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The changing identity of … Portland Timbers FC

Aug 4, 2013, 9:26 PM EDT

Portland TImbers, Portland TImbers

In a cold, scientific sense, Seattle’s acquisition of Clint Dempsey shouldn’t affect the Portland Timbers any more than it affects Major League Soccer’s eight other Western Conference teams, who only feel a slightly more acute impact than the 10 teams in the East. The emboldened Sounders only affect other teams in so much as they keep them from achieving their goals. With Dempsey in Seattle, each team is a little less likely to win against the Sounders and ever so slightly less likely to make the playoffs.

Portland’s relationship with Seattle is neither cold nor scientific. Even more so than the teams’ link to fellow Cascadia rival Vancouver, the Sounders and Timbers are judged relative to each other. As Seattle succeed in their first three seasons, they set an implicit benchmark for the Timbers. When Portland claimed last year’s Cascadia Cup, they dealt a significant blow to the playoff-bound Sounders. When the Timbers succeeded at the beginning of 2013 while Seattle struggled, the dynamic between the two northwest neighbors subtly began to shift.

[MORE: In pictures: Clint Dempsey, Seattle celebrate Deuce’s arrival.]

That’s why, after considering Seattle’s side of the Dempsey equation, people naturally looked to Portland, asking a series of questions: What will the fans think of this? How could the Timbers let this happen? Were they in the picture to get Clint? What happened to the allocation order?

How will Timbers owner Merritt Paulson react?

You can’t be familiar with soccer in the northwest without imagining Paulson’s reaction to this news. He’s never shied away from the rivalry, and in bringing Caleb Porter, he took a big step toward gaining a foothold in it. For much of the season, Portland was the right track team, Seattle was the wrong. But with one signing, Seattle has completely reversed that momentum, whether the standings reflect that or not.

Did Adrian Hanauer’s coup take Portland by surprise? If so, who’ll bear the brunt of the blame? Or was Portland, like so many around MLS, in tune with the whispers and just unable to compete with the Sounders’ financial might?

And if that’s what’s happened in some form, you couldn’t blame Portland if they tried to turn their cheek, go about their business, and golf clap their rivals in front of clenched teeth. Yet judging by their fans’ reaction, that’s easier said than done. Hardcore Timbers supporters across social media were incredulous as to how the allocation order was bypassed to allow Seattle to sign Dempsey. Even after MLS attempted to clarify the standing of Designated Players relative to allocation, there was the feeling that something other than Seattle ingenuity saw Dempsey land on Puget Sound.

[MORE: The changing identity of … Seattle Sounders FC.]

To those fans, the balance that was starting to be established between the Sounders and Timbers has been thrown off by forces beyond Cascadia. After two inconsistent years, Portland’s own ingenuity had led them toward the top of the Western Conference. At the same time, Seattle was having a down season. Now somebody else has greased the wheels to give the Sounders another leg up. Combine a supporter’s intensity with the conflict in Major League Soccer’s published rules, and the fans’ anguish makes sense.

During the normally raucous atmosphere of Saturday’s Cascadia Derby, you could almost sense something was off. With Vancouver employing a physical approach early, the game’s style may have fostered that perception. Or maybe the feeling was pure confirmation bias. Regardless, when Portland unveiled their “ML$ TRANSPARENCY = LEGITIMACY” banner in the second half, you knew not even a visit from the rival Whitecaps could take Dempsey off the Timbers’ Army’s mind.

There’s the potential here to cause a bit of an identity crisis; at least, in comparison to the identity Portland had cultivated from March through July. Then, the Timbers’ were one of Major League Soccer’s 2013 darlings. Now, not only is there the potential for the Timbers to be pushed back into Seattle’s shadow, climbing out is even more difficult. If Seattle is your rival, and like it or not you are defined in terms of their relative success, then how do you realistically top the acquisition of the captain of the U.S. Men’s National Team? Try to sign Landon Donovan when his deal expires this winter?

[MORE: The changing identify of … Major League Soccer.]

Ultimately, the answer is to beat Seattle on the field, which was the goal all along. With Dempsey up north, that becomes more difficult, but he’s only one player. Particularly if the Timbers keep adding Diego Valeri-esque talents, that gap can disappear.

What can’t disappear is Portland’s connection to Seattle, one which may have become more difficult to reconcile on Saturday night. After the Sounders made one of the most notable acquisitions in league history, the Timbers are left with a bunch of questions. To the extent the answers change perceptions of the team remains to be seen.

  1. jpan007 - Aug 4, 2013 at 9:51 PM

    And the Cascadian rivality got even better.
    I want to thank you Richard for your standing articles today. Keep the good work up

    • jpan007 - Aug 4, 2013 at 10:19 PM

      I meant “outstanding” lol

  2. talgrath - Aug 4, 2013 at 10:11 PM

    The transparency from MLS is pretty clear, a designated player does not go to allocation. All Seattle needs to say (and has) is that Dempsey is a Designated Player. If the Sounders have the cap space (a portion of a Designated Player’s salary does count towards the cap) and a DP spot, they are set.

    • shrekpdx - Aug 4, 2013 at 11:14 PM

      The rule

      • shrekpdx - Aug 4, 2013 at 11:17 PM

        The rules are obviously not clear – or multiple independent reporters wouldn’t be talking about it. Glad Dempsey is in the league I think it’s a great pick up for MLS. They just need to accurately explain their rules. Allocation is specifically for USMNT players so there is very murky water there

      • Emerald City Hooligan - Aug 5, 2013 at 1:22 PM

        Allocation is NOT specifically for USMNT, it also applies to returning MLS players who left when their contract ended. Also, the fact that Claudio Reyna (also a USMNT) did not go through the allocation process when he signed with NY as a DP back in 2007 should be the end of the “Portland go screwed” debate.

