Criticism, negativity may leave Seattle with few rewards for their hosting efforts

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SEATTLE – Last word on Monday had 36,000 tickets sold for tonight’s match. Some were saying 38,000. That’s out of 42,000 tickets available at CenturyLink. Or is it 45,000? Amid all the discussion, dissention, jabs and pointed fingers, real numbers have been difficult to nail down.

As much as Tuesday’s qualifier has become about the horrible pitch U.S. Soccer’s imposed on the venue, Seattle’s long-awaited World Cup Qualifier is serving as the platform for a great attendance debate. On one side is an advocate purporting a crowd that will rank among the largest in U.S. Soccer’s qualifying history. On the other is a prosecutor who’s reading a list of broken promises.

Those broken promises are figurative, of course. But it is fair to say the Seattle fan community talked a big game in the three years that led to this moment. Shortly after Sounders FC began setting Major League Soccer attendance records, we heard about the potential advantages of the U.S. playing at “the Clink.” They were endless, and in fairness, they weren’t only coming from Seattle. That would be a real home field advantage, the missive went, the implied assumption being massive crowds would come.

But on Tuesday, they won’t, a result with a myriad of factors contributing to what even some Sounders fans confess will be a disappointing turnout. The match is mid-week, a 6:30 kickoff (as opposed to a later, more manageable time). Season ticket holders weren’t given a chance to buy their seats, the prices are much higher than normal Sounders games, and casual fans who might have otherwise come may have chosen to attend the cheaper rivalry match on Saturday. All that, and there’s the perception U.S. Soccer was late giving Seattle a qualifier, creating a sense bitterness among a small but hardcore faction of the fanbase.

Make no mistake about three things, though:

  • First, except for the bitterness angle, none of these issues are unique to Seattle. Ticket prices for qualifiers are always higher, some season ticket holders don’t get preference, and U.S. national team matches often fall within the context of the local home schedules. These aren’t good explanations for failing to deliver on the implied crowd.
  • But if this does reflect a divide between the Sounders brand and being a fan of soccer at large, there’s nothing wrong with that. Sounder fans need not defend their preferences. Nobody is obligated to choose country over club, particularly when country took so long to show up. Soccer in the U.S. need not revolve around the national team any longer.
  • Finally, the crowd is still going to be huge. With a small, late surge in sales, it will be one of the top ten most-attended home games in U.S. qualifying history. Sure, Seattle could do better, but in an absolute sense, it’s still a huge number, potentially delivering the atmosphere U.S. Soccer sought.

The difficulty for Seattle soccer: They’re not being judged in absolute terms. They’re being judged against a standard of their own creation, and rightfully so. When the whole premise behind your qualifying bid is the ability to produce as-advertised crowds, you deserve to be judged against your talk. So if Seattle can’t produce near-42,000 for Tuesday’s match, it should be noted: They didn’t walk the walk.

It also deserves to be noted that the soccer community’s own standards may have been a bit unfair. Yes, people could have ultimately just bought tickets. They could have fought through all the mitigating circumstances and just showed up, just as people from all over the country did in travelling to Seattle. How do you really tell somebody flying in from New York that a $50-plus ticket kept you from going to a game in your hometown?

But that doesn’t mean real people didn’t have real life circumstances that kept them from the game. If you get off of work at 6:00 p.m., the 6:30 p.m. start time matters. If you bought season tickets for four and now have to fork over in excess of $200 to take your group to the game, that’s significant. Perhaps the Seattle community didn’t take these things into account when making their promises, but in the face of these on-the-ground factors, it’s understandable their promises couldn’t be kept.

It would mistake, however, to judge Seattle’s game as a failure based on the numbers. Make conclusions about the field conditions, if you want to. Or question the logic about flying cross-continent in a short window. That’s fine. But don’t see 36,000 and think that’s anything but a positive. The fact that Seattle could do better shouldn’t be used as a reason to dismiss the people who’ll  show up.

And that may be the most disappointing part of this debate. Many people across the U.S.’s broader soccer community have taken this opportunity to throw Seattle’s under-performance in fans’ faces, often exaggerating the actual significance of those 4,000 empty seats. ‘You didn’t deliver’ is a valid critique in light of the last three years’ dialog, but sentiments like ‘this is a disappointment,’ ‘what was the point,’ or ‘not as strong as you thought you were’ are distortions. The picture’s slightly more complicated than that. Slightly more interesting, too.

In reality, the issue isn’t really the attendance. The more compelling point is about the standards against which we’re judging Seattle’s soccer community. For any other market in the country, Tuesday’s number would be trumpeted as an amazing success. In Seattle, if fails to meet expectations. Is there any greater compliment you could give Seattle soccer than noting  their numbers put them in a class by themselves?

It’s too bad many ardent followers of U.S. soccer won’t see it that way. It’s backlash, possibly envy, or maybe it’s just a natural counter-balance to the slew of pieces that have guffawed Seattle’s crowds. But this discussion has become so distorted, you can’t help but wonder what Seattle’s getting out of this qualifier. A large group of fans are going to be able to see a qualifier – the first one in Seattle in 36 years – but the legacy of this game will be criticism, petty jabs, and possibly an unfair depiction of Seattle’s soccer scene.

All of this was unforeseeable when Sounders FC made their late 2012 U-turn on qualifiers. As of last fall, Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer felt bringing in grass to host any match was no longer with it. It cost too much for too little benefit. Yet after getting feedback from fans during last fall’s vote authorizing his new term, Hanauer changed course. If the fans wanted a friendly, he’d fight for it.

