Most fans spend the close season scouring the papers and internet chat rooms for rumours of new signings and leaked photos of garish new away kits but for a group of American supporters the months before the kick-off of the 18th season of Major League Soccer held something much grander in store.
The football teams of the Pacific North West are well known throughout MLS for their passionate supporters who proudly unfurl impressive tifo displays before matches, especially when they come up against each other. The intense rivalries between the Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps and Seattle Sounders are not some marketing wheeze dreamt up by league officials. These are real fans whose devotion to their clubs goes back generations creating atmospheres that many, rather more sterile grounds, on the other side of the pond could take a lesson from. But now some of these fans are joining together for a common cause.
Cascadia is the name given to the region taking in British Columbia in Canada and Oregon and Washington in the US. The three MLS sides contest the Cascadia Cup every season which is a real badge of pride for the victors. And although there are those living in the region that campaign for political independence, these fans are all about the football. And now they want their own representative team. Lenny Laymon, President of the Cascadia Association explains: “This sport is woven into the fabric of life here in a way that is a bit different than other parts of the US and Canada. The Cascadian MLS clubs go back to 1974 for Vancouver and Seattle and in the case of the Portland Timbers 1975. While this is not as long as the hundred year histories many clubs around the world boast, it is older than the rest of MLS and most fans come from families where being a fan of the Whitecaps, Sounders or Timbers spans several generations.”
Alongside a real sense of regional identity felt by many of the fans attending matches in Portland, Vancouver and Seattle, it’s not difficult to see why the support for a Cascadian representative side has been so popular. Controversy over the MLS’ attempts to trademark the Cascadia Cup - secretly filing the name in Canada without consulting any of the fan groups from the three clubs - alongside long-held grudges held by Pacific North Westerners against the league and a feeling that the US international set up has been reluctant to stage matches in the region have all no doubt helped. Many fans also feel that the MLS were slow to pick up on the level of passion for football in the area, not awarding a franchise until the Seattle Sounders joined the big league in 2009. The association are quick to confirm their support for the Cascadia Cup Council’s position against the MLS but feel that the feeling of unity between fans of bitter rivals shows that the idea of Cascadia extends beyond interleague games.
Fans of clubs in the region started talking on blogs and forums about the possibility of a Cascadia ‘national’ side in 2011 and in January this year held their first general meeting in the hope that the process would really start in earnest. Much of that initial meeting concerned itself with administration duties related with registering a representative side with the relevant non FIFA governing bodies. But the long term aim is to assemble a team this year and begin playing friendlies in preparation for the next VIVA World Cup – an international tournament similar to the World Cup but for nations not affiliated to FIFA. The current holders of the Nelson Mandela Trophy are Iraqi Kurdistan who beat sides such as Northern Cyprus and Provence to win the competition in 2012. A representative of the Cascadian association attended the New Federation board meeting held in Munich at the end of February where their case was put forward. They obviously liked what they heard as, alongside Franconia and Helgoland, Cascadia was invited to join the federation.
After the momentous decision in Munich, Cascadia have been flooded with offers of friendlies with Northern Cyprus, Occitania, Raetia and Sealand. Close contact has been made with the Quebec association who have already agreed to home and away meetings and the nascent beginnings of a North America and Arctic federation being set up alongside Greenland and, in the future, New Brunswick. The clamour for a Cascadian team has come too quickly for some invitations though, including taking part in a tournament in England this summer, but the association are hoping to have a side playing matches by the end of the year.
What officials of the new association must do now, of course, is find a coach and work out who is eligible to play for Cascadia. Although there are well known players that would be eligible, such as Marcus Hahnemann and on the women’s side Hope Solo, it is unlikely that any top level players would turn out for a Cascadia representative side, a point that Lenny Laymon concedes: “While we would love the involvement of high level players we are realistic in our expectations and feel that in the world of non-FIFA football the amount and depth of talent at the lower levels in this region would be competitive”. But any younger players hoping for some exposure could represent Cascadia and still be eligible for the United States as well. Playing non-FIFA football doesn’t tie a player to only that side. It is important to note that the term given to these regions – non FIFA – is in no way a negative stance or against FIFA. The New Federation see themselves as complementary to its big brother. But there is no doubt that areas within countries who feel they have a distinct personality and history are given the chance to represent themselves on a grander stage. These beliefs can sometimes take an overtly political stance but Lenny Laymon sees Cascadia’s campaign as a purely football thing. “While we welcome the support of any Cascadia organisation and have several who follow and support us, we do not necessarily endorse all of their platforms. This is about the sport first and foremost and pride in what this region of diverse peoples has become in that context.”
From chat room ‘what-ifs’ to seriously planning to be part of the 2014 VIVA Cup, the speed that the Cascadian association have moved to put themselves in the position they now are is staggering and to be applauded. Only one month after their first official board meeting in the headquarters of an energy drink manufacturer, the CAFF have been accepted by the NF Board and are now hoping that the swiftness shown on the administrative side is matched by players, coaches and, most of all, the fans taking up the cause.
Follow Dan on Twitter @LasVegasWI.