        The league absolutely needs more transparency, it would have greatly reduced the confusion and blame that this acquisition has created.

    • Michael - Aug 5, 2013 at 10:41 AM

      Many of those “independent reporters” aren’t too far removed from being just fans themselves.

      The fact is there IS precedent (Reyna), and just because 20 US Nationals haven’t come back to MLS as DPs just to satisfy your need for incontrovertible proof and all MLS transaction details aren’t posted on their website doesn’t make this a conspiracy.

      And the theory is what, that Portland should have the right to offer Dempsey $300k take-it-or-leave-it, or get Martins, Yedlin and Kasey Keller for his rights?

      My guess is that Paulson could have bid for Dempsey just like Seattle and LA did but he didn’t want to pay the man. And my guess is every bit as fact-based as yours.

      • cvo105 - Aug 5, 2013 at 12:44 PM

        Problem is, Reyna’s deral is not prescendent setting because he was retired from USMNT, so he wouldn’t have applied to allocation regardless of DP contract.

        Again, MLS’ arguments hold no water. The four examples they use (Keena, Henry, Becks, and Reyna) dodn’t apply to this scenario.

    • cvo105 - Aug 5, 2013 at 12:38 PM

      Incorrect, as this was never written anywhere in MLS rules. At best, it was implied. Both DP trumping allocation process, and renegotiating a DP player’s contract down to non-DP both before the season ends and before it expires are unprecedented.

  3. SITE MASTER - Aug 5, 2013 at 1:45 AM

    We expect transparency.

  4. stephenwscottmi - Aug 5, 2013 at 3:17 AM

    What a terrible season the Sounders are having!! The Timbers are much better. The Timbers have played two more games than the Sounders and they’re a whole four points ahead of the Sounders. And first place, we’ll never attain that. The first place Real Salt Lake are eight points ahead and played three more games than the Sounders. How will we ever catch them?

    • charliej11 - Aug 5, 2013 at 9:57 AM

      I am with you on paper, but up until the last couple of Dallas games, the Sounders were not playing as well as the Timbers, who are a very good team.

      To the idiots who don’t like MLS’ rules, so they try to make like MLS is bending them, show proof please, because everyone else seems to think that DPs are NOT subject to the allocation. Are they wrong ?

      It is easy spread innuendos, and cast doubt. Like this, Portland, with its big turnaround, is using PEDs this season…Porter was known for it at Akron too.

      Doing so, is just a veiled attempt to try to shed MLS and especially its different way ( better way ) of doing things in a bad light.

      • Emerald City Hooligan - Aug 5, 2013 at 1:24 PM

        Claudio Reyna did not go through the allocation process in 2007 despite being a USMNT because he was a DP. That should be the end of the “Portland got screwed”. Everyone should instead turn their focus towards transparency.

      • corgster - Aug 5, 2013 at 1:44 PM

        The rule for allocation does say “The allocation ranking is the mechanism used to determine which MLS club has first priority to acquire a U.S. National Team player who signs with MLS after playing abroad, or a former MLS player who returns to the League after having gone to a club abroad for a transfer fee.”

        Sure it doesn’t say “all” USMNT players, but the policy behind the rule is to prevent bidding wars or a massive increase in teams fighting over USMNT players. MLS is a single entity to keep player wages down and manageable. Hence, Eddie Johnson is now looking at 1/20 the base salary of his teammate, but his teammate is not 20 times greater in talent. It is good evidence for the difference in valuing talent outside MLS’ confines. Also, in a league that attempts to create parity and spread the USMNT players around (the Timbers have none BTW), it would’ve been judged fair for Portland to land one since they traded up for the slot earlier in the season and got nothing to show for it because MLS wouldn’t budge on contracting terms (see Mixx Diskerud).

      • cvo105 - Aug 5, 2013 at 2:05 PM

        That’s because most folks that believe it are talking out of their arses. Since Reyna was retired from USMNT, and the other three examples used by MLS (Keanne/Becks/Henry)don’t matter to allocation anyway, this is the first time thism has ever happened, and nothing in writing anywhere shows that DP>allocation. If it existed, it’s not on paper.

        Also, the PED stuff ism straight-up slander, and way off subject. Totally made up.

  5. stephenwscottmi - Aug 5, 2013 at 1:45 PM

    Sure hope the PED rumor is, “Just that”. Even a rumor of PED use can be bad for the league. Haven’t heard too much noise from our neighbors to the North. They don’t have the “Inferiority Complex” that PDX has with SEA.

  6. stephenwscottmi - Aug 5, 2013 at 2:46 PM

    Seems fairly transparent when you read the rules. Allocation is for a player that no one in the league deems worthy of being a DP. DP’s can negotiate with whomever they would like to play for, and whatever salary. If you want the league to get better players, you need the DP process. Smaller, less desirable markets (PDX) are at a disadvantage for big money players, but that’s why there are only three allowed per team.
    The other question in this whole Dempsey matter is: What other GM had the foresight to even think of going after Dempsey? Pretty sure the list was small, like one, Adrian Hanauer. Now, with hindesight being 20/20, everyone jumps in and says, “We should’ve been in the mix for Dempsey”.

  7. SD1 Timbers Special Forces - Aug 5, 2013 at 5:05 PM

    The Timbers are most likely paying for Barcelona to play the All Star Game next year plus all the money the Timbers will be paying out to impress not just the league but the world. Rumor is that they will be having floating soccer fields in the river and amazing events throughout the city. As far as Dempsey goes, the Timbers got Caleb Porter, which is a bigger deal than Dempsey to the quality of the league.

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