It should be the best of times for Portland Timbers fans. The Rose City's oft-wayward First Division side—o, the years of amiable mediocrity under an excruciating state-of-the-art-circa-Luton-Town-1974 strategic set-up; o, last season's unmitigated meltdown—seems to be in full roar at last. New manager Gavin Wilkinson promised a three-year rebuilding project, but has somehow molded a crop of under-cooked rookies, the usual United Soccer Leagues carnies and a few stalwart club holdovers into a table-topping outfit. Even a 0-2 loss to the hated Seattle Sounders, the club riding the Timbers' collective arse in the standings, couldn't pry the Axemen's man-hands off first place. Regardless of how the last two months of the season go (and historically, the Timbers are a catastrophic playoff team), this year's rendition of Soccer City USA can count itself a success.
Winning games means winning hearts, they say, and meanwhile the cultural phenomenon that is the Timbers Nation rolls on. Eleven Devils' usual cigar-butt-strewn place in the PGE Park press box (Section 107 Annex) has been vacant through most of this season (I've been "spending more time with my family," as the saying goes). But all reports suggest that the Timbers Army is in post-season form already, with a stronger capo system and an influx of fresh blood creating near-South Korean levels of synchronized fanaticism behind the north goal. (I'm eager to hear the so-called "Greek Chant," which I hope is as pervy as it sounds.)
And yet amid these scenes of joy, one can't ignore the coal-black thunderhead gathering above the Columbia, threatening to ruin the party. The Sounders. The bastards. Of course it would be them.
If you're less than briefed on the tribal intricacies of First Division life, be advised that the Timbers and Sounders are bound by some kind of sick cosmic bloodfeud. It's a real Montagues/Capulets type of deal: home-region players who've lined up with and against each other in various combinations throughout their careers; numerous annual tussles, including a quasi-permanent Open Cup tie (which Seattle always wins); a weird propensity to run across each other in the playoffs (ditto). It all makes for a steadily mounting archive of grievances both real and imagined on both sides of the ledger.
Portland fans will tell you that Seattle, to paraphrase John King's novel The Football Factory, is a shit club with shit support. Seattle's players are cheap-shot artists and thugs, at least until they transfer to the Timbers and become upstanding citizens. Away voyages to our sister city up I-5 are typically fraught affairs, full of hassles with stadium security and inevitable rounds of Internet recrimination afterwards.
On the flip side, Seattle fans will tell you...well, if you can find a Seattle Sounders fan, do drop a line. You might try the nearest comic book convention or donut shop. And yet the crowning indignity for Portlanders is that the Sounders, despite means of support less visible than the average identity thief and stadium mostly full of air, somehow manage to win shit. Besides a couple of prehistoric A-League titles, Seattle has played in two First Division finals in the last three years and took the trophy in 2006. (Even though it was against the Richmond Kickers, I'm told it still counts.) They've also won the last two Cascadia Cups, the unofficial championship of the Northwest contested by Portland, Seattle and the Vancouver Whitecaps. A title, please note, the Timbers have never won.
And so it is with no little unease that a Timbers supporter regards recent developments in Jet City. Last night, the Sounders served the Colorado Rapids with a 5-0 Open Cup beatdown, the kind of emphatic little-fish upset that would be cause for celebration were it the work of, y'know, anyone else. (As far as the Cup is concerned, the Timbers are, per usual, "concentrating on the league.")
Adding insult to insult, no less than three different investment groups are vying to bring Seattle's lukewarm fanbase an MLS franchise. (One of outfits calls itself "Atletico Seattle," suggesting that MLS team names have yet to hit rock bottom.)
For a citizen of Portland's seething cauldron of football zealotry, the thought of Seattle joining the Show and leaving the Timbers behind in the USL First is almost too much to take. But that is mere theory; consider the evil portents of current First Division reality. If the season ended today and form held in the playoffs, the Timbers and Sounders would meet in the league Final. What then?
La victoria...o la muerte.