Sunday in Seattle offers glimpse of MLS’s mainstream future

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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.”

(MORE: Analysis of Seattle’s comfortable win)

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.”

(MORE: MLS commissioner makes the scene)

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.

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday