206 vs. 503: Soccer rivalry still simmers

As rivalries go between the Northwest's top two metropoles, this one might not even be in the top five.

But the Seattle Sounders-Portland Timbers soccer rivalry has a colorful history, much like other good 206-503 area-code rivalries that date back to the 1970s and early 1980s like the Sonics and Blazers, or Thunderbirds and Winter Hawks.

About 25 years ago, the Northwest was professional soccer-crazy, the Sounders and the Timbers at the center of the tempest. Players with backgrounds of international fame and fortune in the world's most popular sport were lured to play in the North American Soccer League. Tens of thousands of fans descended on Seattle's Kingdome and Portland's Civic Stadium.

Soccer was bigger than ever, and hasn't been as big in these parts since. But the Sounders-Timbers rivalry, with a little spice from the north in the form of the Vancouver (B.C.) Whitecaps, is still alive and kicking in what is now the A-League of U.S. soccer.

And it continues at 7 p.m. tomorrow in Portland and again at 5 p.m. Sunday in Seattle, the fourth and fifth of six games between them this season.

The rivalry still means something to diehard fans and players with Northwest ties.

"I think the NASL was still a little higher level because most of the players were foreign," said Eric Gilbertson, a 35-year-old Sounders fan from Everett. "On the Sounders teams (of the past), most of the players were English or Scottish. You'd see a lot of players that played in the English Premier League where the level is quite a bit higher."

Twenty-five years ago, soccer was at the pinnacle of its popularity here. The Sounders, Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps — infused with talent from Europe — had loyal followings of several hundred fans who would travel up and down I-5 with their teams.

In Seattle, more fans came out to the Kingdome for Sounders games than for the Mariners. As many as 30,000 would watch when the Timbers or Whitecaps were in town. Crowds swelled in Portland for the rivalry games, though Civic Stadium held less than half the capacity of the Kingdome.

The players weren't just skilled — they were also approachable. It wasn't uncommon to find Sounders and Timbers from the same region of England, Ireland or Scotland at local watering holes after games.

"The whole ambience was a whole lot different," Gilbertson said. "They'd go up in the stands and shake your hand, and then go out to a pub afterward."

The Sounders of the disco era were names like Tommy Hutchison, Tony Chursky, Roger Davies, Mike England, Peter Ward and Dave Butler. The Timbers featured John Bain, Clive Charles, Bernie Fagan, Clyde Best and Jimmy Conway. Many of those players remained in the area after their playing days, and some helped kick-start youth soccer programs in the two cities.

"The atmosphere was tremendous. Great rivalries, great times, great fun, outstanding players, outstanding play."

In 1975, the Timbers played for the league championship. The Sounders appeared in the NASL finals in 1977 and 1982, both times losing to the New York Cosmos of Pele fame. The Whitecaps got to the title game in 1979, and won the Northwest's only NASL title with a 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

Originally a player-coach for the Sounders and now an assistant coach, Jim Gabriel remembers putting himself in against Portland because he wanted so badly to help defeat the Timbers one night in 1975.

"We were getting beat 2-0, and we needed to do something, and we were energized (when he entered in the second half) and ended up beating them 3-2," Gabriel said. "Games were like that, always tight. We never beat them by a big score, they never beat us by a big score. It was a goal here or there."

Times changed. By 1983, the Timbers and Sounders were out of the NASL and the league folded by the end of 1984.

A few lower-division leagues and 10 years later, the Sounders joined the A-League, considered American soccer's top minor league, or second-division level. The Timbers were reborn and joined the league in 2001.

Nowadays, the Sounders play before an average of 3,800 fans isolated in several sections of Seahawks Stadium. The Timbers enjoy a little larger average of 4,850 at the more intimate PGE Park.

Fans of both teams still enjoy a pint or two together before and after games, but once their teams take the field, even a handful of supporters for either side can be as entertaining as the action on the field.

"It's a new rivalry ... but yeah, we don't like each other," Sounders midfielder Andrew Gregor, a Portland native, said. "A lot of the guys, we know each other from years back, and we don't get along and stuff. It's always exciting."

Gregor was a Timbers fan as a child, but was once spurned by the team when looking for a place to play. He ended up with the Sounders.

"I have a bone to pick," he said. "I wanted to play for the Timbers and it just didn't work out, and I ended up here in Seattle and it's a great situation. I'm happy here, so every time I play Portland, I want to beat them."

Gregor isn't alone. Members of the Emerald City Supporters and Sounder Nation vie for supremacy in the stands against Portland's Cascade Rangers and Timbers Army. The Timbers have a larger and therefore louder contingent of fans and consider themselves the best fan group in the A-League.

The Sounders know their adversaries' reputation, and duke it out with Timbers fans on Internet message boards. One Web site lists 20 different songs and chants aimed at razzing the Timbers.

For example, "Where's your Trophies," sung to the tune of "Darling Clementine":

Where's your trophies, where's your trophies, Where's your trophies, Timber fans?

Haven't got none, never had one, where's your trophies, Timber fans?

"We don't practice hooliganism," said "Timber Jim" Serrill, a longtime soccer fan who walks around the field in Portland with a chainsaw in hand and saws off a piece of a tree trunk when the Timbers score a goal. "It's a friendly rivalry. We're all part of the soccer nation."

"We try and make it as uncomfortable as possible for Seattle," Rick Curwen, a Timbers Army member, said. "We never see any Seattle fans down here."

At the May 18 match between the teams, the Sounders' supporters pounded drums and sang an insulting little diddy at Howe as he walked onto the field with the Timbers.

Holding back the size of the crowds may be perceptions that the A-League isn't the country's top quality soccer, that the only way for soccer to thrive in the Northwest again is if Major League Soccer gave Seattle a franchise.

The Sounders may not have the numbers in the stands, but they have the upper hand against the Timbers on the field since Portland re-emerged. Seattle is 8-2-1 versus Portland in three seasons, including this one, and the Timbers have never won in Seattle.

"(The Sounders) have been around a lot longer, and they've been able to establish a group of players that have played with each other over a period of years," Howe said. "They have been able to gradually add to that mix. Whereas in the three years for us, we've had to start again every year for one reason or another.

"The rivalry's still there. When you play anyone in your own division, the points are double. That's why these games are important. There's only two teams from each division to make the playoffs."

Jose Miguel Romero: 206-464-2409 or jromero@seattletimes.com