Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders is more than just a soccer rivalry

EDITOR'S NOTE: With Seattle Sounders FC and the Portland Timbers set to square off in another Cascadia Cup rivalry match on Sunday night (10 pm ET | ESPN2 in the US, TSN2 in Canada). it seems a good time to revisit this 2016 piece from Prof. William Lang on the roots of the rivalry -- not just between clubs, but between the cities and states they call home.
A lot has changed since then -- Seattle winning their first MLS Cup last December being the best example -- but the history hasn't. 


Many argue it’s the best soccer rivalry in MLS today: Timbers vs. Sounders. By now you know it’s decades old, dating back to the 1970s and their matchups in the first iteration of the North American Soccer League.

But there’s a whole lot more than grainy soccer goal highlights driving the passion between the Cascadia cities.

Portland and Seattle have been competing head-to-head for nearly two centuries. The dynamic between “The City of Roses” (Portland) and “The Emerald City” (Seattle) has a deeper and broader history that predates their soccer encounters, going back 150 years.

When Portland Ruled

From the mid-19th until the early 20th century, Portland stood as the dominant city in the Pacific Northwest.

From its beginning as the best harbor on the Willamette River in the mid-1840s, Portland grew as a shipping center, sending grain, lumber, and canned fish to international ports. It was a port city that created wealth from commodity trading and manufacturing that was based in wood products, such as dimension lumber, furniture, and paper from pulp.

The Willamette and Columbia rivers funneled commodities to the Portland docks and with the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in 1882, workers flooded in from the nation and abroad. At Portland’s Lewis & Clark Exposition and Oriental Fair in 1905, the city smugly proclaimed itself the gateway to Pacific trade with China and the model of an enterprising city.

Seattle's Rise

But Portland’s self-promoting and proud posture at the turn of the 20th century faced an aggressive challenge from the nascent but burgeoning town on Puget Sound’s Elliott Bay.

The Alaska gold rush of 1897 transformed the port city of Seattle—first developed in 1853—into a frenetic embarkation point for thousands of gold-seekers. And when the gold poured in from the diggings, Seattle’s bank clearings doubled: “Gold, Gold, Gold, Gold” proclaimed the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper.

By 1911, the city had four transcontinental railroads bringing in workers and sending out commodities and products, becoming “the great northern territory’s emporium and metropolis.” In 1909—almost gallingly challenging Portland—Seattle staged its own world’s fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, as a celebration of the city’s decade of growth since the Alaska gold rush.

Years later, World War I industrialization in Seattle laid the foundation for shipbuilding, Boeing aircraft production, and a city with a strong organized labor force that contested corporate power.

In short, Seattle became a muscular enterprise-oriented culture, from boardroom to labor picket line, while Portland looked north, watching its neighbor outdistance it in population — Seattle (368,302) surpassed Portland (305,394) in the 1940 census and then by over a million in 2010 metro population counts (Seattle’s 3.4 million vs. Portland’s 2.2 million).

By the end of World War II, Portland was clearly the region’s second city, and culturally staid in comparison to Seattle’s expansive, boom-bust environment. Even the state tax regimes in Seattle and Portland make the point: Oregonians have rejected a sales tax nine times and rely on income taxes for revenue, while Washington taxes consumption and has no income tax. Seattle prospers through consumption, while Portland relies on taxing wealth.

The two cities’ skylines offer another comparison immediate in contrast; the dominating skyscrapers on Puget Sound dwarf Portland’s modest downtown. Comparing Portland-area corporations, Intel, Nike and Columbia Sportswear, to Seattle’s, Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks, emphasizes the direction each city has taken in recent decades.

Cascadia Today

Portland took a turn away from its staidness beginning in the late 20th century and it offered a riskier public face that became a point of comparison with Seattle.

Statewide land use policies that restricted urban sprawl combined with the adoption of light-rail public transit and bicycle-friendly transportation policies to make Portland distinctive among major American cities. Portlanders make Seattle’s massive auto gridlock culture an object of ridicule, while rejoicing in its new direction — “Keep Portland Weird” is a favorite bumper sticker in the Rose City. The popular “Portlandia” ironic and self-deprecating television sitcom riffs on this theme.

Despite the rivalry between the two cities, Amtrak’s Cascades train links the two. Portlanders go north to take in a big city, returning with all kinds of goodies from Pike Place Market; and Seattleites shuttle south to embrace slower urban pace, bringing back boxes of Voodoo doughnuts.

But there’s no denying history and the decades of cultural and sociological factors that have affected the way citizens of both cities view themselves and their counterparts today. And one of the most visible manifestations of that dynamic comes in the sports arena. The two cities went head-to-head in the AAA baseball Pacific Coast League all the way back in 1903, and seven decades later in the National Basketball Association. When the Portland Trailblazers won the NBA title in 1977, the Seattle Supersonics quickly worked to match Portland with their own league trophy just two years later.

And so you might find yourself getting the chills on Sunday watching the Timbers Army revel in their higher league standing and MLS Cup trophy — Seattle doesn’t have one of those — perhaps even illustrated by a creative tifo display. Or you might catch yourself wondering what all those traveling Seattle fans were thinking when they made the three-hour trek south on a Sunday to spend 90 minutes cheering on the players in rave green.

The explanation is extremely complex and simple at the same time: Every roar and every ounce of emotion poured into that match have been building and simmering for a long, long time – precisely, 150 years of history playing themselves out before your very eyes.

Professor William Lang is a professor emeritus at Portland State University, specializing in Pacific Northwest history, among other fields of expertise. He’s the author of several books and serves as Executive Editor for the Oregon Encyclopedia. He resides in Portland and is a Timbers season ticket holder.