Portland Timbers Launch Seattle Rivalry With a Billboard and a Bang
The billboard above is located 150 miles from Portland, and it's a huge green sign that soccer in the United States will never be the same.
Don't underestimate the power of a good ad. During a two-week stay in Buenos Aires in 2005, it was something I saw next to a highway, rather than anything that went on inside a stadium, that really demonstrated how far soccer had to go before it established real roots in American culture.
The two clubs based in the southern "suburb" of Avellaneda, Racing and Independiente, were engaged in a billboard war near the end of the bridge that connected the area to Buenos Aires proper. Racing started it, I think, with a reference to the 2001 Apertura title clinched at Vélez Sarsfield and the reception that awaited them back in Avellaneda at El Cilindro. Racing claimed to be the only local club big enough to fill two stadiums in one city on the same day.
Independiente shot back with a "scoreboard" ad, pointing out that in the period between Racing's Argentine titles, El Diablo Rojo had won eight national championships and five Copa Libertadores crowns.
It was on, and it was awesome. I hated to leave Argentina because I wanted to see the exchange play out, and I thought it would take decades before a soccer rivalry in the U.S. was intense enough to justify steering part of a marketing budget toward billboard trash talk. Turned out it took only five years.
The Portland Timbers, who have been competing in the United Soccer Leagues for nearly a decade, will join MLS next year. On Thursday the club unveiled the "Soccer City" billboard pictured above to generate some hype for its arrival. The best part? Its a few blocks away from Seattle's Qwest Field, home of the rival Sounders (photo below).
This isn't a club looking to take a shot at a historic intra-city enemy. This is a team that doesn't even exist yet reaching out to slap an opponent in another state. All of a sudden, based almost entirely on this audacious, unprecedented salvo, Timbers-Sounders can claim to be the best rivalry in American pro sports.
Timbers COO Mike Golub certainly agreed. A native New Yorker, Golub knows something about traditional sports rivalries. He's been in Oregon for about five years, and told FanHouse that he's sold on Timbers-Sounders.
"It's amazing. We played the Sounders in the U.S. Open Cup the last two years. They were huge events, total sellouts," he said. "The rivalry, we think, is going to be not only the best in MLS but one of the best in all of sports. It has history, proximity, and all the makings of something really remarkable."
Soccer teams calling themselves the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders have been battling it out on the field since the early 1970s. Through the big hair and shirt collars of the North American Soccer League, to the USL and beyond, quite a bit of antipathy arose out in the somewhat isolated great Northwest. Golub said both the Timbers and the sport itself have played a significant role in Portland, and that the term "Soccer City" was adopted by loyal fans of the game who've waited a long time for a shot at the big time.
"The NASL was enormously successful in Portland, on the field and off," he told FanHouse. "It's just a real phenomenon here. A lot of those players have stayed and are part of the community. There's a great history here. The University of Portland is just a great, great program. Our USL team always was among the leaders in league attendance ... Soccer's just very much in the DNA here. Kids play, your youth participation index is very high. Adult leagues, it's very high. It's really in our blood here. It's our game."
Seattle probably would beg to differ. The Sounders have taken MLS by storm since joining from USL last year. Average crowds in excess of 30,000 that dwarf anything else in American soccer and an atmosphere that wouldn't seem out of place in Buenos Aires have prompted plenty from the Emerald City to claim the title of Soccer City as well.
They can make the same scoreboard claim as Independiente. Four USL championships to none for the Timbers, plus last year's Open Cup. Not to mention the scarves, the March to the Match and the consistently large crowds. So far, the Sounders' response has been muted.
"My response will simply be a quote from MLS commissioner Don Garber from Nov. 21, 2009, talking about the Seattle Sounders FC and the impact on MLS," the club's blogger wrote. " 'Thanks to (Sounders owner) Joe (Roth) for all that he's done with his partners to build the sport in a city that truly has become Soccer City USA.' "
If there's more, Golub is ready.
"There are no immediate plans for more, but we're nimble," he said. "We like to think we're creative and we'll continue to have fun with this as we move toward our launch. We'll be standing on our toes."
Golub said repeatedly that the Timbers' relationship with the Seattle franchise is "excellent" and that the "Sounders have been terrific for what's happening with the league, and for us. We applaud them." The arrival of the Vancouver Whitecaps next year only will add to the excitement, which Golub called "palpable."
The billboard "is part of our overall efforts to build our brand, get the market excited, create some buzz and just build our fanbase," he said. The response on Thursday was swift, with hundreds responding to the initial photo of the ad posted on the Timbers' Facebook page. "Hardcore" Sounders fans may not appreciate the gesture, Golub admitted, but he insisted "It's in the spirit of fun."
The decision to place it near Qwest was made months ago, he said. Early September just seemed to be the right time to unveil it.
We tried to entice Golub into a little trash talk of his own, but he opted to let the billboard speak for itself. He did have this to say, however, about Portland's own "Soccer City" claim.
"We think we have the most authentic soccer experience in the country. We brought in Burnley last year and the players looked around (PGE Park) and said 'This reminds me of ... ' and they rattled off a bunch of English and Scottish venues," Golub said.
"Portland is about authenticity and being local. Being genuine, and being true to the game. I think that kind of describes our fans."
Seattle, it's your move.