Seattle vs. Portland - youth academy match
Courtesy of Seattle Sounders FC

Stake your territory: Timbers-Sounders rivalry simmers at youth level, too

PORTLAND, Ore. – The Timbers-Sounders rivalry that's set to be renewed on Sunday (3 pm ET; FOX in US, MLS LIVE in Canada) is one that also plays out on all levels of the soccer developmental pyramid.

Timbers general manager and president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson, who has experienced the Cascadia rivalry as a player, coach and executive, has seen it for himself on the youth stage.

“The rivalry’s at every age. The extent of the rivalry and the competitive nature of the games obviously changes [at youth levels],” he said.

Yet one area to which the rivalry does not extend is the recruiting of youth players for those academy teams. Under MLS Homegrown Player rules, the Timbers' youth academy territory extends 50 miles from Providence Park, or about 40 miles into the southern edge of Washington state. The rest of Washington state, including most of the 173 miles between Providence Park and CenturyLink Field, is Sounders Homegrown territory.

The Timbers territory also includes all of Idaho – the club has a growing presence in Boise – and New Mexico, which it shares with the Colorado Rapids.

But what stands out is how the Timbers' reach into Washington state has proven particularly fruitfulThe Timbers even have an affiliated youth club, the Washington Timbers, based in Vancouver, Washington, a Portland suburb about nine miles north of Providence Park. Five current college players from Southwest Washington played in the Timbers youth academy and this summer are members of the Timbers Under-23 Premier Development League squad.

Before the Timbers entered MLS in 2011, the Sounders youth academy had a presence in Southwest Washington. The Sounders held clinics in in Southwest Washington and several area players played for Seattle’s youth academy. When the Timbers entered MLS, Portland's Washington-state suburbs were briefly a battleground area between the clubs.

Brent Richards, the first Homegrown Player signed by the Timbers, grew up in Camas, Washington (Richards suffered a knee injury at the start of his second professional season and is currently a member of Portland’s USL team). When Richards signed in January 2012, there was some confusion about how the Timbers had his rights. Portland did not yet have an established youth academy program – though the Portland-area club Richards had played for as a youth was coached by Wilkinson, creating a strong link between Richards and the Timbers.

Such confusion over a player’s status has not been repeated since MLS implemented more specific Homegrown Player boundaries, Wilkinson said.

“We had some challenges early on. Those have all been solved and everyone’s very respectful,” Wilkinson said.

Still, Wilkinson maintains that teams like the Timbers are at a disadvantage when it comes to developing youth players into potential MLS contributors – the primary purpose for the youth academy – because the population of their Homegrown territory is smaller than many clubs', including Seattle.

“When you start to look at some of the other clubs, they have a great advantage due to the demographics, the size of the population and the soccer community that is playing the game,” Wilkinson said.

To combat that, Wilkinson said the Timbers are expanding their youth program to include younger players, and to find players from the many states that aren’t assigned to a specific club’s Homegrown territory.

Southwest Washington is now firmly Timbers country. When Seattle entered MLS in 2008, Sounders scarves, window stickers and jerseys began popping up – even as the Timbers continued to play in the USL. As recently as last year, Sounders jerseys were for sale at some Southwest Washington stores. Anecdotal evidence suggests that is not the case this season.

The Timbers Army Northern Alliance is Southwest Washington’s branch of the Timbers supporters group. There are several dozen Timbers season-ticket holders in the Seattle area, where the “Timbers Army: Covert Operations” (TA:CO) branch exists for Timbers fans in enemy territory.

Wilkinson, whose first taste of the Cascadia showdown was a bloodied chin as a Timbers defender back in 2001 when both clubs battled in the A-League, said the rivalry's intensity continues to grow.

“It’s a very, very important rivalry,” Wilkinson emphasized. “It’s a healthy rivalry. Until game time, it’s like any other game. And then with the size of the crowd, the noise of the crowd, at that stage I think the blood starts to boil a little bit more and the heart’s pounding a little bit quicker.”