Until a few years ago, the possibility that there could be soccer-related frenzy anywhere north of Mexico in any context, much less the night before a regular season Major League Soccer match, seemed ludicrous.
The long-predicted explosion of soccer as a mainstream spectator sport in America never seemed to happen. There were pockets of passionate fans – many of them expatriates from Europe or Latin America – in every town, gathering in small pubs where the television would be more likely to show matches from Milan or Barcelona than baseball or basketball. But soccer, for the most part, has continued to be a niche sport in America.
Except in the Pacific Northwest, where MLS is a stadium-filling, culture-defining, loud, passionate phenomenon, with throngs of chanting supporters spilling out of the bars and restaurants into the streets around the downtown stadiums in Vancouver, Seattle and Portland, thousands of shouting, singing, marching partisans, waving their banners and scarves. Some of them aren’t even drunk.
I am, like most Americans, a fair-weather soccer fan, getting really interested only every four years when the U.S. team, better than most people know, plays in the World Cup, which I love not so much for the soccer as for the atmosphere – the fans in endearingly ridiculous outfits and elaborate face paint, the drums, even the annoying goose-honk bleats of those damn vuvuzelas. Every match feels like a Super Bowl, every crowd like a costume ball. The World Cup matters equally to people in Cameroon and Paraguay, Germany and South Korea. It’s the biggest, best party in the world.
But I’m not going to Brazil for the World Cup, and odds are, neither are you. And as much as I’d like to experience soccer madness in Madrid or Munich or Manchester, I’m not going there, either. It’s too expensive and too far away.
But a soccer weekend in the Pacific Northwest – attending matches in Vancouver, Seattle and Portland as teams vie not just for spots in the MLS playoffs but for possession of their own regional trophy, the Cascadia Cup – is a fine substitute and, once you’re on the ground, eminently affordable. (Vancouver Whitecaps tickets start at $25, Seattle Sounders tickets at $32 and Timbers tickets – the hardest to get – at $27.)
The MLS level of play, rapidly improving, still isn’t on par with the best leagues in the world, but, according to the former national team star and current ESPN soccer analyst Alexi Lalas, the atmosphere in the Cascadia cities is as good, if not better, than in most European hotbeds.
“They have traditions and match-day experiences there that are authentic and organic and that I would put up there with some of the greatest soccer cities in the world,” Lalas said. “And I think it’s caught on there because it’s an area where counterculture thrives. Because of that, I think they’ve created a soccer atmosphere that is uniquely North American.”
In each city, the stadiums are in the heart of downtown entertainment districts, accessible by rail and within walking distance of dozens of bars, restaurants and hotels. Fans arrive early and stay late, whether it’s raining or not. There are jugglers and musicians and, because it’s the Pacific Northwest, a lot of people playing hacky sack and wearing flannel. In Portland particularly, but really in all three places, these don’t look like traditional sports crowds. The stadium is full of technology nerds and hem-wearing hippies, nose-pierced punks and artisan soapmakers. There are, to be sure, suburban soccer moms and children in their youth league uniforms, but, for the most part, it’s a “Portlandia” casting call come to life.
I enjoyed the games but not nearly so much as watching the fans, singing along and, let’s not kid ourselves, drinking a whole lot of beer. I loved that whenever the Timbers score a home goal their fan-created mascot, Timber Joey, chain saws a chunk off a giant log, right there in the stadium. I loved that, before the Vancouver match, there were guys on stilts playing pickup soccer with neighborhood children. I loved the waving Cascadia flags and the T-shirts that say, “If You Want the Rainbow, You Have to Put Up With the Rain.”
I love that at the BC Place concessions you can buy “Navy Bean & Kale Curry” for $9.25 and a “Montreal Smoked-Meat Sandwich” for just 50 cents more, that outside CenturyLink stadium the “Repent and Believe in Jesus” guy was standing next to an insurance booth with the slogan, “We’re a Lot Like You, a Little Different.”
But mostly I loved the sight of the half-dozen Vancouver fans in Portland, having just won the Cascadia Cup, taking their trophy, a giant silver ornately engraved loving cup, down Burnside Street in the direction of the Commodore Lounge, preparing to fill it with beer.