BY Stanley Holmes 02:24PM 12/15/2010

MLS throws supporter groups a bone — a tiny one

Decision sure to disappoint Cascadia fans

Emerald City supporters march to a Sounders FC match / Courtesy Emerald City Supporters

Major League Soccer has blessed a plan to let supporters groups from the Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders FC, and Vancouver Whitecaps FC purchase up to 500 tickets for away matches against their Cascadia rivals in 2011.

The decision, while a step in the right direction, is sure to disappoint the Cascadia supporters groups. They have urged the clubs and the league to allocate more away tickets in order to create the kind of rivalry atmosphere that makes European and Latin American soccer matches so exciting.

“The approved plan will help grow a rivalry that is unique to this region,” said Joe Roth, Sounders FC majority owner. “The three clubs, along with Major League Soccer, are committed to fostering local rivalries as well as providing visiting supporters an opportunity to support their clubs on the road.”

The announcement shouldn’t come as a total surprise.  Roth telegraphed the decision two weeks ago at the Sounders second-annual Business Alliance meeting. Members of the Emerald City supporters group greeted Roth’s announcement with disbelief and disappointment.

“To slap a cap on the number of seats for visiting supporters, you’re basically slapping a cap on the rivalry itself,” said John Knox, spokesman for the Vancouver Southsiders. “This rivalry will propel the league forward and it will provide credibility at a time when MLS is struggling to define itself.”

Why would the league want to do that? Well, it would have taken a complete personality makeover for the MLS to bless something truly bold and exciting (and, yes, risky).  Extreme caution has been part of its DNA since its inception. While it can argue caution has kept the league alive, this issue also underscores a growing dilemma: the league and the owners have got to find the sweet spot that balances the excitement and intensity of derby clashes with the more pragmatic and prudent concerns over safety and security, among others.

As Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner recently noted, the MLS still lacks “pizazz.” He wrote that “We’ve now had 15 years of MLS trying to ensure financial security — and it has done well in that area — it has produced a healthy league. In the process it has, perhaps inevitably, saddled itself with a drab corporate image. Concentrating on business matters will do that for you.”

Creating a healthy, intoxicating and enthusiastic rivalry culture can help to erase that drab corporate image. A more competitive product on the field that produces more goals and rewards skill definitely would help, too. But that’s a topic for another day.

Let’s stick to something that is readily attainable. The rivalry culture among Seattle, Portland and Vancouver — as well as Philadelphia, New York and DC — can help to generate that pizazz the MLS lacks. This is unique for the league because of the close proximity of these cities to each other so supporters can now travel to away matches without jumping on an airplane.

This emerging local rivalry culture is one component but it could create the kind of atmosphere that attracts — not repels — more of the  mainstream sports audience. Who in Washington doesn’t watch, gossip or know about the Apple Cup? Who in Washington and Oregon doesn’t get lathered and bothered about a Ducks-Huskies college football game?

For the three Cascadia clubs, the rivalry tradition dates to the former North American Soccer League. Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps entered that league in 1974, while the Portland Timbers followed suit in 1975. The clubs rekindled the rivalry in the 1990s when they competed in North America’s second division professional leagues.

For their part, the leaders of the Emerald City Supporters and the Timbers Army issued cautious but tepid support for the plan.

“It’s a good start but shouldn’t be the end goal,” wrote Keith Hodo, co-president, Emerald City Supporters. “Eventually we should honor the FIFA guidelines of 5% of tickets being allocated to away support. These are going to be the premier rivalries in MLS and in order to grow the sport in America we need more away supporters at all games.”

David Hoyt, president of the 107st supporters trust of the Timbers Army, echoed his Seattle rivals. “While we still firmly believe that 500 tickets is not sufficient to satisfy the demand or ensure that away supporters can all congregate safely in a single area of the stadium, this is a solid first step towards addressing the passion which is building in our region and in the league,” he said, in a statement.

Both presidents, taking the decidedly un-hooligan approach that league and club officials should note, have committed to working with their respective front offices to ensure these rivalries develop in the right way. Both believe these matches — Sounders v Timbers and Whitecaps v Sounders — will create the kind of electric atmosphere that American supporters will circle on their calendars.

“We want to get to the point where supporters from across the nation and the globe will be able to descend on Seattle, Vancouver or Portland and see a truly world class football atmosphere,” Hodo wrote.

Let’s hope the league’s club owners share the same end game. At some point, it they really want to grow the league as they truly and deeply say they do, they eventually will have to let go of drab and bring in the pizazz.