It’s one of the great disconnects in sports. Fans care about traditional professional sports rivalries more than players do. It’s fans who create rivalries, who maintain rivalries, and who never leave rivalries. It’s fans who always have pride in their city and their team, fans roots in rivalries, and ties to the contested area.
Players, on the other hand, are mercenaries. From every corner of the world players are brought in for what, in the grand scheme of things, is a short amount of time, and are paid to play for a certain team. A baseball player from the Dominican Republic has no reason to walk into Boston on the first day of training camp and hating the New York Yankees. A football player from Southern California has no reason to walk into Dallas for the team’s first preseason game hating the Redskins.
Some players get rivalries, and embrace rivalries, but it’s rare. Even rarer are the exhilarating times when two teams hate each other as much as two fan bases do. Players care about traditional rivalries because they matter to the club and its fans, but they usually don’t personally care all that much about beating the cross-town foe.
That’s not to say players don’t partake in rivalries. Because, boy, do they ever. But the process of teams really becoming rivals on the field isn’t as scripted as us fans would like it to be. Teams who geographically and politically shouldn’t ever quarrel end up at each other’s throats because of circumstance, style of play, or longstanding ill-will between individual players. In actuality, the Red Sox hate the Rays. The Dodgers can't stand the Padres.
One game, one moment, one roll of the dice can spark a real, on-field battle, not a contrived rivalry that is mostly fought off the field.
Portland and San Jose fit this bill perfectly.
Anyone who watched these two Western Conference foes grapple for 90 minutes last Sunday night at Jeld-Wen Field would be foolish to deny that these two teams, at least on the field, are rivals.
It’s easy to see why. San Jose is a dirty team. It’s a side of the Earthquakes that really comes out when the team is in a difficult game. Chris Wondolowski, Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon are a loud, annoying trio who tug shirts, pick fights, dive, yelp and generally nuisances of themselves.
The rest of the Earthquakes take after their leaders up top, playing a physical, borderline thuggish game. The biggest problem? The Earthquakes are good. Their style of play works for them – they are difficult to break down at the back, and usually very dangerous up top.
But that’s exactly what San Jose’s problem with the Timbers is these days – Portland is good, and they’re a bogey team for the Earthquakes, who have never won against the Timbers. Caleb Porter’s squad isn’t going to be pushed-over, isn’t going to be out-hustled or out-fought.
For instance, Diego Chara is irritating to play against – he’ll go from theatrically diving to taking a cheap shot tackle to making a game-winning run. Will Johnson is cocky – he’ll talk trash – then he’ll back it up. Players can’t stand guys like that.
At this point in the season, the Timbers and Earthquakes are evenly matched – in the standings, and on the field. Two sides who consistently play competitive matches, in high-charged environments, often with lax or poor refereeing, are always likely to become rivals.
These teams have history going back to last year, when, in one of Portland’s ghastliest road moments – and there were quite a few of them – Hayner Mosquera headed a free-kick backwards straight to Wondolowski to allow the Earthquakes striker to score a earn a 2-2 draw with the Timbers in second half stoppage time. After the game, Wondo, who has a tendency to loudly brag, got into it with a frustrated David Horst, and their altercation spiraled into a fracas amongst the teams after the full-time whistle.
On the last day of the regular season, Wondolowski tied the MLS single-season scoring record at Jeld-Wen Field, and the latest installment, Gordon’s elbow to the face of Mikael Silvestre – another man who won’t take anything from anyone – who just the headline point in an intense game that was played with abundant animosity and no effort to be cordial.
San Jose plays to stifle Caleb Porter’s beautiful game, Portland dares stand up to a bully. San Jose is hanging on for dear life at the top of the Western Conference, knowing they lack for talent and style, while the Timbers are surging up, playing the beautiful game. It’s a battle of the old vs. the new. These teams, and their players, do not like each other.
The fans could be moving in the direction of a rivalry as well. San Jose’s “Ultras” are the closest things to hooligans we have in MLS, and on their trip to the Rose City this weekend, they managed to rip off scarves, smash windshields, and be generally vulgar and abrasive, while many of the fans cowardly wore bandanas over their faces to render themselves unrecognizable.
It was, by far, the most real trouble Timbers fans have ever had with an opposing fan base. Many Timbers supporters don’t even think San Jose deserves to be recognized as a rival. The Earthquakes are clearly under the skin of the Timbers and their fans. Why deny it? This is a rivalry. It’s a clash of styles, a clash of wills, a clash of grit, and often, a clash of limbs.
The next installment is Sunday night at Buck Shaw Stadium, and while it’s a vast minority of San Jose fans who threaten, some Timbers fans will make the trip apprehensive about their safety.
On the field, we’ll see two teams back at, with very minimal time to heal wounds and scars from last weekend’s encounter. It’s a big game. That’s how it will be played. And you can bet that the Portland Timbers players will want to win it. Even more than they want to beat Seattle.