By John Boyle
Seattle Sounders FC and the Portland Timbers will play for the second time this season at PGE Park on Saturday, and while it’s hardly a historic milestone in the sport, the fact that the 12:30 p.m. game will be shown on NBC is just another sign of the growth of Major League Soccer, as well as the strength of one of the best rivalries in American sports (that’s right, not in American soccer, in ALL American sports).
MLS hasn’t had a regular season game shown on network TV in more than four years, and this is the first of three games NBC will show this season. NBC Sports shows MLS games weekly, but this is the first on the big network, and it’s no coincidence that Seattle and Portland will be NBC’s first game.
“It’s big,” said Sounders GM Adrian Hanauer. “It’s big for the rivalry, it’s big for the league. It shows the continued growth of the game and certainly the game in the Northwest. Hopefully a bunch of people that normally might not see it come across it and tune in and see the atmosphere down there. Hopefully it’s a good game and we pick up some more fans.”
Adds Seattle coach Sigi Schmid: “It’s great that it’s on NBC, because it gives the country a opportunity to see what we know in the Northwest and to see—obviously their stadium is a very compact stadium, but there’s a lot of color, there’s a lot of pageantry in their stadium and there’s a lot of atmosphere there to absorb, and I think that comes through on TV. It comes through better if you’re there in person, but it comes through on TV as well, and for the nation to see that, it’s a great advert for the sport of soccer. I think they’ll see by the level of play on the field and the intensity and the desire that the teams display, it will just show what a rivalry is all about from the field to the stands.”
And TV viewership aside, this game is big for both teams as they hope to stake their claim on the Cascadia Cup, the trophy that goes to the winner of the series between Seattle, Portland and Vancouver. If the Timbers, who beat Seattle in Portland earlier this year, can win Saturday, they’ll clinch the trophy regardless of what Seattle does in its remaining games against Portland and Vacouver. Portland also figures to treat this as a gigantic game because it is almost certainly going to miss the playoffs, putting even more emphasis on the Cascadia Cup.
“We talked about, we’re not ready to give the Cascadia Cup away yet,” Schmid said. “We know that if they win, they’ll then win the Cascadia Cup because they win the head-to-head with us.”
This will be the first league game against Portland for Steve Zakuani (look for more on that in Saturday’s paper), who missed nearly a year and a half with a broken leg, and he says this rivalry reminds him a bit of the Arsenal-Tottenham rivalry he grew up watching as a child in London.
“It’s, I don’t want to say hate, but it’s close to hate,” he said. “It reminds me of that.”
Forward Eddie Johnson, who scored Seattle’s only goal in a 2-1 loss earlier this season, also said this is similar to the rivalries he saw when he played in Europe.
“It’s a big game. I’ve been fortunate to play in some derby games in Europe, and I knew the expectations in those games,” he said. ‘It doesn’t matter what you’ve done all season—we don’t perform in this game, we know our fans will kill us, we know the coaching staff wouldn’t be too happy. This is like our World Cup final, we’ve got to go in there and approach like this is our MLS Cup this weekend. We want three points and nothing less, because if we don’t win, we’re out of the Cascadia Cup.
“It’s a big rivalry game. We know the importance of it for our fans and our organization, so we need to go down there and get three points.”
“Arriving to the stadium and seeing their fans hitting the bus, giving us finger, you couldn’t ask for a better environment. You don’t see that at basketball games, you don’t see that at football games in America. That’s soccer, that’s what we live for, that’s the atmosphere we want to be in. And for a forward, there’s no better feeling than scoring and silencing the home crowd.”