A Newbies Perspective of Portland Away

Normally when one thinks of “traveling supporters” in football, they imagine a group of die hard European fans, who wake up in the wee hours of the morning to embark on a six hour journey to cheer their club in the opposing team’s city. Not very often does this occur in North America due mostly to the long distances between team locations. However, I think that trend is changing dramatically.

In the MLS, we have seen numerous new teams enter the league over the past few years. Cities such as Kansas City, Chicago, Salt Lake, Houston, and Toronto all have teams in the continent’s biggest professional football league. Three teams in particular who have done so much for the league in its short stints are the Northwestern teams: Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, and Vancouver Whitecaps. These teams have formed possibly the most watched, and most intense derby in North America: The Cascadia Cup. The name derives from the area of which all teams are in called “The Cascades”, and in the few games that have been played this year in Major League Soccer, it has already earned a massive reputation. Seattle and Portland’s thrilling 1-1 draw, Vancouver’s Eric Hassli making a name for himself across the globe after a superior goal to tie Seattle 2-2 at Century Link Field and the immense support that these matches drew are just a few of the highlights of the already huge Cascadia Cup rivalry.

This past Saturday, August 20th at 7pm Pacific Standard Time, was the first meeting between The Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps at Portland’s newly renovated JELD-WEN Field. I had the pleasure of being one of the travelling Vancouver supporters who made the five hour trip to Oregon which entailed waking up at 5:00am. In the days leading up to the trip, I couldn’t have been more excited. I got up at the appointed time, showered, brushed my teeth, dressed, picked up my suitcase for the overnight stay at Portland’s “Heathman Hotel” and got into the car with my father eagerly awaiting the normally grueling drive. In this case, it wasn’t a grueling drive at all.

Upon arriving in Portland, immediately I felt goosebumps. The similarities to Vancouver were extraordinary, and the people were very friendly. I checked into the hotel and relaxed for a couple of hours and read a book to kill time, and at 4:00 pm, put on my Whitecaps shirt and scarf, and headed outside for the ten minute walk to the stadium. Even at 5:30pm, ninety minutes before kick-off, Portland’s Timbers Army (Ultra group), and Vancouver Southsiders (Whitecaps ultra group), were already filling the stands at a brisk pace. The atmosphere was electrifying and a European football kind of feeling was in the air, and I cheered and sang with the 500 Southsiders that were in the stands.

Although the match didn’t turn out the way I had hoped with a 2-1 Portland win, I was extremely grateful to my father for making the trip possible so that I could see my home team play an away game. It gave me a sense of pride, like I was helping out my club who I love dearly. The next two Cascadia Cup matches will be played in Vancouver, then after that we’ll have to wait for the 2012 MLS season before the next set of fixtures start, but one thing is for sure: I will be in Seattle and Portland cheering, singing, and standing strong for my team, The Vancouver Whitecaps.

Now, what does this mean for football in North America? Firstly, it shows the amount of support that the teams get. Portland Timbers draw an average of 18,000+ fans and are out of the playoffs in their inaugural season, and have already sold 2,000 season tickets for 2012. Vancouver, despite being last in the league, drew the third highest average attendance in its’ inaugural year, gathering 20,600 fans to Empire Field. Seattle draw just over 38,000 on average to their games, and have the largest ultra group in North America. That leads me to my next point: Ultras. There are many die hards in the Northwest, and all over the MLS in general, but the ones that everyone pays attention to are the Emerald City Supporters (Seattle), and the previously mentioned Timbers Army and Vancouver Southsiders. In just a few months, Vancouver’s paid membership went from 100 to 700, and is still growing. Portland has over 1000, and is also still growing rapidly, Seattle has over 2200 and also continues to grow increasingly faster every day. All in all, games like these can draw new ultras to their respective groups. I for one, joined just two days ago upon returning to Vancouver after my Portland trip. The thought of being an ultra and being a part of a group who supports my team the same way I do is an experience that I want to continue.

Another point worth noting is the atmosphere at the games. The Northwestern clubs, particularly those south of the border, create a European type feel to the games, and that should trigger a gradual upswing in fan support for these teams. In addition, it will influence other clubs and should make their ultras increase in number similar to the Cascadian clubs.

However, along with the positive aspects, there are the negatives. One of these is the potential for “hooliganism” and officials have to take security measures to ensure the safety of all fans. There are ultras attending games who support violence, racism, and other politically incorrect and controversial views and are only too happy to make them known to their fellow spectators. Italian ultras regularly who don’t get their way have been known to become violent, and Turkish ultras literally kill each other for supporting the rival team. MLS ultras certainly aren’t like this, in fact, they’re against hooliganism and what it stands for. This is something Cascadia Cup officials need to realize, as it’s preventing the away allocation for games to be shortened to just 500 per match. Maybe with a little bit of cooperation (which is what supporter groups of all three Cascadian teams do), the officials will realize that there is no danger of violence and will raise the allocation in the near future. Right now, all the ultras can do is attend away games in support of their teams and respect the rival teams supporters and their right to cheer for their team without fear of reprisal.

Overall, it was a great experience travelling to Portland, and I hope to do it again next year in both Oregon and Seattle as the remaining two fixtures will be played in Vancouver. For now, I am happy to report that MLS is on the rise, and so too are the fans and the atmosphere that they create. Look out for us, because we’ll be taking the footballing world by storm one step at a time.