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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.

Watch Live: Arsenal vs. Burnley (Lineups & Live Stream)

SWANSEA, WALES - JANUARY 14:  Arsene Wenger, Manager of Arsenal during the Premier League match between Swansea City and Arsenal at Liberty Stadium on January 14, 2017 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)
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Arsenal has the chance to go second in the table as the host Burnley at the Emirates live at 9:15 a.m ET on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com.

Hector Bellerin, Francis Coquelin, and Kieran Gibbs have all returned from injury for the Gunners, and all feature on the bench as Arsene Wenger has the chance to leap both Liverpool and Manchester City with all three points. Theo Walcott, however, is still out with a calf injury, allowing Wenger to leave his side unchanged from the 4-0 win over Swansea City.

[ WATCH LIVE: Arsenal vs. Burnley live online at NBCSports.com ]

Olivier Giroud starts up front for the Gunners with a goal in each of his last four games, while Alexis Sanchez is also in fantastic form, with six goals in his last eight games. Sanchez starts again despite his ugly body language after being substituted in the Swansea game with the game well decided, as Wenger played down the issue after the match.

Burnley, meanwhile, could potentially jump into the top half of the table if they could pull off the upset, currently in 13th on 26 points. Dean Marney and Ashley Barnes both return to the lineup after being held out midweek in the FA Cup match against win over Sunderland, but Johann Berg Gudmundsson is still out with an injury, having made just three appearances since late November.

Arsenal has held three consecutive clean sheets against Burnley, with Sean Dyche looking to turn around his team’s away form. The Clarets have earned just a single point all season away from home, the worst away record in the Premier League.

LINEUPS

Arsenal: Cech, Gabriel, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal, Xhaka, Ramsey, Iwobi, Ozil, Alexis, Giroud.
Subs: Ospina, Gibbs, Bellerin, Coquelin, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Welbeck, Lucas.

Burnley: Heaton; Lowton, Keane, Mee, Ward; Boyd, Marney, Hendrick, Defour; Barnes, Gray.
Subs: Robinson, Flanagan, Tarkowski, Barton, Kightly, Darikwa, Vokes.

Southampton 3-0 Leicester City: Saints swarm from start to finish

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22:  Jay Rodriguez (R) of Southampton celebrates scoring his team's second goal wit his team mate Ryan Bertrand (L) during the Premier League match between Southampton and Leicester City at St Mary's Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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Southampton dominated from beginning to end, putting a stop to their four-match losing streak thanks to a 3-0 win over Leicester City at St. Mary’s. James Ward-Prowse and Jay Rodriguez both hit first-half goals as the Foxes remain without an away win in Premier League play this season, while Dusan Tadic finished it off late from the spot.

The game’s first opportunity fell to Southampton, who had pushed forward more in the opening 10 minutes. A cross from the left by Nathan Redmond picked out Dusan Tadic in the area, and the Serbian rose high above Christian Fuchs, but his header from close range soared just above the bar.

The Saints flooded Leicester’s box as they pressed high early, and they worked a shot for Pierre-Emil Hojbjerg on nine minutes in that he blasted into the stands. Hojbjerg had a better chance as Tadic fizzed a low ball across the box on 19 minutes, and it deflected across to the far post where Redmond had a shot, but Kasper Schmeichel slid low to make the save.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

It remained all Saints as the clock ticked past 25 minutes, and they eventually found the deserved goal. Cedric Soares burst down the right edge of the box, and he clipped the ball to Ward-Prowse who hammered the a curling ball past Schmeichel into the back of the net, a beautiful finish to put Southampton up 1-0 with England manager Gareth Southgate in attendance.

Leicester never truly built themselves into the game in the first half as they continue to search for their first away win of the season. Five minutes before halftime, Southampton pushed the game further out of reach with a second. A free-kick by Ward-Prowse came barreling in, and Maya Yoshida got a head to it, pushing the ball towards the post where Rodriguez was there to crash it into the net.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

There was a worry after the break for Southampton as Virgil van Djik went down injured and had to come off. With Jose Fonte already sold this window, it forced the club to bring on 22-year-old Jack Stephens. They had a chance to put the game away on the hour mark as Fuchs sent Hojbjerg clean through, but he put it wide with just Schmeichel to beat.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The Foxes slowly began to work themselves into things with 20 minutes to go, but it was too little too late. Wes Morgan somehow missed for Leicester with a great chance on the half-volley. He was relieved down the other end as it appeared Morgan had put the ball in his own net for a third Southampton goal, but referee Michael Oliver disallowed it for offside after conferring with the assistant. Replays showed Maya Yoshida may have his arm in an offside position, but otherwise there was little to suggest the flag should have gone up.

