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Wilkinson: Sounders-Timbers may be like Manchester derby

Kenny Cooper vs. Seattle.

Photo Credit: 
Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers

PORTLAND, Ore. — Gavin Wilkinson has been marked by the Timbers-Sounders rivalry forever — with a scar on his chin.

“One of my first games in the [US] was Portland playing Seattle,” the New Zealander, who was a Timbers player and coach for 10 years before being named the MLS franchise’s general manager/technical director in January of last year, told MLSsoccer.com. “By the end of the game, I had cuts on my face and needed stitches.”

The 35-year history of the Timbers has been punctuated by heated contests against Seattle. The first game in 1975. The last NASL game in 1982. Almost all of the most important games of the past decade as a second-division side.

On Saturday at Qwest Field, the Timbers-Sounders rivalry makes its MLS regular-season debut in front of a national television audience (11 pm ET, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes).

There is nothing manufactured about the Portland-Seattle rivalry. It is colored by 38 years of the NBA’s Trail Blazers and Sonics (a 98-94 all-time advantage for Seattle) and by more than 100 years of Pac-10 Conference contests between Washington/Washington State and Oregon/Oregon State.

Timbers-Sounders FC is distilled by geography, history and the passion of soccer fans in the Northwest.

Former defender Lee Morrison, a 2002 draft pick of the Dallas Burn, played five seasons as a defender for Portland from 2003 to '07.

“My first game as a Timber was against Seattle,” the retired Morrison, who is now a Timbers alumni ambassador, told MLSsoccer.com. “The sense from both sides was that this is winner-take-all, do-or-die.”
    
The players feed off the angst of the fans. Emotions run higher. The sense of responsibility runs deeper.

"The fans definitely have a dislike for each other,” Morrison said. “From a player’s standpoint, there is always more emphasis placed on the Seattle game. You could have an 0-29 season going, but if you beat Seattle, you’ve earned a sense of accomplishment.”

Wilkinson recalls a 2004 game at Seattle when the Timbers were outplayed and physically beaten down, yet still managed to win 1-0.

“We got battered and still came away with the win, so it’s not a bad memory,” he said. “We felt like we’d stolen three points.”

The heat of the rivalry has mushroomed over the past 10 years, with the growth of the Timbers Army fueling Portland’s half of it. With both cities finally elevated to the top level of US soccer, there is anticipation for an unprecedented atmosphere in MLS.

“I see [the rivalry] getting bigger and stronger and gaining more attention, nationally and internationally,” Wilkinson said. “People outside the Northwest will experience it very soon. Over time, I think you could see the same kind of situation where people travel to the UK to see Manchester United vs. Manchester City. I’m not saying our rivalry is at that level, but I think it’s building in that direction.”

Morrison hopes fan bases across the country pay attention to Portland-Seattle rivalry and recognize it as an important building block for MLS.

“I hope it fuels other cities and communities, so that people see this and can grab onto it,” he said.