By John Boyle Herald Columnist
What are you doing at 2 p.m. today?
Well, if you have a couple of hours to spare, I’m going to suggest that, of all the crazy things, you watch soccer.
And I don’t mean watching the best-players-in-the-world-battling-for-European-supremacy tournament that’s been going on for the past two weeks in Poland and Ukraine. No, I’m suggesting you spend your Sunday afternoon watching American soccer.
I know, I know. Some of you, no matter what anyone says, will simply never like the sport, and no amount of pleading or trying to explain the beauty of soccer will every help you reconcile with all that flopping and the lack of scoring. That’s fine, this column isn’t for you. And plenty of people, especially in this part of the country, are already on board with soccer, as is evident in the sellout crowds at Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers games. So, this column isn’t really for you, either.
This appeal to tune into a soccer game, specifically the Sounders-Timbers game on ESPN this afternoon, is for anyone who is still on the fence about soccer, or specifically about the version of the game played here, which remains a long ways behind the top leagues around the world. If you’re simply a fan of compelling sporting events, of passionate fans, or of heated rivalries, tune in, at least for a little while, and see what soccer in America could possibly become, and what it already is in this corner of the country.
“If every team had a rival like this, it’d be awesome,” Sounders defender Jeff Parke said. “If you’re not even a soccer fan and you were flipping through the channels and all of a sudden you stumble across this game and see the crowd going crazy, the banners, and everybody waving their flags, I don’t know how as any sort of sports fan you wouldn’t get excited about watching it.
“Even if it is soccer and you don’t know anything about it, you could just sit there for five minutes, you could go to your friends at work the next day and say, ‘Did you see that game, did you see the fans, did you see how intense that game was?’ It’s all about pushing the game and making people talk about it and getting people excited.”
Like I said, there is no convincing some people that soccer is worth their time (though if that applies to you, you probably stopped reading when you saw the first mention of soccer). But for anyone else, even those who normally say Major League Soccer isn’t worth watching, not when cable TV gives them options like the English Premier League or Spain’s La Liga, today is a good time to make an exception.
Sure, the game in Europe is unquestionably played at a higher level, but that doesn’t mean the U.S. product can’t also be compelling. Basketball and football are played at a much higher level in the NBA and NFL, but millions still love college sports because of the tradition and the passion, things the Seattle-Portland rivalry also has plenty of.
“As a sporting event, I think it’s probably one of the best sporting events you’ll see in the U.S. — in any sport,” Timbers coach John Spencer said on a conference call.
Is that a bit of hyperbole from Spencer? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s not as outlandish of a claim as many would dismiss it to be. This rivalry isn’t a new one born in Major League Soccer; it dates back to the 1970s, and while playing out over multiple decades, in several different leagues, Portland-Seattle has truly become one of the most intense, if not widely recognized, rivalries in American sports.
“There’s so much history,” Parke said. “I think the fans hate the team more than we do. That adds to it and makes it that much more special.”
The rivalry is big enough that for some players, a victory today would be bigger than one in Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal. When you take away the rivalry aspect for a moment, this is just one of 34 games; it won’t make or break a team’s season. Tuesday’s game, on the other hand, is win or go home. While some teams don’t take the Open Cup seriously, the tournament has been a major point of pride for Seattle, which has won it three straight years and is gunning to become the first team to ever win four straight. Even so, some would rather give up a shot at that little piece of U.S. soccer history in order to beat a hated rival.
“Honestly, if I had to choose, I’d say Sunday,” defender Zach Scott said when asked which game he’d rather win. “Against a rival like that, it doesn’t matter where we are in the league, whose ahead, whose below, it’s a rivalry game, you want to win those.”
I had the good fortune of being at Sounders-Timbers games in both cities last season. In terms of crowd noise, passion on and off the field, and just the overall electricity in the buildings, it was a game-day experience that easily rivaled those I have seen in some of the best NFL and college football stadiums. So even if you don’t love soccer, or if you don’t think the product in this country is good enough to merit watching, make an exception today.
Give this rivalry a chance today, or even better, witness it in person when Portland comes to Seattle in October. Soccer, and American soccer at that, just might surprise you.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.