On Football And Cascadian Cultural Identity

The Pacific Northwest is a soccer mecca for many. It only makes sense for them to have their own national team.

Via CAFF/Facebook

“We just want to get the conversation going. We want people to have fun.”

I’m talking to Aaron Johnsen, President of the Cascadia Association Football Federation, about organizing games as he takes a break from his construction job in Denver, Colorado. I’m in my house on the south coast of England and marveling at the logistics of it all.

It was in 2013 that I was first alerted to the nascent beginnings of a Cascadia national team. To be honest, it was the first time I had ever really heard of some distant faraway place called Cascadia at all. But the fervor of Portland Timbers fans in particular had got me interested and I wanted to know more.

After five years of planning, Cascadia finally played its first game of football at the CONIFA World Football Cup, a competition providing an international stage for football squads representing nations, de-facto regions, minority peoples and sports isolated territories. The tournament was held in London, so I was able to get along and managed to see Cascadia score its first ever goal – although they ended up losing that game 4-1 to Ellan Vannin, a team representing the Isle of Man.

There were a good number of Cascadia fans at the game – and that only grew with every game played. The good nature and friendliness of the whole tournament was reflected in the outgoing personalities of the fans.

Since last summer’s World Football Cup there has been a lot of work done behind the scenes – by Aaron and his team – to put on more games. Cascadia recently ran out 6-3 winners over the Chagos Islands at the picturesque Surrey ground of Whyteleafe FC. Although Aaron was unable to make the trip for the Chagos Islands game he revealed to me that it’s actually easier to organize games in the UK than back home.

“In the UK there is the infrastructure that we just don’t have at our level in the US. The non-league clubs are more than happy to host the games as they see it as a source of revenue. In the States there isn’t anything like that so the game day logistics are tougher.”

But now Cascadia is gearing up for its first game on home soil against Darfur United, a team of refugees based largely in the US. The game is set to be played at French Field in Kent, WA, and Aaron is hoping that there will be a good turnout.

“It’s a high school stadium with a capacity of around 6,000. We’re hoping for 2-3,000 – and that will allow us to pay off some expenses and plan the next game.”

Those expenses include a chunk from Aaron’s own pockets. It’s that kind of dedication and commitment that has kept the Cascadian flag flying over the past few years. With help from fellow Cascadians, Aaron hopes that the word will get out about the game – and the project that he has put so much work into.

The Cascadia team has only played games in the UK so far, at last year’s World Football Cup and then the friendly against the Chagos Islands. This would seem to add another logistical issue to the organizing of games. But with the help of head coach James Nichols, Cascadia is looking to run two overlapping squads—  one largely UK-based and one made up of players back home. With Nichols currently coaching in England and finding many of his players in the lower leagues there, it makes financial sense to work with two distinct squads.

Nichols has used connections with the Richmond International American Soccer Academy to source a number players and he is hoping to have some of those in the US for the Darfur game – to add to newer players picked up from the local leagues in the Cascadia region.

The times I have been able to watch Cascadia I have been impressed with not just the standard of play, but the team spirit and togetherness – particularly considering the squad only meets up just before the scheduled fixtures due to other commitments. But where Aaron and James had to rely on their own scouting to find squad members originally, players are now reaching out to them and expressing interest in representing Cascadia.

“We are always looking to get in new players but it is tough because we don’t have the funds to pay the clubs,” explains Aaron. “But it is really exciting to see players get some exposure through playing for us. I’m not saying it is because he played for Cascadia, but we like to think we have helped someone like Calum Ferguson who played in the World Football Cup and is now in the new Canadian Premier League.”

As for the future, there are more games in the pipeline and the possibility of another World Cup appearance in 2020 in Somaliland. But if Aaron thought the logistics of getting a squad together for London was tough, this could prove an even more arduous task. He readily admits that convincing players to go will be a challenge given the State Department’s travel warnings concerning the area, but the federation has expressed an interest to CONIFA in going. Time will tell.

As for me, I won’t be able to get to the Darfur United game at the end of July. As with everyone at this level of the game, there are little funds to bankroll a flight to the Pacific Northwest. But if the commitment of people such as Aaron Johnsen and James Nichols is anything to go by there will hopefully be a healthy crowd at the game – and the profile of the team will grow.

Aaron sums up what it’s all about best when he says, “Cascadia means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but we just want to get out there and play football. For us, it’s all about soccer and being proud of where you are from.”


Dan Roberts is a freelance writer who has a somewhat unhealthy obsession with football from around the globe. He has written for In Bed With Maradona, Sabotage Times and Soccer360 Magazine. He is also the world’s worst glory hunter, choosing to be a Nottingham Forest fan at a very early age. Follow him on Twitter at @LasVegasWI.