Portland's 2015 MLS Cup triumph has spurred Seattle's run to the final
So Seattle has finally reached an MLS Cup final, with the added bonus -- or possibly pressure -- of being able to emulate rival Portland's win last year.
There's no doubt that the Timbers winning Cascadia's first MLS Cup stuck in the Sounders' collective craw. Seattle's early years in the league after its introduction in 2009 have been played out with a sense of expectation -- detractors call it entitlement -- that a first MLS Cup would come sooner rather than later.
And as the years have gone by and that Cup has failed to materialize, the already intense relationship with the Timbers has been affected by that unfolding narrative. Seattle might have regularly beaten Portland -- who joined MLS in 2011 -- in league play, but when Portland has played the role of spoiler, it has tended to do so at crucial times and in ways that resonate for a long time afterward.
In 2013, when the two teams met in the playoffs for the first time, the Timbers stunned Seattle in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals by winning 2-1 on the road with some crisp counterattacking soccer, and then doubled up by winning 3-2 in Portland. It was galling enough for Seattle to lose to its rival, but the manner of the defeat was especially telling.
In the second leg in particular, then-Seattle manager Sigi Schmid looked to have no idea of what to do to beat the Timbers -- and the inclusion of an aging Shalrie Joseph as a makeshift winger looked like a Hail Mary pass. Portland led 3-0 within three minutes of the second half starting, and Seattle's two late goals could not hide the depths of its humiliation.
Schmid never again regained his unquestioned authority with the team, which at one time had made it seem he would go on to become an Arsene Wenger-style institution. He was still a quality coach, and with the aid of the blossoming and extravagant partnership of Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey, he would win the Supporters' Shield and yet another U.S. Open Cup in 2014.
But the damage that was done by his board having to so explicitly back him in the wake of the 2013 campaign would have lasting effects. Having staked their own taste for stability on the continued efforts of Schmid once, the board was never likely to do it again when another crisis of form hit at the start of this year.
And of course there was 2015; not just Portland winning MLS Cup, but the manner of it, seemed designed to goad Seattle. In this sibling rivalry, the Sounders can feel like the organization that gets all the good grades, attendance records and joins all the extracurricular societies it's supposed to, only to see its rather more feckless twin become prom king. Portland drifted through the regular season in 2015, came alive in a spectacular late-season 5-2 road win over the LA Galaxy, and then navigated a series of kind ricochets of posts and never-repeatable wonder goals to sweep to the title.
For most of that campaign, it looked like the Cup was Portland's destiny, while it's hard to recall a moment in Seattle's history when the team has looked assured of winning MLS Cup. That sense of expectation from the team's fans might have continued their wishful thinking that the team was meant to win, but generally the sense of striving and focused concentration that has marked Seattle's postseason campaigns has suggested a team determined not to lose.
And that's actually been Seattle's strength in the second half of this year; the margin for error disappeared in the last days of Schmid's reign, and once the team began to build momentum under new manager Brian Schmetzer, it did so knowing that only a sustained run of form would be good enough to reach the playoffs. And when Clint Dempsey's season-ending heart problem further robbed them of his improvisational flair, the very different type of creativity that Nicolas Lodeiro offers was all about animating the players around him to their fullest potential. It's hard to think of any passengers on the Seattle team right now; their dogged run to the final has reflected a belief that success will be earned, not gifted.
A win on Saturday would make future visits to Portland a little more comfortable, and matching the Timbers' achievement from last year would be a salve for a Sounders organization that has endured a bruising year. And if Seattle were to win, at that point the banter might become more about Portland's win being a one-off -- the Timbers noticeably missed the playoffs this year -- while Seattle's has been an inevitability.
Unless Seattle loses, in which case the only scant consolation available for the Sounders will be the knowledge that Vancouver fans will be spending most of Saturday's game wincing whatever happens: Either a rival Canadian team (Toronto FC) or a rival Cascadia team will be champion. Maybe that will hurt enough that we'll be previewing the Whitecaps in the final next year.
It certainly didn't hurt Toronto to have a target on Montreal's back after the humiliation of 2015, though if TFC is feeling pressure related to its local rivalries right now, it's more to do with replicating the intensity it brought to the second leg of the epic Eastern Conference final against the Impact.
The wild swings of that series could convince Toronto its name is on MLS Cup, but could equally prove to be a Pyrrhic victory if the Reds don't get it straight in their collective minds that overturning last year's 3-0 playoff loss to the Montreal Impact was payback, not catharsis. There's still a decade's worth of underperforming for Toronto to alter, and if there's true relief to be had, it won't be in looking back on losing the MLS Cup at home after playing probably the greatest playoff series in league history.
The rivalry that inflects all interactions between Toronto and Montreal in all sports and in multiple areas of culture and politics is real and rich, and Toronto has a chance to put a marker down by being the first Canadian team to win the trophy. But Montreal is not the motivation now, and Toronto built the weight of its own history all by itself.
For Seattle soccer, though, no success exists wholly in isolation to Portland's failure, and vice versa.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @KidWeil.