These are exciting times for the beautiful game in America and it looks like certainly in one area, it's here to stay
Last season was a record breaking year for Major League Soccer. More than 5.4m people passed through the turnstiles in the league’s 16th season, an average of almost 18,000 per game putting it ahead of both the NBA and NHL.
Perhaps even more crucially, the Pacific North-West has collectively embraced the game to the extent that football can now lay genuine claims to a new American heartland. Football finally has a place in America where it counts as a major domestic sport.
Seattle is still the league’s biggest success story in terms of league expansion. The city embraced the game in a way perfectly befitting one of America’s counter-culture capitals as soon as the Sounders joined the league in 2009 and the club’s growth continued through 2011.
The Sounders’ average attendance was an astonishing 38,496 last season. Without that contribution the league average would drop by more than 1,000.
That number of fans would have given the Sounders the 10th highest attendance in Major League Baseball and it’s also directly comparable with some of the biggest football clubs in Europe. So far this season only seven Premier League sides can boast a higher average and in Serie A the number drops to three.
Having had such eye-catching success in Seattle, it’s easy to see why the league chose nearby Portland and Vancouver when it looked to expand the league to 18 teams for 2011. Their decision has so far been vindicated.
In simple, numerical terms, the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps increased the league’s audience markedly. The Whitecaps averaged 20,412 for their home games (the third highest total in the competition) while the Timbers brought in a better than average 18,827.
The success of the clubs in building a fan base for the sport is rooted in history and shared rivalry. Some European fans might scoff at the idea that American clubs can possess real traditions but these three do and they can all be traced back several decades to the days of the NASL.
Portland has the nickname Soccer City for a reason after all. The first incarnation of the Timbers formed 36 years ago and enjoyed some early success. The club scoured the West Midlands for English talent and a team built around a young Peter Withe reached the Soccer Bowl in their first season.
On the field, the team couldn’t really build upon that early promise but the seeds were sown for football in the city and versions of the club existed throughout the 1980’s and 90’s long after the demise of the NASL. The Timbers also played in the United States Soccer League from 2001 until it became an MLS franchise.
Similarly, the original Whitecaps were formed in 1974 and won the NASL Championship five years later with a team that included and ageing Alan Ball. The club was forced to fold with the league in 1984 but continued on in various incarnations as the game in America struggled to sort itself out.
The Sounders’ success has been built upon similar foundations laid in the NASL era and the value fans in the region attach to history is clear to see. When Seattle won the right to enter a team into MLS in 2008 the fan vote to find a name did not initially include the old moniker. In response to a backlash from traditional Sounders fans, the team’s owners added an option to the ballot that meant fans could suggest an unlisted name. 49% of voters chose Sounders.
The collective history and close proximity between the clubs has also created a rivalry between them that continues in MLS. This rivalry attracts supporters who are quickly bound by an old fashioned sense of loyalty. In 2004, a group of supporters created the Cascadia Cup, a trophy contested by the three teams each year. The tournament is still running, awarding silverware as well as bragging rights to the Pacific North-West’s best team.
The entry of Portland and Vancouver into the league has enriched the competition with the addition of genuine derby games. For those in any doubt about just how intense these can be, the former Seattle goalkeeper Kasey Keller compared the Sounders-Timbers derby to games he played for Millwall against West Ham.
Earlier this year, the Whitecaps Chief Executive Paul Barber told the Daily Mirror:
“Soccer has a history here. People would make the trip across the border and back regularly for matches against Portland and Seattle and now those same people are making the same journeys with their kids.
“It’s the closest soccer in America has to tradition. A lot of our supporters are going to the same bars before the game as they used to. There is a sense the soccer community has been reawakened.”
Portland and Vancouver also benefit from a lack of rivalry from other sports, which allows them to compete for the attention of the casual sports fan. Portland has no Major League Baseball team, no NFL franchise and no NHL hockey club. The only competition for the Timbers comes in the form of the NBA’s Trail Blazers who haven’t won a championship for 34 years.
In Vancouver, the NHL’s Canucks and the BC Lions of the CFL are the only real alternatives to the Whitecaps and football. The city did have an NBA franchise but in 2001, the Grizzlies moved to Memphis.
Perversely, the teams’ lack of success on the pitch in their first MLS campaign also indicates that the success may be sustainable. While the Sounders won the US Open Cup in each of their first three seasons, the Timbers and Whitecaps have found the going tough.
The Whitecaps finished bottom of the 18 team regular season table with just six wins from 34 games but their attendances held up well. The Timbers did better, winning 11 times and finishing 12th but they too missed out on the end of season play-offs.
Seattle has shown that success on the field will fuel growth off the pitch. If the Timbers and Whitecaps can find a winning formula they look well placed to replicate their neighbour’s impressive year on year growth in support and relevance.
Performances on the field could now determine just how far these clubs can develop. It’s easy to love a team that wins but the novelty of major league status could soon wear off for fans watching a team struggling near the foot of the table. It took the league as a whole 15 years to match the average attendances it had in its first year.
Portland and Vancouver seem well placed to avoid that danger though. For the Whitecaps, the addition of Montreal as the league’s third Canadian team in 2012 adds another battle for regional supremacy as they both vie with Toronto to be recognised as the nation’s best club.
With all three MLS clubs busy improving their rosters for 2012, the future looks bright for football in the Pacific North-West and as the league continues to grow in a sustainable manner, the region’s example shows that with time football can lay down strong roots in North America.
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