Written by Lance McDonald
Major League Soccer has been around for nearly two decades and has seen its fair share of ups and downs. At one of its lowest points, the league had lost $250 million and had to fold two franchises to keep their sinking ship afloat.
Today we see a very different atmosphere and culture. Things are going great for MLS which is seeing the highest average attendance in its history so far in 2015 and is currently sitting at 20 clubs with four on the way.
But what, or who, can be attributed with bringing about this turnaround? The truth is that there are a lot of factors that have ushered in the relative golden age of Major League Soccer, but there is one thing, or a few groups, that should be given at least a nod for their contribution to the success of the league.
It all started back in 2009 when the first member of the Cascadia rivalry entered MLS with a bang. Immediately, Seattle showed their worth to a league that was on the rise but still struggling. Since their debut, the Sounders have maintained the highest average attendance in the league and have increased their own records every year up until 2014, where they dropped by about 300 average spectators.
Seattle showed the country what soccer could look like in the states; selling 50,000+ tickets to multiple games a season was unheard of in the US’s domestic league, but the Sounders have shown it can be done.
Unfortunately, the full impact of the Sounders contribution to the league could not be realized until 2011, when the Cascadia rivalry was brought back to its fullness and into major competition for the first time.
The Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps have all been around since the 1970’s when they played in the North American Soccer League (NASL). The short flame that was the NASL started the rivalry that would later be known as the Cascadia Cup.
After the demise of the league in 1984, all three cities eventually brought soccer back in some capacity. By 2004, the rivals had been competing against each other in the A-league for 3 seasons and decided to establish a points system to declare an official winner and a trophy for the victor.
The rivalry grew in popularity until 2009 when the Sounders left for MLS. The Timbers and Whitecaps continued to declare a winner between the two of them for the next two seasons but the competition just wasn’t the same.
Meanwhile, Seattle had been setting records in MLS for their first two season but when the Cascadia Cup came to the league, it took things to a new level. In their first meeting in MLS, Portland visited Seattle in a draw that brought a modest 36,000+ fans to the park.
It was over a year later that the two sides would meet in Seattle again, where they attracted the second largest crowd in MLS history, at the time, with more than 66,000 fans. Almost a year later they would set a new second place record with 67,385 fans packing CenturyLink Field.
The only game that tops this one in attendance was set in the first year of MLS, when 69,225 fans filled the Rose Bowl for a matchup between the LA Galaxy and the NY Metro Stars.
The rivalry between Portland and Seattle is easily the most heated and passionate in Major League Soccer. Seattle brings in the most fans with a stadium that far outreaches the capacity of Providence Park, however many in Portland and even beyond claim that the atmosphere and passion is far more authentic in the Rose City, a town that claims to beSoccer City USA.
When you consider what Seattle has to work with, it is easy to see why they produce the attendance results they do. However, Portland and Vancouver both make a great showing especially when considering their market size. The Timbers and Whitecaps come in at number 4 and 5 for average attendance behind Seattle, Toronto and LA. And they aren’t far behind LA or Toronto.
For all the tension found in the Cascadia rivalry, there is something that, I believe, brings these clubs together in fellowship; the knowledge that their contribution to US soccer is unrivaled, and the envy of the MLS. For that, we should all give each other a silent, brief and virtually unnoticeable pat on the back during the intermission of some future game.
Cascadia represents what we all want to see from Major League Soccer. When outsiders see that passion and love of the game, they see a league that deserves more respect, and respect is not easily gained from global enthusiasts.
The simple truth is that since 2011, MLS has grown greatly in popularity and reputation and the rivalry that most point to as the model for current and future growth is found in the Great Northwest.