National Writer: Charles Boehm

"We’re pissed off": Seattle Sounders’ CCL triumph challenges Portland Timbers

With their pioneering conquest of the Concacaf Champions League, it’s already been a very, very good year for Seattle Sounders FC. And that, by the very definition of their fierce, decades-long rivalry, almost always means something less good for the Portland Timbers.

As much as they’d prefer not to have to acknowledge it.

“We weren’t aware of that. We’ve blocked all Seattle news for the last six months,” deadpanned Timbers general manager and president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson to on Tuesday.

The Rose City club are indeed aware of the Rave Green’s historic capture of the 2022 CCL trophy, which makes them just the third MLS team ever to become Concacaf champions, the first since the turn of the century and the first in the tournament’s modern incarnation. And as much as it might burn them up inside, they recognize the magnitude of the accomplishment, having taken part in that competition three times, most recently reaching the quarterfinal stage last year.

“It’s hard not to respect and admire what they’ve done. And I have a ton of respect for Garth [Lagerwey] and Brian [Schmetzer] and Adrian [Hanauer] and what they’ve built in Seattle,” said Wilkinson, who knows the scene well, having been a Timbers player, coach and now executive dating back to 2001. “They have continued to raise the bar in MLS and that obviously puts more pressure on us to continue to find ways to grow and improve, and constantly puts pressure on us to try and match what they’ve accomplished.”

Beyond your regular rivalry

Like many of the sport’s greatest derbies around the world, Portland and Seattle are intertwined in profound ways.

The enmity and competitiveness runs much deeper than head-to-head matchups on the pitch, or even the sport itself. Whenever one side rises, the other is inevitably left in the shade – even as they have together risen into the league’s elite, with an incredible ongoing streak of one or the other representing the Western Conference in every single MLS Cup Final dating back to 2015.

“It adds something more, for sure,” said head coach Giovanni Savarese, who says he concluded this was MLS’s top rivalry duel back in his days as a Spanish-language analyst for ESPN broadcasts. “We first thought about CCL as, we wanted to be the first. And now that Seattle did it, we’re pissed off. I mean, we are very mad that we were not the first ones. So it made it even more important for us, achieving that. We want to always be on top of Seattle, we always want to do better.

“Seattle and Portland as cities, it’s not only about the soccer, it’s about competing as cities – this is the opportunity to prove, one or the other, that we’re better than you. So that’s huge for the fans.”

Chasing each other’s success

With their 2015 title run, PTFC and their supporters can proudly boast of hoisting an MLS Cup before the Sounders. And if you think that fact didn’t grate on the latter, recall Clint Dempsey’s words at the victory parade when the Rave Green matched that achievement a year later.

“All I got to say is, now that we won one, Portland can’t say s--t,” wisecracked the star striker.

There’s ample schadenfreude in the Pacific Northwest. When the Sounders hosted New York City FC in their CCL semifinal first-leg match on April 6, cameras caught head coach Brian Schmetzer jovially thanking then-Pigeons boss Ronny Deila for beating the Timbers in MLS Cup 2021 at Providence Park.

And now Seattle will turn that up a few more notches on Saturday when the two sides meet for their first clash of the season (4:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+). Though they claimed their CCL hardware in the first week of May, the Sounders very conspicuously selected this weekend’s match as the occasion on which they will unveil their CCL title banner in the rafters at Lumen Field – and celebrate their city’s selection as a 2026 World Cup host city to boot.

As far as troll jobs go, it’s pretty hard to top. Wilkinson sees respect within the gloating.

“Why not? This is a moment in time that they should be celebrating and it’s a massive, massive accomplishment. And the fact that they’re honoring us by celebrating it in a game against us, where it’s been a fierce rivalry, I think only benefits the game in this country, and continues to grow the rivalry,” he said.

“For them to be the first MLS team to raise this trophy, hats off to them. We won MLS Cup prior to them, they were able to come back and win [two] – it’s just back and forth. So now what that does is applies pressure on us, saying, how can we be the next MLS team to put ourselves in that position?”

Healthy and motivated

Savarese – whose team has performed well in their recent visits to the Puget Sound – noted that getting his squad focused and motivated is never a problem before this matchup, and even more so this week.

“I'm happy. I'm happy that they're doing that,” he said of Saturday’s CCL commemorations. “Of course they are thinking about throwing that in our face. But I think they’re giving us even more motivation, to go there and do our thing … I feel that this one is building up a very nice momentum for the environment to be very, very good.”

In this long-running antagonism, Portland has generally carried a defiant identity as the smaller metropolis and – in their eyes – more organic, less corporate supporter culture and stadium experience. They now hope to fuel that fire with the desire to knock Seattle off their CCL-elevated perch, and shift gears from their indifferent start to the 2022 campaign and mount another of the stretch-run surges that have powered them on so many deep runs in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

“We're not happy, obviously, with where we're at,” said Wilkinson, whose side sits 10th in the West with a 5W-6L-8D record. “We've had a lot of injuries that we've been managing over the first part of the season and some players were unavailable for various reasons, injury, et cetera, that maybe we could have managed differently and better in the offseason.

“With the offseason being as short as it was, we tried to manage instead of solve some of the issues, and in hindsight, it was wrong. We should’ve been more aggressive in some of the treatments that we tried to accomplish and we have paid the price for that. I think we're starting to get back to being healthy. We've gathered a little bit of momentum. The culture within the club is phenomenal. The mentality of the players and the staff is excellent. And now it's just about a matter of stringing together performances and consistency and continuing to grow.”