By Eric G

Portland away is for most ECS that I talk to the one away day that gets circled on the calendar when the new fixture list comes out before each season. For those of us that weren't really a part of the NASL or A-League/USL-1 days, it's pretty easy to see why, given that this derby is currently the fiercest, both on and off the pitch, in the league. It also features arguably the two best supporters groups in the league in terms of numbers, atmosphere, and tifo. And then there's the non-issue of dealing with border crossings and the post-9/11 ramifications of international travel that complicate travel to Vancouver for those with certain types of infractions on their records.

Back in the NASL days, Vancouver was by far the bigger deal in Cascadia, with hundreds of away supporters present and the visual senses stimulated by flags galore. Portland had a good start in 1975 but quickly petered out and honestly I don't remember much in the way of organized fan support from them, especially not compared to Vancouver. Unfortunately, being a wee lad back then, away travel wasn't in the cards (my parents didn't quite get the notion then of travelling to see the local team away from home, and certainly weren't going to send me off alone at that age!), so I didn't get to experience it other than seeing it on TV.

When the Sounders returned to professional soccer in 1994, there was no Portland team in existence, just us and Vancouver. And for a few years, the battles between the teams continued just like it had in NASL, although on a smaller stage, and the numbers of supporters travelling measured not in hundreds, but in dozens. There was nothing in the way of organized SG's really, no tifo or pyro shows. It was people just showing up on their own or occasionally the FO would sponsor a bus if there was demand.

In 2001, the A-League (then the predecessor of USL-1 when the leagues merged in the early 2000's) granted an expansion team to Portland... and most of us were pretty pleased that they chose the name Timbers to complete the NASL resurrection (the Vancouver team had renamed themselves from 86ers to Whitecaps in the same year). The new team also had a new supporters group calling themselves Cascade Rangers, in a reference to the Cascade mountain range and the caretakers of forests (rangers).

That first season, there wasn't much in terms of away support from either side. The supporter's group that pre-dated the ECS, The Pod, had been decaying much of the late 90's onward. Other than a bass drum, you'd really not have known there was a group at all. A few hardy souls travelled to Vancouver regularly, but not in any organization, and Portland in the early going was pretty much the same deal. The Cascade Rangers sent four supporters to the first match up here in Seattle, recognizable by the white pickle buckets that passed as drums for them.

Away support was still in those days a curiosity more than anything, and relations between SG's then were typically warm... yeah, you were rivals during the 90 minutes, but before and after, things were viewed more cordially. There was a sense of kinship, of being "the few, the proud" in a sense which trumped being aggro to opposing supporters.

Being a supporter back then wasn't the in thing that it might be considered today, and the number of MLS groups that were of any significance you could count on one hand. Anyone crazy enough to be a hardcore supporter AND travel to see their team were usually well respected, admired, and usually treated to beers for putting forth the effort to show up. This is quite different than the scene today, where intermingling is not really the smartest of ideas on a match day.

My first away trip to Portland was July 21, 2001. I had missed the match earlier in the year (one of perhaps 3 or 4 that I've missed in PDX since that time) that Sounders lost 2-0, in what oddly was both a regular season match AND a US Open cup qualifier. Even odder by today's standards, Seattle, Portland, and two lower division teams (Northern Nevada Aces and Utah Blitzz) were thrown into a qualifying group and the teams in the same league used regular season matches to double as cup matches!

That day the Sounders had a young forward on loan that they had drafted in the A-League draft, but who was also chosen by LA Galaxy in the MLS draft later... a familar name now but a total unknown back then: Brian Ching. He scored the winner that day very early in the match, and on a rather warm day with no substitutes, the Sounders held on to make the 1-0 scoreline stand up.

Back in these days, the teams played each other up to SIX times per regular season, so it seemed as though we were playing Portland or Vancouver nearly every week which kind of takes the edge off the games from a supporter's standpoint.

I stood by myself singing and waving a handmade Sounders tricolor flag in the (then) colors of purple, white, and teal, rather close to where the current ECS away section is. Thankfully my wife helped out with the sewing, as I wasn't looking forward to learning to sew on the job, so to speak! I had started out in a section with some other Sounders fans, mostly player families and the blogger from fansite Seattle Pitch, but moved down a section or two to an empty section where I wouldn't be blocking views with the flag and standing. I had additional ulterior motives too in that this was closer to the field-level beer garden as well! In those days, PGE Park (renovated Civic Stadium, which is now Jeld-Wen Field) was a multi-purpose baseball/football/soccer stadium, with the soccer pitch further from the stands than it is now, with a beer garden just a few feet from the touchline in the south end of the main stand. The layout was similar to what Starfire does for open cup matches, but with more seating and room to move around in.

Things between Seattle and Portland fans were nowhere near as nasty as they would become later, so I was more of a curiosity than anything else. And the Cascade Rangers were about 20 or so gathered in the first couple rows of section 107 behind the north goal. I couldn't really hear them other than an occasional pickle bucket drum beat here and there.

The next game down there was a bit interesting in that I took my flag again (my flagpole was a two-inch thick wooden dowel), got by the gate, down into the beer garden... unbeknownst to me were a crowd of stewards chasing behind, not catching up until I'd taken place in the beer line and informing me that my "flagpole" was a weapon and I had to let them confiscate it. Of course, I played the game and said well why the hell did you let me A) into the ground, and B) into the section and then past the beer garden bouncer, if flags on poles weren't allowed? Fortunately I'd used a sleeve rather than stapling or otherwise permanently adhering the flag to the dowel, so I was at least allowed to keep the flag and use it for the match... which we again won. At least this time I had some company in the form of some younger relatives of backup Sounders goalkeeper Carlos Castenello (think of a precursor to La Barra Fuerza Verde). The five or six of us did a pretty good job being as noisy and boisterous as that small a group could be.

