On Saturday night in Portland the stage was set for a battle between two familiar foes in the Pacific Northwest, as the Whitecaps made the short trip south to take on the Timbers. However, the Whitecaps were unable to live up to the pre-match hype, and remain winless on the road in their inaugural MLS season.
The rivalry between the two teams dates back to 1975 in the days of the NASL, and more recently has been played out at the second division level of North American soccer. Last weekend, as the teams met for the first time in MLS the opportunity was there for some fascinating theatre, set against the backdrop of one of the most unique atmospheres you are likely to find in sports.
I've been lucky enough during my career to experience great soccer atmospheres throughout Europe. There's nothing quite like Wembley on FA Cup Final day or hearing the famous Kop at Anfield singing 'You'll Never Walk Alone' in unison as the teams walk out onto the pitch before a Liverpool match.
Saturday night in Portland was another special occasion to add to the list. It was my first visit to Jeld-Wen Field, and the atmosphere created by the Timbers Army managed to exceed my expectations.
"We really have a special group of fans," said Mike Golub, Portland Timbers COO. "There is such rich tradition here and the fandom has really grown up over several decades. The Timbers Army is a really unique group of fans. We like to think it is the best supporters group in North America and perhaps one of the best in the world, and they really help create this amazing atmosphere at Jeld-Wen Field."
The 500 Whitecaps fans that made the journey to Oregon certainly rose to the occasion, but unfortunately their team didn't. Conceding a goal inside the first two minutes didn't help, but the 'Caps seemed to be lacking the drive usually evident in games between such storied rivals. Camilo's goal late in the game salvaged a bit of pride, but it was too little too late.
The goals from Eric Hassli (10) and Camilo (8) have been a bright spot in a disappointing year for the 'Caps, but recently the defence has been a big concern. The Whitecaps once again looked frail at the back on Saturday. They have now conceded at least two goals in six straight matches and it is nine games since they kept a clean sheet. Injuries have been a factor, but individual mistakes have cost them dearly.
The Whitecaps will look to tighten up at the back when they welcome the resurgent Houston Dynamo to Empire Field on Saturday (7pm et/4pm pt live on TSN2).
Talking to Whitecaps Head Coach Tommy Soehn before the match, he indicated that Alain Rochat could be fit enough to return to the lineup this weekend. The Quebec born defender has missed the last two matches with an abductor strain but returned to training towards the end of last week.
If Rochat is ready to return, he is likely to be partnered alongside club captain Jay DeMerit in the centre of defence in place of Michael Boxall. The New Zealand international Boxall has started the last nine games in his debut MLS season and has shown great potential for a long and successful career, but Rochat's experience would be a valuable addition at this stage.
Rochat's versatility has been useful for the Whitecaps in a season that has seen him play at full back, central defence and also in the midfield, but Soehn is keen to see if a partnership between the 28-year-old and DeMerit can help solidify the back line.
After two disheartening defeats on the road, the Whitecaps now return to the familiar and comfy confines of Empire Field, where two weeks ago they picked up their third win of the season against Chicago. With this being the penultimate match at Empire before the 'Caps move to their new downtown home at BC Place, they will be hoping to create more positive memories at a venue that is richly engrained into the soccer history of the Lower Mainland.