The Saints did get one last goal as Morgan barreled over Shane Long in the penalty area, earning him a yellow card and forcing Michael Oliver to point to the spot. Tadic obliterated the ball, pummeling it into the top right corner from the spot for his second goal of the season and Southampton’s third of the day.

With the win, Southampton moved above both Bournemouth and Burnley into 11th, while Leicester City remains just five points above the relegation zone in 15th position. On the season, Leicester has garnered just three points on the road, with draws against Tottenham, Stoke City, and Middlesbrough, having lost all the rest.

At the Half: Clinical Southampton leading 2-0 over Leicester City

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Southampton leads Leicester City 2-0 with 45 minutes gone by in the early Sunday Premier League matchup at St. Mary’s.

James Ward-Prowse hit a fantastic half-volley for Southampton’s first after 25 minutes, and Jay Rodriguez doubled the lead five minutes before the break on a set-piece. The Champions have been poor, still searching for their first away win in Premier League play this season.

[ WATCH LIVE: Southampton vs. Leicester City live online at NBCSports.com ]

Danny Drinkwater and Nampalys Mendy have been unable to hold possession for the narrow Leicester City attack, while Ryan Bertrand and Nathan Redmond have successfully provided width for the hosts.The goal for Rodriguez is his fourth of the season and first since scoring a brace at Bournemouth in mid-December.

Both teams need a win in a bad way. Southampton is hoping to end a four-match losing streak, while Leicester City sits just five points above the relegation zone. To this point, the Foxes simply haven’t been able to match the attacking intent of Southampton at St. Mary’s. 45 minutes remain, can the Champions find a way back in?

‘The Workers Cup’ sheds light on migrant workers in Qatar

DOHA, QATAR - APRIL 09: Migrant workers play football on an area of wasteland beneath the sky scrapers of Doha's West Bank on April 09, 2016 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)
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PARK CITY, Utah (AP) Director Adam Sobel never intended to end up in Qatar, but it was 2010, jobs were scarce in the U.S. and his longtime girlfriend – now his wife – had just been offered a job teaching at a Northwestern University Qatar. So they went.

[ MORE: Man City, Spurs draw and more in Saturday’s PL action ]

While there, Sobel found work with a local production company that did news stories and documentaries for outlets like BBC, CNN, and HBO. One particular story was requested frequently: That of the migrant workers who were building the facilities for the 2022 Qatar World Cup. He didn’t know it at the time, but the assignment would ultimately provide the foundation for his documentary, “The Workers Cup,” which premiered Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival.

“Because the subject is so sensitive and because media restrictions were so significant, we either had to hide people’s identities or work undercover. The human touch was lost,” Sobel said. “We wanted to do something that went much deeper than that and really honored the workers for their sacrifices and their hopes and their dreams rather than doing something that just saw them as victims … I wanted to build empathy for the workers instead of sympathy.”

The film centers on the multinational men, from Kenya, Ghana, India and the Philippines, who have given their lives over to slavery-like contracts and dangerous conditions to build the stadiums from the ground up. One man, Kenneth, who was a soccer player in Ghana, shares his story about how a recruiter had told him that if he came to Qatar, he’d get a club soccer contract. It was a lie, and now he’s stuck in Qatar under horrific circumstances.

“We’ve had a lot of context about how the recruiting agents are selling a false bill of goods but certainly I didn’t expect that to be wrapped up in a professional soccer contract,” Sobel said.

The title of the documentary refers to the FIFA-sponsored “workers cup” whereby teams from different construction companies play against one another in a tournament. For men like Kenneth, it takes on a greater poignancy. Yes, it’s a welcome distraction from the conditions, but the fact remains that they are still stuck there.

“We saw (the tournament) as an opportunity because we knew they were interested in promoting this and showing to the world that workers welfare standards were improving,” Sobel said. “There was a definite PR angle there that we took advantage of and we somehow managed to stick around and keep shooting in the camps. We were able to actually get pretty close to the story.”

Sobel worked on the documentary for three years, and kept it completely secret for two due to the sensitive nature of what he planned to show and the strict media standards in the country. He’s excited that his subjects are getting their voices heard at Sundance.

“It’s a story about these guys whose lives have been sacrificed in some way for our own entertainment and that in and of itself reveals that we’re all complicit in the system,” Sobel said. “This is a story of globalization.”

Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/ldbahr