Passion of the Sounders and Timbers fans gives football a chance, maybe, of being embraced by the sports-mad United States.
Contempt can be beautiful
Oft-heard questions about the United States around the world include:
What on earth is going on in the United States? (This comes from people who inadvertently witness Congress.)
Charlie Sheen? (This stems from basic human concern.)
Will the United States ever embrace football? (Or, in translation: "soccer.")
The answer to the last one generally turns up somewhere between "probably not" and "never", but some rumblings in 2011 do hint at a tilt toward the rest of planet Earth.
The noise comes from behind the Rocky Mountains and up in the quietest corner of the vast country, from up in what they call the Pacific Northwest, from up where clouds and caffeine proliferate with the former necessitating the latter. There, a long but esoteric "soccer" rivalry between the cities of Portland and Seattle has intensified into something with surprising echoes of - cannot believe this, but - England.
Portland, in the state of Oregon has a club called the Timbers, and Seattle, in the adjacent state of Washington, has a club called the Sounders. The Timbers fans evidently dislike the Sounders, the Sounders fans evidently dislike the Timbers, both tribes evidently dislike certain players with a superb irrationality, both post comments about the other that say, roughly, "You are not very good," and the whole thing makes a luscious stew of contempt.
Upon a wretched planet, contempt confined to stadiums passes as beautiful.
The rivalry dates to ancient times of 1975 and the tried-but-failed North American Soccer League, but has taken on fresh oomph with Portland's first-year inclusion in the top rung of Major League Soccer, which is not to mention the presence of the Vancouver Whitecaps just up the road from Seattle in Canada, a different country as some Americans are aware.
The Sounders-Timbers match in May in Seattle drew 36,593 in malevolent weather, and the Timbers-Sounders match in July in Portland drew 18,627 in a stadium that occupies 18,627.
Fans travel the 150 miles in "well-provisioned buses," as wrote Rachel Bachman of the daily newspaper TheOregonian, and have forged such entrenched identities that some citizens already find them annoying. For aspiring sports leagues, it is always encouraging when fans congeal enough that people find them annoying.
While Major League Soccer lacks the pace and calibre of the English Premier League, these pioneering fans have produced striking similarities:
Ÿ Songs. American sports fans seldom have dwelled in songs, a shame given the positive health effects of singing, yet various reports have told of Timbers and Sounders fans singing hours before kick-off, then singing throughout matches, even while pelted with raindrops.
Ÿ Scarves. Barely useful sport-team neckwear has never caught on as an American stadium fashion staple, but compelling photography shows this rivalry with fans holding scarves aloft as if downright European.
ŸSustained noise. The clamour in American stadiums tends to come and go, especially in the NFL with its staccato cadence, shy of the deathless din of Liverpool's Anfield or Manchester City, or my beloved Fratton Park in Portsmouth, so when I turned up in Portland in May and watched Sounders-Timbers on television, I felt gobsmacked. That noise only a stadium can make blared all game long. Glory be.
Ÿ Segregation. In one of the world's abundant mysteries, a country with a lurid history of violence long has featured opposing fans sitting among each other in peace and even attending games together as if friendship should trump fandom. (The nerve …) The intensity of Portland versus Seattle has caused a cautious (if incomplete) segregation almost alien to the other 48 states.
Ÿ Borrowed language. As in England, fan groups have subgroups, with Bachman reporting a well-named Timbers offshoot called Echo Squadron. Read the mission statement of the Sounders' offshoot Brougham Boys and you might think the address should end in dot-co-dot-uk: "A Brougham Boy is expected to exceed the level of effort of his fellow ECS (Emerald City Supporters) members to ensure the growth of the ECS and its presence on the terrace." That's right. They use the word "terrace."
And in the category of going beyond, no European spectacle can match Portland's "Timber Joey", who celebrates goals and acknowledges Oregon's logging legacy by revving up a chainsaw to slice a bulky tree stump.
Lest you guess this tumult forever confined to one corner, consider that both Portland and Seattle have proved astoundingly influential, and not just with musicians.
The former gave the world a shoe company that left the planet festooned with swooshes, and the latter brew a coffee brand that left the planet walking sidewalks with covered paper cups. Will Americans ever embrace football? Let's upgrade the answer to "maybe".