Are we inching closer to NFL crowds being the norm in Seattle?

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SEATTLE, Wash. – Sounders FC have become renown for their transcendent crowds, but their Major League Soccer-leading numbers always come with an implicit caveat. The team rarely opens up all sections of CenturyLink Field, the usual 38,500 capacity well below what the venue seats (67,000 for Seahawks games). On days when a Portland comes to town with four-digits worth of travelling fans, that normal limit can be pushed to exceed 40,000. But under normal circumstances, Seattle chooses to live within their self-defined limits.

On Saturday, Sounders FC loosened the reins, opened the gates and drew 53,679 for their 3-2 victory over the rival Whitecaps, the first of a four-pack of games that will pad the team’s already prodigious attendance numbers. The pack offers summer games against high-quality opponents for a price that targets the casual fan ($60 per pack), a combination that’s fueled Seattle’s NFL-esque numbers. Buyers also get access to playoff tickets.

“We love big crowds. We seem to do well,” Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid said after the game, his team improving to 5-0-0 in front of crowds of 50,000 or more. ” We wanted to keep the game exciting and close … It had a tremendous atmosphere.”

Last season, in games against Chelsea, LA Galaxy, Vancouver, and Portland, the Sounders drew 236,387 fans, more than Chivas USA, San Jose, or D.C. United collected over their entire 17-match MLS home schedules. And with no friendly on the schedule this season (Chelsea drew the lowest attendance of last year’s four-pack), Seattle could set a new standard for what looks set to become a mid-season tradition.

With that tradition, however, comes familiarity. While drawing over 50,000 to a Major League Soccer game is always noteworthy and come with an undeniably “tremendous” atmosphere, at some point, there’s no new story to tell. For a team that has played in front of five such crowds over the last three regular seasons, what would be record numbers for most teams becomes something that carries expectations.

“It’s a responsibility,” goalkeeper Michael Gspurning said after Seattle’s victory. “If so many [fans] are coming, we don’t want to disappoint them.”

The Sounders didn’t, though after poor defending on set pieces gave Camilo two first early goals, the team went into halftime down 2-1. But thanks to Servando Carrasco’s first career goal (a penalty kick) and Lamar Neagle’s late winner, Seattle won their fifth in sixth games. After an aimless start that saw the MLS Cup-aspirants spend March in the West’s cellar, Saturday’s win vaulted the Sounders into fourth place.

Whether the huge crowd actually had anything to do with result is impossible to say, but for those on the field, the atmosphere was mattered.

“You can sense the energy,” Schmid explained. “It gives you a different feeling when you walk onto the field. The guys recognize that and respond to that.

“Is that the reason that we score goals and win games entirely? Probably not, but right now we’ll keep it going.”

And they’ll have a chance to keep it going in front of what could be even bigger crowds. Last season, the highest attended game of the four-pack was the last one, and although their derby with Portland played a big part in drawing 66,452 people, it’s easy to see casual fans made aware of the special occasions gravitating to CenturyLink as the four-pack moves on.

“We were able to showcase ourselves in front of people who normally don’t get to come to our game,” Schmid said, describing the evening’s crowd. For a team that normally draws just short of 40,000, that meant entertaining over 10,000 people who would not have otherwise had access to tickets.

It forces you to consider: What would happen if Seattle opened the upper deck on a permanent basis? Yes, there are cost issues with staffing the upper level, and if you offer those cheaper seats, will people currently spending more of better seats gravitate toward the bargains? Regardless, with every huge crowd the question comes up: With the Sounders able to consistently break 50,000 for these games, why not go for that number on a regular basis?

This time of year, the weather is right. And with games against Portland, Real Salt Lake, and the LA Galaxy still to come, there is some reason to think that these particular games are predisposed to draw more. Would enough people come if Seattle were hosting an Eastern Conference bottom feeder in late winter?

That’s the worst-case scenario – an inappropriate standard for assessing Seattle’s drawing power. Instead, the better approach would be to look at the entire schedule and judge whether opening the upper deck all the time is cost-effective, something the Sounders have undoubtedly done. After Saturday’s big crowd, though, it remains to be seen whether Sounder nation is inching closer to a magic number that would see CenturyLink’s upper deck opened full-time.

Report: Spurs, Inter close to deal for Eriksen

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After months of posturing and working the back channels, it would appear that Christian Eriksen is close to getting his transfer away from Tottenham Hotspur.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

After months of posturing and holding firm, it would appear that Tottenham are close to getting their desired transfer fee for Eriksen despite his contract having only six months remaining.

After months of posturing and unsettling the 27-year-old star, it would appear that Inter Milan are close to getting their Danish international playmaker.

In the end, it would appear that everyone is going to get what they want, only no one truly gets what they want. Spurs spent the last year trying to sign Eriksen to a new contract; Eriksen wanted to leave in the summer and will feel like they wasted six months of his career; much like Inter would have been desperate to bolster their squad in the summer.

[ MORE: Mourinho in favor of PL’s winter break, but says timing all wrong ]

$22 million — the amount Spurs will reportedly receive from Inter — will hardly be enough to replace such an influential player, therefore Spurs come out of this long-running saga the worst of the bunch.

As for Eriksen and Inter, it’ll be a challenge for the player to immediately find his footing and shine ever so brightly in the midst of a title race, especially after the side has already slumped to back-to-back draws and fallen four points back of Juventus. Though, reportedly tripling his wages from Spurs to Inter leaves Eriksen the biggest winner in a mostly no-win situation.

Struggling Atleti in unfamiliar territory under Simeone

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MADRID — This is uncharted territory for many Atletico Madrid fans.

