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Kicking Up a Storm

Forget Dodgers versus Giants, or Duke versus UNC, or even Red Sox versus Yankees. The craziest rivalry in American sports is between the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers. In soccer. And for almost 10 years it's been driven by one man: the colorful, controversial (and surprisingly likable) Roger Levesque.

Author Kevin Alexander Photography Chris Mueller

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Portland’s 20,000-square-foot “tifo” banner

IMAGINE AN ENTIRE SOLD-OUT STADIUM on its feet, caught up in a sweating frenzy of chants and songs, arms holding team scarves aloft or waving flags, as horns sound and drums rattle and people on bullhorns shout commands. Now imagine scores of those fans working a complex system of pulleys in unison to unveil a gigantic handmade banner covering one end of the stadium, while thousands of opposing fans, who’ve also been on their feet chanting and singing and drumming and screaming for hours, defiantly turn their backs on the spectacle. Now imagine all of this taking place at a soccer game. In America. And the match hasn’t even started yet. Welcome to the world of professional soccer in the Pacific Northwest.

In the pocket of the U.S. best known for coffee, rain and grunge, there exists a fanatical obsession with “the Beautiful Game.” For both Portland and Seattle, soccer—long considered the redheaded stepchild of American sports—is deeply rooted in the local DNA. The rivalry between the respective fan bases of the two cities’ Major League Soccer clubs, the Portland Timbers and the Seattle Sounders, is as intense and crazed and magical to behold as any other in the country.

Much of this has to do with the clubs’ shared history. Starting 37 years ago in the original North American Soccer League, and moving from the Western Soccer League to the United Soccer League to their current place in Major League Soccer, they’ve played each other a total of 76 times, with 40 Seattle wins, 27 Portland wins and nine draws coming into the 2012 season.

That kind of history (an eternity in U.S. professional soccer) has helped forge a rivalry over two generations and counting. But one might argue the feud has burned especially hot in the past decade— which matches up, not coincidentally, with the career of a uniquely polarizing Seattle player named Roger Levesque.

LIKE MOST LEGENDS, Roger Levesque has a slightly hazy origin story. Some trace Portland fans’ animosity toward him back to a game in 2003, when he intentionally (they believe) kicked their goalkeeper in the face. Others say it stemmed from his knack for scoring important goals in big games against the Timbers in the USL. But regardless of how it started, no one would disagree that the Portland faithful’s antipathy toward Levesque skyrocketed three years ago, during the U.S. Open Cup. Modeled after England’s FA Cup, the tournament is open to any affiliated team, professional or amateur, in any division. Seattle was in its first year in the MLS, while Portland, still in the USL, was eager to prove it could hang with the newly anointed. But 48 seconds into the match, Sounders midfielder Sanna Nyassi crossed the ball to Levesque, who smashed home a header to give Seattle a 1-0 lead. As Levesque ran to the sideline to celebrate, teammate Nate Jaqua—pretending he had an ax in hand—began “chopping” him down at the ankles. Levesque wobbled ever so slightly, and tipped over like a felled tree. Thus, a legend/villain was born.

The Pac-10 Player of the Year while at Stanford, Levesque was drafted by the San Jose Earthquakes in 2003 but injured his ACL while playing for the U-23 National Team. He was sent, on loan, to the lower-division Sounders—and Seattle is where he stayed. That longevity, coupled with his being one of the only USL Sounders to transition to the MLS squad, made Levesque a fan favorite, and the “timmmberrr” goal celebration only helped cement that status. Liking Levesque became a statement in Seattle— signaling you’ve followed the Sounders for years—and the faithful paid homage with shirts reading “Real fans root for Levesque” or featuring his mustachioed likeness and a crown. Levesque’s profile rose sufficiently high that celebrity website TMZ even noted when Seattle native Amanda Knox (she of falsely-charged-with-murder-in-Italy fame) dressed up as him for her first Halloween back in the States.

In Portland, obviously, the story goes a little differently. “The one thing I had going for me when I was traded [from Seattle],” says Timbers forward Mike Fucito, “was that I wasn’t named Roger Levesque. To say the fans here dislike him would be a huge understatement.” In 2007, for instance, while Levesque was playing as a guest with Portland in an exhibition against Toronto, members of the Timbers Army supporters group held up a sign that read “True fans hate Levesque.” Joe Wilson, a “capo,” or leader, in the Army, confirms the sentiment. “Yeah, Levesque,” he says. “We hate him.”

But what makes such contentiousness all the more bizarre is that, right up to announcing his retirement this past July, Roger Levesque could reasonably be described as the nicest guy in Major League Soccer.

I first meet up with him in May, after Seattle’s U.S. Open Cup game against Atlanta, a 5-1 victory. The plan is to meet by the locker room, but to get there I have to pass through a line of more than 400 fans. Many of the Sounders are signing autographs and posing for pictures for a few minutes before moving on. Levesque, on the other hand, talks to Every. Single. Person. This is not hyperbole. He spends over an hour in the rain chatting with each fan in a casual, almost Clintonian manner. Dinner plans are made, email addresses exchanged, music preferences discussed. “Normally,” says Mike Ferris of the Sounders communications office, “you see Roger about an hour after talking to fans and he’ll have no shirt, no shoes, nothing, because he’s given it all away.”