Trips to Portland were pretty much the same for the next couple of years... we were lucky to get 4 or 5 people going the next year or two. The Pod grew a little bit, but it was a difficult battle to try and win hearts and minds with a team that no one even knew existed, whose idea of advertising budget was to put "Game Tonight" sandwich boards on the street corners adjacent to Memorial Stadium, and whose home ground was a rundown joke of a stadium whose bathrooms were in serious disrepair and where the concrete roof literally crumbled on those gathered below. Oh and the pitch... narrow, with old school astroturf featuring garish gridiron lines and quite a few seams literally patched together with duct tape. No booze (other than that smuggled in) either. Efforts to create scarfs for sale for the group (and for Sounders fans in general) met resistance from the team ownership... in fact I was issued a cease-and-desist letter threatening legal action if I pursued it further... which came to be known as "Scarfgate" in Sounder supporter lore. Unbeknownst to the regime, a limited number of scarfs were produced anyway to those who had paid up before the cease/desist order, and I wore this scarf proudly to every home and Cascadia away game.

Fortunately by 2003, out went the old regime, and in came Adrian Hanauer and a move from dumpy Memorial Stadium to Seahawks Stadium (now CenturyLink Field). This helped things greatly, and interest in the team began to move in the right direction. The group grew ever so incrementally, though it always seemed two steps forward, two steps back in terms of getting a big enough core to reach "critical mass".

Away days were becoming more lopsided as the Cascade Rangers morphed into Timbers Army, and with a chance Serbian influence within TA, that group suddenly became much more aggro. Those few of us quickly learned to tie our scarfs and deal with section invasions... even if only a muppet or two coming over to wank on a plastic flagpole. The first couple of seasons, it wasn't unusual at all to share a beer before or after a match, but the relations were definitely unfriendly thereafter.

The creation of the Cascadia Cup in 2004 between the three fan groups of each team saw away travel start to take off, although to be fair, it was mostly the TA with us and Southsiders considerably far behind in numbers. One particular playoff game in 2004 I remember well as I was ejected for (apparently) throwing a streamer somewhere in the vicinity of Hugo Alcaraz-Cuellar after he'd scored a goal to put PDX up 1-0 after the first leg. Probably more amusing was the postgame "brouhaha" on the TA site afterward that supposedly there were rocks, beer cups, or other missiles thrown at Cuellar from our section. Never mind neither of those items are navy blue in color!

Our first trips as ECS in 2005 saw our largest presence by far with a couple dozen making the trip, helped by the first bus trip which I took a financial bath on just to get the away numbers up and start getting people in the habit of away support. Although small in numbers, we had the fortune of being right underneath the PGE Park broadcasting booth, so our drums and singing had pretty much drowned out the TA on the radio broadcast!

Another game in July 2006 saw a carpool caravan have to brave a massive traffic jam in Fort Lewis on the way down -- we thought we'd left in plenty of time about 6 hours prior to kickoff -- only to wander in just after the match had kicked off. At least we were rewarded with a 2-1 win where we scored twice within a minute late in the game to secure the points. In fact, I had missed the second goal entirely because our blue/green checkboard overhead flag was still up above all of us, and we only looked up to see another goal celebration in progress.

By 2008, ECS had grown in both membership and mentality such that we brought more than a full busload for our final away trip to Portland in the USL-1 era on August 7. We had moved back to the other end of the stadium by this time, as the aggro going on had gotten to the point where it would definitely have kicked off if we were still in the other corner closer to TA. Visually, we had brought our now familiar big flags, many two-stick banners, a handmade rail banner as opposed to the printed ones we'd had before, as well as our first away tifo, a two stage text banner reading "Tonight you have become irrelevant" as we were moving on to bigger and better things in MLS without Portland, and of course had to take the piss out of the home fans.

This trip really had the feel of a proper away derby for the first time... with a full bus and others arriving by alternate transportation to augment the numbers (we had ~70 or so that day which was our best away showing of pre-MLS era), plenty of booze on board, and passion aplenty. It signaled the ECS was arriving as no longer a small rival to be ignored, but knocking on the door with intent (as Arlo White might have said later on) to bust it down as Cascadia's best. Fortunately it was a great time inside the stadium too as Sebastien Le Toux scored midway through the first half and we walked out 1-0 winners in the last pre-MLS derby day. What a difference it made to have a sizable crew there over the dark early days when we all could have literally came in the same taxi to the match!

Much beer was consumed on the way down, and while it was a party atmosphere on the way back as well, for me it was more a time to reflect and just enjoy the moment. The moment of being on a full coach of supporters instead of midnight drives back to Puget Sound alone or maybe with a buddy or two. Singing as a group rather than listening to CDs or radio. Beer instead of late night drive through fast food and soda. This group was finally turning the corner, and all the dark days when we were vastly outnumbered, even at home, had been left as history. As one of the few who'd been around for the frustrating beginnings, trials and tribulations along the way, the smallest victories were especially satisfying. This was the day when I felt confident that we were going to be a force to be reckoned with that final USL season, and into MLS in coming seasons.