Portland vs. Seattle. Timbers vs. Sounders. Thanks to four decades of history in four different leagues, it's one of – if not the – best rivalry in North American soccer.
Every rivalry needs a seminal moment, and that's where Tony Betts come in. The ex-Portland striker’s golden goal in the 1975 NASL playoffs occupies a prominent place in rivalry lore, both for its competitive significance and as a cornerstone in the foundation of Cascadia's soccer grudge match.
“Our first game in 1975” – and the Timbers’ first-ever game, period – “was with the Sounders, and we got beat,” Betts says. En route to the 1975 NASL playoffs, the Timbers had managed just one win from three against Seattle. Not that they were particularly bothered. As Betts recalls, the Sounders weren't necessarily Portland's biggest rivals at the time.
“Even though we thought our rivalry was actually between us and the Earthquakes, because a lot more things happened that season – to get [the Sounders] back in the quarterfinals, back at home in what then used to be called Civic Stadium, was a big thing for us,” he remembers.
“Of course, Portland was going crazy at the time. There had to be 30,000 people at that game.”
The official tally was 31,523, by far the largest number that Portland drew that season. Timbers fans packed the house, then they stormed the field to celebrate an overtime header that sent the Sounders home and sent their boys to the semifinals of the NASL Playoffs in their first year of existence.
“It was very, very exciting. It was the highlight of my career at the time,” Betts says. “It was an unbelievable experience for us all – not just for the players, but for all of the people in Portland. I believe it was after that season that they began to start calling it Soccer City USA.”
And while Betts’ goal is to thank for unleashing the emotion and passion that helped inspire that moniker, he recognizes that it is “all the people in Portland” rather than just the players who have made Soccer City USA what it was then and what it's become more than 40 years later. The goal was Betts' “15 seconds of fame,” but more importantly it helped build a fanbase for the first-year team to build on.
As for the degree to which the rivalry has grown since his famous goal, Betts says all the credit should go to the fans, who've progressed right along with the clubs they support.
“I think now the American soccer fan is more intelligent about the game. They know more about the game," he says. "In 1975, it was just a ticket to get. Even if you didn’t know much about soccer, you went to that game.” Now, Betts argues, Timbers-Sounders is “the ticket to get.”
“The fans go crazy. It’s sold out,” he says. “You have the Sounders fans traveling to Portland, and the Portland fans traveling to Seattle. That never happened. In 1975, there were probably 100 fans from the Sounders watching that [playoff] game.”
With greater support, too, comes heightened intensity between the two.
"There’s more animosity between the fans than there was," Betts says. "In 1975, you didn’t hate anybody. You won or you lost, but you had a great time.
“When I went last year, there were thousands of Sounders fans down at the Portland stadium, and they wouldn’t let the Sounders fans out of the stadium until all the Portland fans had left. It’s fanatical. But that’s just what soccer is.”
It reminds him of the game he grew up with back home. A native of Derby, England, Betts believes that the Portland-Seattle rivalry is “very similar to what you have in England” – and very similar to one of the best, at that. “It has to be close to Manchester United and Manchester City,” he says.
He readily admits he didn't envision that surge in popularity and support coming when he pulled on the Timbers' colors in the 70s, but cherishes being a part of the history of a rivalry that's likely to outlast him.
"A lot of my teammates still live in Portland," he says. "So not only did we enjoy playing against Seattle – and beating them – we liked the city and we liked the fans. And the fans still remember you, and that’s really nice, actually. I believe it was a privilege for me to play and to be a part of their history.”