Later, over beers at Peso’s in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood, Levesque explains his philosophy toward fans. “Obviously I want to contribute as much as possible on the field, but I also recognize that I’m now one of the older guys … so I try and help out however I can, whether it’s talking to fans after games or going to meet-and-greet events, or whatever. Honestly, this community has been so good to me, it’s kind of the least I can do.”

When I ask him how he feels knowing that Timbers fans have christened him Public Enemy No. 1, he takes a sip of his beer, and smiles. “Actually, I kind of love it.” When my face shows that I’m not buying it, he goes on. “No, seriously, it’s fun. It gets you fired up for the game. If they didn’t care at all, it’d be worse. It shows how passionate they are.” He stops to consider his statement, and laughs. “Even if they are kind of funneling that passion into hatred for me.”

ON A SUNNY June day in Portland, the Sounders and the Timbers meet for the 77th time, in their first game of the 2012 season. It’s been sold out for months, but three hours before kickoff the stadium is empty save for the Timbers Army members tasked with setting up their section. A team of 10 to 15 is draping hundreds of flags over the seats; others are busy constructing the drum and horn sections.

On the main stage in front of the Timbers Army area, the capos gather for a meeting. In England, soccer clubs have supporters groups full of fans who are devoted and passionate, but also sometimes aggressive and violent (as famously documented in Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs). In Portland, however, the Timbers Army recruits—with their muttonchops, bandanas, fatigues and scarves—look less like hooligans than Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members who’ve gotten really into sports.

On the opposite side of the stadium, Seattle’s Emerald City Supporters are streaming in through a back gate, holding up banners that say things like “We Promote Forest Fires.” The Sounders fans settle into their two sections, singing and chanting, while their own capos urge everyone on with megaphones.

Following a few hours of singing and shouting by the two supporters groups, the 20,000 “civilian” fans file in. Lineups are announced. When former Sounder Mike Fucito’s name is called for the Timbers, ECS members turn their backs and chant, “Sounders reject!” Directly after the national anthem, Timbers supporters show off their tifo display, a gigantic banner that the home team puts up during rivalry games. Portland’s roughly 20,000-square-foot display spans the entire north end of the stadium, and bears the motto “Legends are born when the previous are surpassed.”

Despite being the heavy underdog coming in, Portland is first on the board as Timbers defender Steven Smith crosses a ball in and striker Kris Boyd puts it away. The Timbers Army freaks out, unleashing green smoke bombs and twirling scarves. As is his custom after every Portland goal, mascot Timber Joey starts up his chain saw and slices a piece of wood off a huge log. It is handed off to an official for safekeeping until the end of the game, when it will be presented to the player who scored.

Ten minutes later, Portland defender David Horst scores, this time on a diving header off a corner kick. The Timbers Army goes haywire. And just like that, Portland is up 2-0 at halftime.

Shortly into the second half, however, Sounders striker Eddie Johnson buries a left-footer in the goal directly in front of the Timbers Army; the Portland fans, as if warding off a hex, brandish their scarves and sing “Rose City Till I Die.” Levesque, standing in a corner of the field with the other subs, begins to warm up— much to the delight of three Seattle fans behind the goal.

With the score now 2-1, the game becomes a chippy affair, with both Seattle’s Fredy Montero and Portland’s Lovel Palmer being issued red cards after a shoving match. As time runs down, an entire phalanx of security guards blocks off the ECS section from the rest of the stadium. Then, suddenly, the whistle blows and it’s over. Portland fans explode, heaping abuse upon the Seattle faithful, who hold up scarves reading “We Are the ECS” as they file out.

Down on the field, Levesque, who didn’t end up getting in the game after all, trades jerseys with his old teammate Mike Fucito. He walks off toward the locker room with the Timbers jersey over his shoulder, but for once the Portland fans—rejoicing in a mess of spent confetti—don’t seem to mind.

A FEW WEEKS LATER, Levesque announces he’s retiring to pursue an M.B.A. at the University of Washington. On the day of his final game—a “friendly” against UEFA Champions League winner Chelsea—more than 53,000 Seattle fans come out to send off their hero. On top of distributing thousands of posters saying “Farewell Roger,” the ECS unveils a tifo display proclaiming “All Hail the King” above a huge portrait of Levesque. The man himself comes into the game at the 60-minute mark, and the crowd goes crazy every time he touches the ball.

Afterward, as the Sounders head over to the stands to thank the fans, they hoist Levesque onto their shoulders. He clambers onto the ECS platform, grabs a microphone and leads everyone in one last cheer.

I speak with Levesque a week after his final game. He seems relaxed and contented. He tells me he’s going to a wedding in Germany soon, and plans to wander around Europe for a little while. I ask him how he thinks Timbers fans feel about his retiring. “I imagine they’re probably thrilled they don’t have to deal with me anymore,” he says, then stops himself.

“You know, when we play them at home in October, I just might be involved. There may be one last encounter yet.”

KEVIN ALEXANDER, senior editor at Thrillist, played college soccer but was not drafted by the San Jose Earthquakes. Or anyone else.

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