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Like It Never Stopped

37 years since they first met, the long-standing rivalry between Seattle, Portland and Vancouver will reach new levels in MLS in 2011.

June 9, 1974, was a day that changed the future of soccer in North America.

Unbeknownst to the 11,258 fans who were on hand at Empire Stadium in Vancouver when the Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps met for the first time in the North American Soccer League.

Here, 37 years later, the rivalries have grown stronger than ever as the Whitecaps and the Portland Timbers join the Sounders FC in Major League Soccer.  This weekend, we will get a peak at the tip of the iceberg for the outstanding support the three teams receive at the first Cascadia Summit at Starfire.

The three-day event that will pit each team against each other and feature Q&A sessions with the head coach of each team and other festivities kicks off Friday night when the Sounders face the Timbers in the preseason match.

It will signal the most prominent edition of the three-way rivalry since that first match in 1974 – a 2-0 win for the Sounders.

“That is going to be a rivalry that is going to continue as if it never stopped,” said Alan Hinton, who coached for both the Sounders and Whitecaps in the NASL.  “We’ve had two great years in MLS here in Seattle, but now when the schedule comes out I’m looking to see when we play the Whitecaps and when we play the Timbers.”

The triangular feud has over 230 matches of fuel behind it and it is a fire that has steadily grown over the years.

In that time, more than a few players have found themselves on multiple sides of the clashes.

In addition to Hinton, who also played for the Whitecaps, Darren Sawatzky played for the both the Timbers and Sounders.

His time with the University of Portland and the Timbers certainly didn’t endear him to the Portland fans when he later visited with the Sounders – or even in a recent alumni game at the University of Portland.

“I think they’re all about the present.  All they care about is that you’re part of the Sounders organization, so they hate you,” Sawatzky said, adding with a laugh, “I’ve got the hate-mail from them to prove it.”

Even perpetually hated Timber-killer Roger Levesque suited up for Portland in a friendly match against Toronto FC in 2007 when the Timbers were short players and was heartily booed by the hometown Portland fans.

Levesque holds no ill-will toward the fans to the south, though, and has embraced the negative reaction he receives at PGE Park.  In 2009, he responded to the boos by scoring in the first minute of a US Open Cup match, adding to his lofty goal total in the derby matches.

With two Open Cup victories in the last two years to add to the total, the Sounders at the NASL, USL and MLS levels hold a 35-21-5 record over the Timbers.  Additionally, they topped Vancouver 54-42-15 all-time.  Vancouver, meanwhile, holds a 32-24-11 edge over Portland in their history.

The play on the field in those matches was elevated to a higher level by the volumes coming from the stands.

“It was one of the few times when we had two crowds – one shouting for one team and one shouting for the other.  We were used to that in England and it was great.  It lifted the boys up.  They always gave their best shot in those games,” said Gabriel, who also scored the lone goal in a 1-0 win in Seattle’s first ever match against Portland in 1975.

Gabriel would know a thing or two about derby matches, too.  With 256 appearances for Everton in England, he saw one of the best derbies first-hand in matches with Liverpool.  He is optimistic that the matches can reach that level, in terms of fan support, but without the semantics and violence that sometimes marred those meetings amongst the English supporters.

“The players are going to be lifted, like we were.  They want to play their best and that’s why we are glad that Portland and Vancouver are coming in,” he said.  “We’re going to see some great, fiery games when those teams come together.”

While there are players on all three teams who have played in the rivalry matches over the years, none have yet experienced those meetings at the MLS level, when it will undoubtedly reach a fever pitch.

“The rivalry is fantastic and it can only be good for Major League Soccer,” Hinton said.  “The players may think they understand now, but they will really understand when the games actually happen.  This will be a big-time rivalry in every way.”

The players aren’t the only ones who are in for a surprise.  According to Levesque, it will reach levels that are previously unseen in US and Canadian soccer.

“I don’t know if MLS is prepared for what the rivalry has to offer.  Just the history behind it, dating back to the NASL and then through the years that I’ve been involved with Taylor Graham and Zach Scott and Brian Schmetzer over the last 7-8 years with the USL,” said Levesque, who played with Seattle in the USL from 2003-2008 and has been a mainstay with the MLS club in the first two years.  “It really does get more and more intense each year.  There’s just that much more history and there is more building up.  Heading into the MLS there’s just going to be extra intensity.”

While the Cascadia Summit will be a nice early barometer, it truly is only the tip of the iceberg.  The true measuring stick will come May 14 when the Timbers visit Qwest Field for the first time as an MLS franchise.