Hugo Alcaraz-Cuellar never thought he’d see the day that he would be conflicted about the Cascadia rivalry.
From 2002-2006, he played 132 matches for the Portland Timbers and became a central figure to their club in the midfield. He quickly grew fond of the fans in Portland, and them of him.
They swore to love him forever, on one condition – that he never play for the Seattle Sounders. However, as his contract expired in 2006, he couldn’t reach a new agreement and was signed by Seattle.
“It was difficult. I was close to the fans in Portland and one thing they asked of me was to never play for Seattle,” said the now-retired Alcaraz-Cuellar. “One of the things that brought me to Seattle was the respect that Adrian Hanauer and Brian Schmetzer had. The players were great, they treated me like I had been on the team for years and that made the transition really easy for me. I think you could see that in the success that we had in the two years we were together.”
He joins a list of players in the A-League/USL era that played on both sides of the derby that runs at least 15 deep and includes three members of the Sounders youth development staff in Darren Sawatzky, Dick McCormick and Billy Crook.
Count Alcaraz-Cuellar among those that maintain ties to the Sounders franchise. He is currently on the Spanish language television broadcast for Sounders FC matches on THIS-TV and does features for Univision.
He has seen the rivalry from both sides – wanting more than anything to beat Seattle one year, then putting everything he had into helping the Sounders to the USL championship the next.
“The fans in Portland were great to me. They made me work so hard for the team because they cared so much. Beating Seattle to them meant so much,” he recalls. “They also had a tough decision bringing me to Seattle. I didn’t want to let them down and helping them win a championship was the best way to repay them.”
In the USL days, the crowds didn’t even approach the sellout numbers they do at Qwest Field and Jeld-Wen Field today. However, Alcaraz-Cuellar doesn’t think the smaller numbers in the crowd in those days at all detracted from the enthusiasm.
“Even in the USL the passion was there. Whether it was 5,000 people, 10,000 people or 1,000 people, you could feel the passion that the fans had for the game and the rivalry. I don’t think that’s going to change,” he said. “The rivalry is going to grow. In the USL and in the NASL the rivalry was important, but it didn’t reach as many people as I think it’s going to reach now. That’s going to make it exciting and heated, and hopefully a safe rivalry for the fans at the stadiums. From that standpoint, the magnitude is going to be more explosive. I think the fans are going to be the ones to win the most from these games.”
Since the game is broadcast on ESPN2, Alcaraz-Cuellar will be in the stands watching as a fan. And like so many others that saw the derby grow from its relative infancy in the USL, he will swell a bit with pride as it becomes the cornerstone and standard-bearer for Major League Soccer in front of a nationally televised audience.