June 12, 2013 at 12:27 PM
Why U.S. match opens new era for soccer in Seattle
By Nikolaj Lasbo
Nikolaj Lasbo is an editor at Microsoft and formerly a producer with The Seattle Times. His enthusiasm for soccer has grown with Seattle’s and he supports Sounders FC, Liverpool FC and the U.S. and Danish national teams. Nikolaj has connections in Seattle and the Northwest going back five generations. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @nikolajlasbo
It has been 37 years since Seattle last hosted a World Cup qualifier, and the stakes couldn’t have been higher Tuesday night. Not only for the U.S. team on the field, but also for the city hosting the match.
This was our time to prove we’re “Soccer City USA” and that we plan to keep it that way. A lot has changed for the state of soccer here, and it felt like all eyes were trained on us this week — Something special is going on here, and our passion for the sport and the draw of soccer in Seattle is something that could set the stage for the next 37 years.
There was palpable worry before kickoff by the superfans in Seattle about ticket sales; players on the national team expressed concern about the temporary grass pitch; the national media arrived early and was in town for Saturday’s Sounders match against rival Vancouver in front of nearly 55,000. We’ve set a ridiculously high bar for a soccer match in Seattle, and anything short of those standards Tuesday would be an embarrassment and could hurt our chances of hosting another competitive match.
I was anxious before the match. I had written notes to help explain why it might not live up to the standard of a Sounders FC home match. I was ready to blame anyone from Eurosnobs to marketers to soccer moms.
The national media figures in town this week were also starting to compare the difference in support and draw their own conclusions. ESPN’s Alexi Lalas said in one podcast “I am willing to bet it will be less in terms of the emotion and the atmosphere and the culture within that stadium than it is normally for a Sounders game … the people of Seattle first and foremost love their Sounders.”
I talked to fans tailgating to gauge the atmosphere and their feelings before the match and to see if they were feeling as anxious as I was. Were they irked that the national team wasn’t as big a draw? Why might this be? Would this hurt our chances of hosting another qualifier?
Ben Scannel, draped in a flag, said his coworkers didn’t understand why he was being patriotic, but would’ve recognized a Sounders jersey instantly. Sam Christensen said Sounders fans might not understand the significance of a World Cup qualifier and that the Sounders have built a better brand.
In the end, all anxiety and fear were allayed. The seventh largest crowd for a World Cup qualifier on U.S. soil showed up — nearly 41,000 — and brought it for 90 minutes. Chants of “Oh When The Yanks Go Marching In” rang out around CenturyLink and destroyed any idea that this experience would be somehow less than a Sounders game.
The players on the pitch seemed to feed off this atmosphere and played what looked like the best soccer of the World Cup qualifying hexagonal so far. When Sounders forward Eddie Johnson scored the final goal to make it 2-0 over Panama and the crowd finished loudly chanting his name, it was part of a perfect script.
Act 1 was the past 37 years. The 1970s saw the formation of the North American Soccer League (NASL) Sounders and the last qualifier, which started a rich tradition that was preserved and built on when Sounders FC joined MLS and played their inaugural season in 2009. Since then, we’ve seen explosive supporter growth for the club, a greater understanding of the game and a growing culture increasingly intertwined with the city.
And this growth seemed to help fuel the excitement for the national team. I learned there was no point in comparing the experiences of this week’s club match and the national match-up. Rather, both combined to reinforce that this is the seat of soccer in the U.S. and we’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
The stage is set for Act 2 and the next 37 years. If Tuesday night showed anything, it’s that it wasn’t a prelude to the end of the script of Seattle soccer. There will be many acts to follow.
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