Last Saturday was one of the weirdest, most bizarre days of my life.
I took a road trip to Vancouver, British Columbia (that’s not the weird part, just keep reading). The driver of the vehicle was Bruce ‘Obi’ Eaton, and we had plenty of sandwiches and snacks laid in for the 7-hour drive from Portland. The other thing we brought with us was a 2-foot-tall silver trophy, well known to soccer fans in the Pacific Northwest (perhaps less so to the rest of MLS) as the prize given to the team with the best regular season record among the teams from that region.
I am of course talking about the Cascadia Cup, which is a supporters-based trophy, founded in 2004 and contested by Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps, and Seattle Sounders. It was a game between those latter two teams that was the reason for Bruce’s and my trip; more specifically, we were bringing the Cup to Vancouver because, in the event of a Seattle win, they would clinch it (a draw or a Whitecaps win would mean the competition would be decided the following weekend when Portland visited Vancouver). The Timbers won the Cascadia Cup in 2009 and ’10, in an abbreviated competition involving only themselves and the Whitecaps in the USL (while the Sounders had moved up to MLS), and as holders of the Cup we felt it was our responsibility to present it in person.
So with Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats in the CD player and the Cascadia Cup safely swaddled in bubble-wrap in the back, we set off north, on a mission we dearly hoped would turn out to be unnecessary. Traffic was light, even through Seattle, which as you may know is archetypically awful, and Bruce’s smooth piloting got us to the border by about 1pm.
We took the wrong exit or something right after we crossed into Canada, and ended up way over by the airport, when our intended destination was in Burnaby (which is to say: clear across town). We quickly found our bearings though, and enjoyed a leisurely drive through suburbia. The upshot of our unintentional detour is that we drove right past Swangard Stadium, the Whitecaps’ former home, and the site of many thrilling Cascadia Cup matches in years past. So I started singing “The Way We Were” and before I could even get to the bit about the smiles we left behind, we’d made it to the pub.
With the Whitecaps playing in a temporary stadium (Empire) for most of this season, the South Siders followed suit and picked a temporary matchday pub near the ground. We arrived at Oscar’s Pub about 5 hours before kickoff, to find a couple dozen Caps fans (and a handful of Sounders fans) already ensconced with food and beers and EPL soccer. We’d intended to just peek in and make sure this was the right place before wandering off to kill some time, but before we knew it there were pints in our hands and we figured well, let’s hang out for a bit.
Almost to a person, the South Siders we met were welcoming and friendly, and eager to press a beer into our hands and thank us for bringing the Cup up for this match, in which our team wasn’t even involved. We immediately raised a toast, and up went a cry of “Fuck Seattle!” Kindred souls, indeed. The bummer was that Oscar’s wouldn’t be able to show the Timbers match at New York that evening (MLS Direct Kick isn’t available in Canada, what the hell?), but we were able to get updates on a friendly iPhone.
After walking the Cup down to the stadium for safe keeping — during which we had a chance to get a look at the pitch at Empire, and at the wooden roller coaster next door — we headed back to the pub for a few more beers. By now the place was really hopping, and this is when things started feeling really bizarro for me. I was in a pub full of soccer fans getting lubricated and rowdy, singing songs, hurling profanities at Seattle fans walking by outside, filling up on manic energy and ecstatic bonhomie…it felt just like a Timbers game, except that everything was wrong.
To be sure it was fun, but much like the rest of this bizarro day, it was like having a great time without any joy. I couldn’t take part in any of the unspoken love or inside jokes, I didn’t know the words to the songs (and didn’t want to sing them) because this wasn’t my tribe. When a two-stick banner bearing the image of Wes Knight made its way around the room for people to sign (Knight was a USL Whitecaps holdover who was recently cut by the team), I recognized and appreciated the feeling behind the gesture, but couldn’t share it. Every time I looked up I was subconsciously scanning the room for some green, but it was all blue. Bruce and I were interlopers.
Countless times when someone saw us for the first time, a perplexed mixture of rage and confusion crossed their face. Why was there an enemy supporter in our pub? Why are there Timbers Army in our pub when we’re playing Seattle? A similar look would cross the face of Seattle fans later in the stadium; and though one or two Sounders fans reacted aggressively when they saw us — e.g. “What the fuck are you assholes doing here!?” and gleefully flipping us off — it was nothing more or less than I’d expect if the situation were reversed. In fact, we met a few Sounders fans who knew why we were there, and thanked us for it. It was like having interactions with fellow humans…who knew?
Things got even more weird when we made it into the stadium. Our seats were in the South Side, in the heart of the hard-core Whitecaps supporters section. We were handed balloons as part of the tifo display (which centered around a section-wide overhead flag of British Columbia). There were huge flags waving in front of the section, and people bitching about the huge flags blocking their view. Later in the match when the crowd turned surly, a number of beers went flying. Like I said: just like the Timbers Army! Except different!
Perhaps the most surreal moment on a day chocked full of otherworldliness was when Preston Burpo walked up the stairs. That’s Preston “long-time flounders keeper, glass-jaw, going home in a Portland Ambulance, Hey Dicknose, leave those kids alone!” Burpo. Taking in a Vancouver vs Seattle game from deep within the South Side. CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER, NO?
Then the game started, and things began very well indeed for the Whitecaps. They had three excellent chances in the first half hour, one of which they managed to finish, to put themselves up 1-0. At this point Bruce and I exchanged a glance — would the Caps actually pull this off and send us home with our duty happily unfulfilled?
As it turned out: no. Not ten minutes after Vancouver’s goal, the Sounders’ quality began to shine through. Jay DeMerit was called for a handball in the box, the penalty was converted, and the game went to halftime 1-1. The second half was all Seattle, and when we left our seats at the 75-minute mark to make our way to pitch-level, the game was all but over at 3-1. So, as I’ve been told, it goes.
While we stood on the sideline awaiting the final whistle, I allowed myself to forget about the depressing moment ahead — handing the Cascadia Cup to our most hated rivals — and soak in what for me was a unique situation. I’m in a packed, raucous stadium, Sigi Schmid and Brian Schmetzer are a mere 20 feet from us in the Sounders bench; then I see Drew Carey walking up the sideline; then Adrian Hanauer comes out of the tunnel right behind us, spots our PTFC gear and walks by sort of nonplussed.
Three whistles, game over, and we were led out onto the pitch, in front of the traveling ECS. After watching the team salute the fans, I find myself standing a couple feet away from Kasey Keller. Now, I’ve heaped a lot of vitriol on Keller in recent years, and I’ll continue to do so for as long as he has a Sounders badge on his chest. But this guy is a US soccer legend — I cheered my guts out for him in Germany ’06 — and I can’t deny being awed when he walked up and said, “What’s up, fellas?” (I’m sure the next time me makes some ludicrous remark about urine bags I’ll be right back on his case.)
We handed the Cascadia Cup to the ECS rep, a guy named Aaron, who handed it to Keller. The Sounders fans cheered; I looked up into the sea of rave green, jealous of their moment, and a woman in the front row, scarf raised, yelled “Thanks, Timbers!” as we walked off the pitch, job done.
It was a supremely strange day. I doubt I’d do it again, but I’m glad to have been a part of it. I have to thank Brett and the rest of the SouthSiders for being great hosts on this enemy-of-my-enemy type adventure, and Obi for driving. I hope the ECS takes good care of the Cup, and I look forward to seeing them in Portland next year when they have to give it back.