Few other times in recent years have they seen their team struggle so much under Diego Simeone.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

Few other times have they seen their coach fail so often while trying to put the team back on track.

Atletico hit a new low under Simeone on Thursday when it was eliminated by third-division club Cultural Leonesa in the round of 32 of the Copa del Rey. The 2-1 loss in extra time was the team’s worst result in the cup competition since losing to third-tier club Albacete at the same stage in 2011-12.

Two days after that loss in 2011, Atletico hired the then-mostly unknown Simeone to replace Gregorio Manzano, a move that kick-started one of the club’s most successful eras and led to a Spanish league title, two Europa League trophies and two Champions League final appearances.

Atletico did go through difficult moments under Simeone, including when the team failed to advance past the group stage of the Champions League a couple of seasons ago.

“There were always complicated moments in past seasons, maybe after we didn’t make it in the Champions League, or when we lost in the Champions League finals,” Simeone said. “After being at the club for so long, things like this can happen, although they shouldn’t happen.”

There is a greater sense of urgency about the team’s struggles this time.

In addition to Wednesday’s embarrassing Copa del Rey elimination, Atletico lost the Spanish Super Cup final to Real Madrid on Jan. 12, and already is eight points off the Spanish league lead after 20 matches.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Before, there used to be a notion that Simeone would quickly turn things around and put the team back on track, but this time there aren’t many signs things will improve again soon.

Atletico has yet to impress since undergoing its biggest squad revamp under Simeone at the end of last season, when it lost Antoine Griezmann and other veteran players such as Filipe Luis and Diego Godin. Young Portugal forward Joao Felix, who arrived to replace Griezmann after a transfer from Benfica worth more than 120 million euros ($133 million), has yet to meet expectations.

More concerning, Atletico is not being nearly as effective as it used to be, when it always seemed to find a way to win matches despite not playing well.

The team remains solid defensively — it has the second-best defense in the Spanish league with 14 goals conceded — but it hasn’t been able to do much in attack recently.

“Everything is harder when you can’t score,” Simeone said.

Only seven teams have scored fewer goals than Atletico’s 22 in the 20-team standings.

Diego Costa has been mostly out injured, and Victor “Vitolo” Machin and Alvaro Morata haven’t done much in attack. Morata is the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals in all competitions, and no one else has more than five.

“We have to be humble enough to be self-critical,” Simeone said. “We need to keep working to try to be ready for the challenges that we have ahead of us. We have a very good squad and I’m sure that the results that we want will start arriving soon.”

Atletico biggest chance to rebound will come next month against European champion Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League. The first leg will be on Feb. 18 in Spain.

Mourinho in favor of PL’s winter break, but says timing all wrong

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Jose Mourinho seems to be quite happy that the Premier League will implement its first-ever winter break next month, allowing players a bit of rest and recovery time during a marathon campaign, but says its timing makes the break almost worthless for clubs competing in European competitions.

[ VIDEO: Haaland has played 59 minutes, scored 5 goals for Dortmund ]

The next four weeks will play out as follows for Tottenham Hotspur: FA Cup against Southampton this weekend; PL fixture against Manchester City next weekend; the following weekend off which results in two weeks without a game; PL fixture against Aston Villa the following weekend; Champions League first leg against RB Leipzig three days later.

In Mourinho’s perfect world, that first round of PL fixtures following the break would be held a week earlier, leaving the seven English clubs competing in the Champions League and Europa League with a week and a half between games before setting out once again to chase European glory. Instead, Tottenham, Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea will all have a quick turnaround from PL action to UCL competition — quotes from the Guardian:

“It is what it is. I’m not happy that the break comes in the wrong moment. The break should be before the Champions League and, in the end, before the Champions League we don’t have the break. We have to play Aston Villa on the Sunday, playing [RB Leipzig three] days later. So we don’t really care about the break, honestly.”

Mourinho’s point is a solid one: if the winter break is going to exist — and it should — then why shouldn’t its benefits be maximized? Non-European sides — typically those with smaller squads — would still have the full two weeks between games, while those in Europe are able to better leverage their slightly larger squads with only 10 or 11 days between games — still a lengthy break relative to the rest of the season.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

It’s only the first year of the winter break in the PL, so perhaps hopefully they’ll receive Mourinho’s criticism — and that of any other managers — constructively.

Serie A: AC Milan extends unbeaten run since Zlatan’s arrival

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BRESCIA, Italy (AP) Ante Rebic scored his third goal in two matches, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma was superb and AC Milan won 1-0 at relegation-threatened Brescia on Friday to climb into the Europa League places in Serie A.

[ MORE: Report: Man United’s list of possible new strikers revealed ]

Rebic, who scored twice in a win over Udinese last weekend, pounced on a loose ball directly in front of the goal following a cross from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the 71st minute.

Since Ibrahimovic’s return to Milan over the holiday break, Milan is unbeaten with four wins and a draw across all competitions.

Donnarumma produced several difficult saves to deny Dimitri Bisoli and Ernesto Torregrossa.

Also, Milan fullback Theo Hernandez hit the crossbar in the closing minutes.

The Rossoneri moved up to sixth place, four points behind fifth-place Atalanta.

[ MORE: Solskjaer’s transfer update; positive on rebuild ]

“Our goal is to qualify for Europe,” Donnarumma said. “We’ve got to continue like this and not rest for a moment. There’s another big Italian Cup match coming up with Torino midweek and we want to reach the semifinals.

“We’ll take it one game at a time and try to keep this momentum going.”

Brescia was without Mario Balotelli, who was suspended for two matches after protesting a booking last weekend that ended up with the striker being sent off.

Brescia remained one point above last-place Genoa.