By Mike Gastineau
In December 2012 Mike Gastineau left KJR Radio 950 after 21 years as a host and began working on a book chronicling the launch of the Seattle Sounders FC into MLS. The result is “Sounders FC: Authentic Masterpiece” which is now available at Mike’s website and Amazon.com. The book takes readers inside the 12-year journey between the time Seattle voters (with a HUGE assist from soccer fans) agreed to build a new stadium for the Seahawks and the time those soccer fans were finally rewarded with a team in America’s top league. This is an excerpt that begins late in the first half of the Sounders first MLS game against New York.
As the half went on, VP of marketing John Rizzardini made his way to a perch on the stadium’s unoccupied third deck. Eighteen months of meeting, planning, and hoping were summed up in front of him. He stood alone in the upper part of the stadium and allowed himself to be satisfied and amazed.
“It was one of the finer moments of my career. To start this from scratch and determine what we wanted to be. We discussed everything. What does it sound like? What does it look like? What food are we selling? Who’s there? So opening day, it all feels pretty good, but I still didn’t know what was going to happen. I remember walking out onto the deck on the third level and just looking out at the supporters groups chanting and everyone else standing and there’s all this pageantry. It’s rare in any business to plan something out, walk in, and have it actually happen.”
At halftime Rizzardini made his way to (Seahawks CEO) Tod Leiweke’s suite. “We made eye contact and had the same reaction,” he says. “We both had a look of ‘what the heck have we done?’ It was a good feeling. It was a great moment.”
By the time the second half started, Kasey Keller’s pregame nerves (which had been nagging at him for months) were gone. “I wasn’t having to make a lot of saves and that’s when I knew we were going to be all right. I knew we were going to able to compete. There was nothing there that scared me. I could tell right then we were going to be able to compete in this league.
Steve Zakuani checked into his first-ever MLS game in the 60th minute. “What I remember,” he says, “is that you couldn’t hear the guy 5 yards from you. It was that loud. It was something unseen to that point in this country.”
Keller was a little more active in the second half, particularly during a flurry of activity around the 69th minute. In the 71st minute, he punched a shot over the goal post and then barked instructions to his teammates. Four minutes later Fredy Montero stole the ball and was able to go one-on-one with New York GK Danny Cepero before putting the finishing touch on a 3-nil win with his second goal.
A few minutes later Sigi Schmid cemented his connection with Seattle’s USL fans with a classy nod to history in the game’s 90th minute when he subbed in fan favorite Roger Levesque.
“Just before I came on,” Levesque says, “Sigi pulled me aside and said, ‘I wanted to get you on for all your hard work through the years and your dedication to the organization. Good luck.’ It was pretty cool. He said he felt like it was something he wanted to do.”
At about the same time owner and GM Adrian Hanauer finally allowed himself to relax. “The clock hit 90 and we’re ahead 3-nothing and I know we’re going to win. I thought about my father (Jerry Hanauer, who passed away a few months before the opener) and my childhood and the original Sounders. It was such a moment.”
SHORTLY AFTER THE GAME ENDED Hanauer and Schmid met on the field. “Sigi found me and gave me a giant hug and whispered in my ear ‘this is all because of you. I’m here because of you. None of this could have happened without everything you’ve put into this game and this city. Be really proud.’”
Hanauer then lost a battle with his own emotions as tears welled up in his eyes.
Leiweke, too, was emotional. Within weeks of his arrival to fix a broken NFL team in 2003 both Hanauer and Fred Mendoza had cornered him about fulfilling the promise made to fans to bring soccer to Seattle. It had taken almost six years, but Leiweke had stayed true to his word and the fans, when the sport finally arrived, had delivered the goods on a memorable opening night.
“I remember having tears in my eyes,” says Leiweke, who in the weeks leading up to the opener continually asked everyone if they really thought the crowd was going to be that big. “I remember vowing that I’ll never count the fans out again. The bond that pulled everyone together was a desire to be a little bit different and make a statement to the rest of the world; it was an amazing feeling.”
“I can still picture the look on Sigi’s face when he came into the locker room,” says Zach Scott, who played the entire match a little over a week after learning he had made the team. “He was so content with our performance.”
Ezra Hendrickson spent 14 years as a professional player, 12 of them in MLS before joining Schmid’s staff as an assistant. He had played in the all of the biggest markets MLS has to offer: New York, Los Angeles, DC, and Dallas. He says his first night as a coach was among the most memorable of his life.
“I had never witnessed anything like it. I remember walking off the pitch and thinking to myself, ‘Wow. Maybe soccer has finally arrived in America.’”
GK coach Tom Dutra didn’t have quite the visionary attitude about the win as his fellow assistant. He preferred to think of the night more locally than globally. “I remember telling (his wife) Molli,” he says, laughing, “That if we could just win 5 or 6 games it might be a good year.”
Want to be a reader contributor to The Seattle Times’ Take 2 blog? Email your original, previously unpublished work or proposal to Sports Editor Don Shelton at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Not all submissions can be published. The Times reserves the right to edit and publish any submissions online and/or in print.