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Future is in the Northwest
by Paul Kennedy, March 19th, 2009 7AM

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[MY VIEW] It's all coming together for MLS in the Northwest. As it should be. The Seattle Sounders FC will make their MLS debut against New York Thursday before a sell-out crowd at (down-sized) Qwest Field (TV: ESPN2, 9 pm ET). On Wednesday, MLS announced that Vancouver will join the league as its 17th team in 2011. Portland is the favorite to be awarded the 18th franchise, also scheduled to begin play in 2011.

There been must talk about how the economy is impacting American sports. In the case of MLS expansion, the economic downturn actually helped matters.

It killed the sexy talk of FC Barcelona launching an MLS expansion team in Miami, one of the hardest-hit cities in the country. I know of no one outside of Miami who liked the idea of returning to South Florida, where the Fusion failed miserably and all sports (with the possible exception of the football Dolphins) struggle, but Barcelona's effort persisted for months before it came to its senses.

In turn, Miami's exit from the expansion race promoted the less glamorous idea of heading back to the Northwest, where Seattle, which has already sold 22,000 season tickets, sits right between Vancouver to the north and Portland to the south on I-5.

The soccer rivalry on the Vancouver-Seattle-Portland corridor was born in the 1970s when the original Sounders, Whitecaps and Timbers played in the NASL. That rivalry has been rekindled in recent years in the USL-1.

I am reminded of an incident that took place a few years back at the Starfire Sports Complex, the USL Sounders' home in suburban Tukwila. I was working late one night and needed to track down a late U.S. Open Cup score from Starfire. Seattle was hosting Portland. I stumbled online to the Timbers' post-game audio broadcast and heard the noise of police sirens. The announcers reported that police had been summoned to the scene because the visiting Timbers fans were supposedly causing a disturbance. A riot at an Open Cup game? The fact is, there was no trouble -- they were simply visiting fans, disappointed with the outcome of the game, and they were loud. No wonder the police were confused!

Small as that contingent of Portland fans who had made the trek up I-5 was, they are MLS's future.

MLS owners can talk all they want about the need for a breakthrough on television, but they first need a product to sell, and that is achieved by what they produce on the field and attract in the stands.

Seattle has achieved popular success -- the Sounders feature the Sound Wave, a full marching band! -- and hopefully that enthusiasm will spread.

Fans traveling up and down I-5 is MLS's future.

(Seat-ticket deposits go on sale in Vancouver on Saturday.)



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