The changing identity of … Portland Timbers FC

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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.