After this week, however, you wonder if he regrets not following his friend Merritt Paulson, sticking with the Portland Timbers by insisting any games at his venue be played on the field’s regular surface. At least then, Seattle probably wouldn’t under this tilted microscope.

With high ticket prices and an organizational cost of a couple of hundred thousand dollars to lay down the much-maligned sod, will all this negativity be worth it? Seattle seemed to be doing fine without U.S. Soccer.

John Cena makes entertaining Premier League predictions

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We do not recommend putting any money on John Cena’s Premier League predictions for this weekend.

The actor and WWE star was the guest picker on the BBC site on Friday, and admitted his soccer knowledge doesn’t extend much further than Cristiano Ronaldo and a tour of Tottenham (he has a fondness for Spurs, it seems).

[ PL PREVIEW: Chelsea vs. Southampton ]

But his actual selections are quite amusing. From picking matches based on species to trying to anger his fiancee’s Arsenal supporting brother, Cena brought the goods.

Our favorites:

Why West Ham will win at Stoke: “Who doesn’t love a good ham? It provides you with nourishment, happiness and a sense of community. It is always served at a big family function gathering. I like West Ham. 0-1.”

Why Southampton will win at Chelsea: “From where I am from, in Massachusetts, Southampton is a pretty cool place, so I am going to have to pick them, only because of how it relates to the States.”

Premier League Preview: Chelsea vs. Southampton

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  • Chelsea leads all-time 41W-28D-28L
  • Saints have points in 3 of 5 at Stamford Bridge
  • Southampton winless in four straight league games

Chelsea returns home following an emphatic away win to meet a Southampton side fresh off embarrassment at home (Watch live Saturday at 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Saints were battered 4-1 at St. Mary’s by former coach Claude Puel, while Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea rebounded from a loss at West Ham by battering Huddersfield Town 4-1 at the John Smith’s Stadium.

Conte was asked to compare Alvaro Morata to club legend Didier Drogba, as the Spanish striker has reportedly been studying footage of the big Ivorian.

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

“They are two different players with different characteristics,” he said. “Didier Drogba brought history to this club and he’s a wonderful player, a wonderful striker because he continues to play. He’s a great striker, more powerful than Alvaro but Alvaro, don’t forget, has a lot of space for improvement. He’s strong physically, he’s a technical player and I see a great future for Alvaro.”

Chelsea still won’t have David Luiz available, while Southampton has no new injury concerns despite the recent schedule congestion.

What they’re saying

Antonio Conte on Southampton premonitions“‘My expectation is for us to suffer, I have this sensation, so we must pay great attention. When you play after a bad defeat, especially at home, there is great attention of the coach and the club because they don’t want to continue a bad run. They want to give a good answer against a strong team like Chelsea.”

Saints’ Mauricio Pellegrino on facing Chelsea: “We want to show our best version. Chelsea is a really difficult side but maybe we can find more space.  We have to do a really good game to have a possibility of winning, but hopefully after a difficult moment we can bounce back. In this club, we want to show we are committed to trying to be competitive, our energy and commitment to the club.”

Prediction

Saints are wounded, but Chelsea has the better depth and form. Charlie Austin or Sofiane Boufal may force a goal past Thibaut Courtois, but look for the Blues to pull out a 2-1 win.

FIFA suspends Brazilian soccer president Marco Polo del Nero

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ZURICH (AP) FIFA has suspended Brazilian soccer federation president Marco Polo del Nero for 90 days while he is under an ethics investigation.

Del Nero has remained in power in Brazil despite being charged by American authorities with racketeering and money laundering in 2015.

FIFA says Del Nero has been provisionally banned from all soccer activities as formal ethics investigation proceedings are conducted.

Del Nero fled Zurich in May 2015 when FIFA colleagues were arrested, quit the executive committee of soccer’s governing body after missing meetings and was then indicted in the United States in December 2015. He has not been extradited from Brazil to face the charges.

Preview: How can Tottenham stop Man City?

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Can anyone stop Manchester City? Tottenham Hotspur will try this Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com) with Mauricio Pochettino‘s men aiming to give the chasing pack some hope that City can be caught.

[ LIVE: Stream Man City v. Spurs

Pep Guardiola‘s men have won 15 consecutive Premier League games to stretch their lead atop the PL to 11 points heading into the busy festive season, but a visit from Spurs represents one of their toughest tests of the season so far.

Spurs currently sit in fourth place in the table but are 18 points behind City.

In team news Man City have no fresh injury concerns as Vincent Kompany could return after missing out at Swansea City in midweek, but John Stones remains out injured.

Tottenham will be missing Victor Wanyama and Toby Alderweireld through injury, while Davinson Sanchez serves the final game of his three-match ban.


What they’re saying

Guardiola on Man City going the entire season unbeaten: “It is not going to happen. We are going to lose games, it belongs to Arsene Wenger. Now what happens is an exception, it’s not normal what we’ve done. We’ll try to maintain it but we are going to lose games. It is important is to play better, that’s important. Records are OK but they stay there and one day they will be broken. We focus on the pitch and try to be better, make chances, concede few. I’m happy with the way we play – although I feel we can do much, much better.”

Pochettino on Man City’s incredible run: “They [Manchester City] are showing that they are not only the best in England but in Europe too with the Champions League. They are playing so well and deserve all the praise. It will be so tough. I think Manchester City deserve all the credit with what they are doing.”

Prediction

Spurs will prove a tough test for a rampant Man City squad and I expect Dele Alli and Harry Kane to cause plenty of problems for a threadbare City defense. 2-2.