MLS: Sounders-Timbers not as progressive as some hope

SEATTLE – Since the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers inaugurated Major League Soccer’s Cascadia Cup rivalry on Saturday night, fans and journalists alike have been proclaiming that the game was revolutionary for soccer in the United States. However, it may have just illuminated yet again why soccer is not the biggest sport here.

The organizations and their supporter groups traded jibes on Twitter, Facebook and in person all week leading up to the game. The build-up was reminiscent of the Super Bowl (in the Northwest, anyways).

The atmosphere lived up to the hype. Images of the giant banners unveiled by the Emerald City Supporters made the rounds on the internet while the game was still being played. Members of the Timbers Army who managed to get in on the measly 500-ticket away allocation stomped and raved in thenortheast corner of Qwest Field all night long.

This prompted Steve Kelley to write a column in The Seattle Times titled, “This is how soccer should feel in America.” Kelley lauded the extravagant atmosphere and commented that “it was a celebration of what the game slowly is becoming in this country.”

Not to say that the atmosphere was not impressive, not to say that having a rivalry the magnitude of the Portland-Seattle-Vancouver triangle will not be good for soccer in America and not to take away from the storied saga of Sounders-Timbers hatred dating back to the old NASL days. However, soccer fans in America might want to hold off on proclamations of revolution for now.

The reaction to this gameshould be another reminder of why soccer is not the most popular sport in America. Average American sports fans crave extravagance and spectacle. Thevast majority of soccer games are not like that, though.

Washington’s other professional soccer team, the Kitsap Pumas, only drew 352 fans earlier that day – and it was sunny during the Pumas’ game, not pouring rain. This pales in comparison to the 1,000-plus the club averaged two seasons ago in its first season as a franchise, when the novelty had not yet worn off. (Disclaimer: I trained with them all that season.)

Conversely, attendances rose 15 percent in the Blue Square Premier League in England between 2008/09 and 2009/10, which is four steps below the Premier League. Average attendance grew from 1,800 to just over 2,000 during that time. And that happened in England, where clubs of all levels are so geographically close that fans routinely travel to their favorite club’s away games.

Lower-level attendances are on the rise in England because true soccer fans are able to enjoy the kick-and-chase slugfests played out in bumpy mud pits as well as elegant passing displays played out in the palaces of the beautiful game. The spectacle is not the attraction – the soccer is.

Most people talking about the Cascadia Cup opener on Saturday light up when they talk about the crowd and the hype. In turning to the game itself, they display far less enthusiasm. Kelley dedicated only the last four paragraphs to the game in a 700-word column.

The game itself was fairly entertaining, even though players had trouble dealing with the conditions. If the majority of enthusiasm around the game were centered on Alvaro Fernandez’s solid performance or anything else that actually happened on the field, my sentiments would be different.

However, as it stands, the first installment of the Cascadia Cup is only another symptom of American distortion of soccer. The atmosphere should only be a bonus, not the substance of the entire experience. When Americans learn how to appreciate both, we will have truly made it.

Liviu Bird is a journalism student at and plays goalkeeper for Seattle Pacific University. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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