cup. Portland took advantage of mistakes made and comfortably took the cup home to Portland. More importantly, they did it before Seattle.
Seattle, hungry to now having to play catch up to their rival had won their third U.S. Open Cup in 2011 and their only Supporters’ Shield in 2014. But that did not matter to the MLS and Sounders faithful. The Sounders had to win MLS Cup in order to show up the Rose City of Portland. Well, that is exactly what they did. They took on Toronto in back-to-back finals in 2016 and 2017 and won the 2016 Cup in dramatic fashion. 2017 did not hold the same fate as Toronto got their vengeance.
These two clubs then took turns trading places as Western Conference Champions. Portland in 2018 took on Atlanta where they lost to the new expansion side. Seattle took its turn in 2019 where they beat Toronto again, this time in the Emerald City. Seattle most recently lost the 2020 MLS Cup against a familiar opponent to Portland, the Columbus Crew. I am sure the league sure has grown sick of seeing shades of green every season since 2015.
These two clubs breed success. They instill it into every player that suits up for them. Sounders midfielder, Cristian Roldan, has said to SoundersFC.com that “We have a winning mentality, and we see it in the decision they [the front office] make firsthand. It comes from the top to bottom.” We see players like Roldan say similar things. Portland shares similar aspects to this. Even though Timbers saw a quick exit to the playoffs in 2020, their manager, Gio Savarese told mlssoccer.com “We came here with purpose. We were very content around the players, the staff, the togetherness was incredible.”
There is certainly culture but that second word I mentioned earlier, “rivalry”, is what truly fuels these two clubs. These are two clubs that despise each other. From the very first kick off between these two, you can see the distaste they have for one another. That strain between these two clubs forces them to want to strive to be better. When one club makes a big signing, it is not much longer that the other does the same. One club gets a big win, the other follows right behind. These two clubs do what they can to win, but not at the cost of the league. But in spite of their neighboring rival. As long as they do better than the other, that is all that matters. That was very clear in 2016, when Seattle qualified for playoffs and Portland did not, even though they were the defending champs.
These clubs have now been in the league for double-digit years and have set a certain standard for new clubs that are attempting to make their mark. They have set the mold for the league and have shown that it is possible to continue to have success in a league with plenty of parity.
Every other club in the league should be shaking in their cleats at the success the Sounders and Timbers have had. Each club will continue to have dominance in the West. Simply because they will do as the Pacific Northwest does. “Roll on Columbia, Roll on.”