With the World Cup in Brazil about to kick off, it’s fair to say that most eyes in the soccer world are not focused on Major League Soccer—even within U.S. There is a place, however, where fans are indeed fixated on North America’s domestic league. In the Pacific Northwest, sincere die-hard supporters will passionately be rooting on their sides right up to June 12, when the league will take a two-week rest for the World Cup. Fans of the Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps will be filling the area’s stadiums and bars with several shades of green and blue and head-piercing European-style chants fueled by regional pride and craft beer. To stumble into such a location it might easily be assumed to be England or Italy, only with more craft beer on tap, better artisanal cheeseburgers and sides like kale chips fried in bacon grease.
With Seattle’s exceptional debut in 2009 leading the way, the trio of cities covering that quirky, rain-soaked region has grown into a shining example of what MLS at large can become—a hotbed of authentic soccer culture. The area, which is not the only region of North America with such a passion for soccer, but is certainly the most talked about, boasts quality teams with great attendance and passionate fan bases. It was even recently featured in The New York Times Travel Section as a soccer vacation destination.
Don’t believe it’s possible? I wouldn’t have believed either until I walked into an average-looking sports bar in Vancouver, Washington (a sort of bizarro, opposite, un-hipstery Portland, sitting right across the Columbia River from the Rose City). There I saw it: Sincere, average looking sports fans watching a Portland Timbers game on the TV—cheering as if they just saw Clyde Drexler’s ’90s Portland Trailblazers actually beat Jordan’s Bulls. This wasn’t Brooklyn, or LA or any other place where it’s become hip to watch soccer. This was a working-class bar in a working-class town, and people were watching soccer. Take that in. For anyone who knows American sports, that’s a heavy, unfamiliar scene. So, the question lingers, what’s happening there? And, what can the rest of the nation glean from the league’s success in the area?
A large part of the explanation is cultural. As former U.S. star Alexi Lalas pointed out in the Times piece, soccer has flourished so much in the Pacific Northwest because that’s where counterculture thrives. I agree; soccer in the US has long existed culturally somewhere nearer to the art world than to mainstream American sports culture. If the US were a high school cafeteria, the Pacific Northwest would be a table in the corner full of rockers, techies and tattooed girls writing poetry, and the soccer players would be at the table next to them—trying to impress the girls by playing songs on acoustic guitars. Soccer has also long been the sport of choice for health-conscious, injury-fearing moms, and along with being avant-garde artistically; the Pacific Northwest is extremely health conscious. But as I witnessed in the anyplace, USA bar, soccer has grown in the region beyond both of those crowds. Partly because culture grows that way—from the arts and niche communities outward, partly because the cities have immigrant communities and partly because there aren’t a great deal of relevant sports teams in the area for the fans to latch onto.
Another major factor for the Pacific Northwest’s across-the-board love affair with the MLS is the natural rivalry between Seattle, Portland and Vancouver: three cities so isolated from the rest of North America that they may as well be on an island. The rivalry has simmered on and off since the late ’60s/early ’70s when they all had NASL teams. Now Cascadia Cup matches, which unofficially crown a yearly champion of the region, burn with an intensity previously unseen in North American soccer.
The importance of beer should not be overlooked in the phenomenon. In most of the world, especially England, from which American soccer takes many of its cues, soccer culture is drenched in beer. In the Pacific Northwest, craft beer is considered more important that water, and bars which in many other parts of the US would be reserved for “first tier” sports, in the Pacific Northwest are crawling with excitement around MLS matches. It’s also a notable fact that the stadiums in each of the three cities are walking distance to cool bars. Pay attention new cities with forthcoming MLS teams; this proximity of the stadiums in or near downtown sections helps greatly to create a buzzing whirlwind vibe around the matches.
The three clubs have done generally well to foster healthy soccer communities. Seattle’s exceptional launch set the tone. The owners thought big from the beginning, signing Kasey Keller, Freddie Ljungberg and high caliber coach Sigi Schmid. It continued the pattern in 2013 by bringing U.S. national team captain Clint Dempsey back to MLS at the near-peak of his career, and making him the league’s highest paid player.
Another savvy decision from Seattle’s pivotal launch was to market heavily to young viewers; it’s not an accident that the team wears jerseys donning the X-Box brand that are colored a shade of green that looks like it originated inside a gaming console.
Seattle ownership has also done a great job with making a sincere relationship with the fans. It supports a fan march from Seattle’s Pioneer Square to the stadium before every home game, complete with bands and chanting in a green sea of camaraderie. Pushed by part-owner, comedian Drew Carey, the team also instituted a periodic, Barcelona-inspired fan vote to maintain or fire the general manager. The ownership has also repeatedly made meaningful gestures such as handing out scarves, and giving away tickets after an embarrassing playoff loss to LA Galaxy. All of this has paid off, as the club has attracted crowds into the 60 thousands, which is notable on a global scale.
So, what’s there for the rest of the league to learn? Understand soccer’s cultural placement in this country and foster its connection to the arts and art-loving communities, reach out to the youth, put stadiums in cool areas where people can congregate and drink, nurture organic rivalries, treat fans with respect. All of those things, yes, but the most important lesson is to not underestimate Americans’ love for the game. The passion is there; we just need something to cheer about.