SEATTLE, Wash. — This is what it will be like when Major League Soccer hits the big time. Too far into the future for any of us to predict, Sunday’s scene in Seattle will be the norm – not a cause for celebration.
Then again, for as long as most of us can remember, soccer in North America has always been defined by the future. One day, soccer will be the biggest sport in the land, a refrain that repeats as most futures come and go.
Sunday’s match at CenturyLink finally gave us a glimpse of the promised land, one in which all the predictions finally come to fruition – one in which 66,452 people come to see a regular season game in MLS.
“When you looked up and you walked out there and you said, Man, this isn’t the Seahawks playing today,” Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said, after the match. “This is the Sounders. This is something you never thought was necessarily going to happen in U.S. soccer.”
Seattle drew more fans than three Sunday NFL games. They outdrew every weekend match in the English Premier League. None of Major League Baseball’s playoff games came close.
“This is what heaven must be like,” Schmid said, his eyes pink and puffy. Either he had just finished crying or he was about to start.
“In my imagination of heaven, this is it.”
Schmid has earned his moment of reflection. He has a right to be emotional. The former Galaxy and Crew boss left a successful team in Columbus to start new in Seattle four seasons ago. While the Pacific Northwest was already a soccer hotbed, there was no guarantee of on-field success. It was a career-defining risk, and there was also no guarantee the off-field momentum would continue.
“It was a little bit emotional for me, but I was really proud of that. This club has been the best thing that happened to me in soccer. I’m thankful that for every day that I’m here.”
Schmid is as much a face of the franchise as Joe Roth, Drew Carey, Paul Allen, or Adrian Hanauer – Seattle’s ownership group. When the Sounders’ largest supporter group (Emerald City Supporters) unveiled their pregame tifo, Schmid was their subject, the Sounders’ boss pictured at a poker table, showing Portland general manager Gavin Wilkinson his royal flush.
“What’s happening here is phenomenal. Everybody thought it was going to disappear – that it was going to go away. It hasn’t gone away. If anything, it’s grown.”
“It just goes to show you how far soccer has come in our country,” Seattle striker Eddie Johnson said post-match.
Johnson left MLS in 2007 before the latest round of expansion brought Seattle into the league. Leveraging his experience in the English Premier League and with the U.S. Men’s National Team, Johnson compared CenturyLink’s environment with some of the world’s marquee venues.
“[CenturyLink is] like any other stadium – like Old Trafford away, playing in Azteca in front of 110,000 people. It doesn’t get any better than the atmosphere here tonight.”
If there was a difference between CenturyLink’s crowd and those you’d see in other famous venues, it was the distinctly North American feel. Though the stadium was a sea of Seattle green, the atmosphere wasn’t defined by supporter chants. ECS and the 1,500 Timbers Army members who’d made the trip north saw their songs and taunts drowned out by applause, gasps, and cheers – the soundtrack you’d hear at football, baseball, and basketball games.
When excitement waned and the nervous murmur died down, the supporters would fill the void, just as the songs and cheers at other sporting events attack the idle moments. The more conventional atmosphere was neither good nor bad, better or worse, but it was familiar for anybody who’s used to taking their family to see one of the nation’s big three sports. They would have felt at home. No, this wasn’t a Seahawks game, but the atmosphere was little different.
If Sunday in Seattle was a glimpse of the future, then it is a more mainstream one. It’s a future that looks more like the Seahawks than Chelsea. For neither better nor worse, the future looks like a North American experience.
And if that means crowds of 66,452, it was hard to find fault with the tradeoff.