Being a long-time MLS believer, and having grown up attending games in the world’s best-attended league, the German Bundesliga, I traveled Northern California and the Pacific Northwest last summer in search of the growing North American soccer culture. Here’s another set of random observations–this one from Seattle’s Century Link Field, where I witnessed eventual champs Sounders FC’s August 14 win over Real Salt Lake (2-1) with a buddy of mine in town from the Vaterland.
Location Bull’s Eye
A major contributor to the popularity of Sounders FC is no doubt the location of the team’s home venue right in the heart of Seattle, making it one of the city’s prolific landmarks and creating an air of importance and local pride. Erected on the southern edge of Downtown in 2002, Century Link Field, which also houses the NFL’s Seahawks, is a stone’s throw from the waterfront, the skyline and MLB side Mariners’ Safeco Field, with all four being visible in immediate succession as one drives along the shore on the Alaskan Way Viaduct. For a visual of the stadium’s surroundings, check out the below photo, which I conveniently spotted on a wall near the press box (Safeco Field just outside bottom edge of frame).
Location Bull’s Eye – Part 2
Having previously attended matches in Chicago, LA, San Jose, Portland, Vancouver and Seattle, something that immediately stood out to me about Sounders FC was the club’s presence in the immediate and not so immediate surroundings of Century Link Field. Several pubs, bars and restaurants featured team branding, giving an early indication of what the MLS outfit means to Seattleites, and speaking volumes about the value of placing a stadium where fans are able to reinforce their sense of community by socializing and throwing back a cold one prior to the match.
The Power of Genuinely Caring
Perhaps an even better pregame ritual than socializing with fellow fans at a pub is socializing with fellow fans amid the festivities at Occidental Park in Pioneer Square, located about a half mile from the stadium. A tip of the hat is in order to Sounders FC for actively helping upgrade its supporters’ experience, as a stage featured former U.S. and Seattle ‘keeper Marcus Hahnemann and current club midfielder Aaron Kovar as well as local pop-punk band Success, followed by marching band The Wave displaying its legendary skills. Not only was the club behind the appearances by Hahnemann, Kovar and the Wave. Success lead singer Aaron Rev revealed to me that members of the Rave Green’s communications staff had also set up the performance by him and his mates. If it were up to me, every MLS side with favorable geographic surroundings would be required to invest equal time and energy into creating a similar pregame event. Among the benefits of genuinely caring: a strengthened sense of community and supporters invested and sophisticated enough to participate in a starting lineup ritual without so much as a list of players’ names (see video below).
The Wave Making Waves
This one’s short and sweet. Aforementioned marching band The Wave, which is the brainchild of famous minority owner Drew Carey, is the bomb. Scroll down for a video of their highly entertaining antics at Occidental Park.
Pop-punk band Success killed it as well. And as if their music hadn’t already won me over, front man Rev added the insurance goal by encouraging the gathered Sounders FC faithful to “do one good thing today,” adding as a personal suggestion handing a dollar to a stranger in need. Things got better during our one-on-one chat, with Rev emphatically approving of my “VEGAN4PEACE” shirt and telling me he himself has been animal-products-free for years. Given such highly concentrated awesomeness, I’m not ashamed to plug away at my heart’s desire. The Success website can be found here, the Facebook page here, the YouTube channel here, the Twitter account right here, Revs’s Twitter account here, and his Instagram page here. One of the band’s videos, which, according to the description, was “made by Sounders FC, and aired during the pre-game show on [TV], and at the stadium,” is featured below because I stumbled upon it and thought it was pretty cool.
Culture of Positivity – Seattle Edition
For those unfamiliar with previous editions of this column, the aforementioned “VEGAN4PEACE” shirt and my LA hat have become useful tools in gauging fan communities’ inclusiveness. Seattle did well, with the day seeing two additional supportive comments on the shirt – one by a girl at Occidental Park and one by a stadium usher – and no negative reactions to the shirt or hat. It’s worth mentioning I also spotted a number of LGBTQ-supportive rainbow flags, including a couple prominently displayed in the supporters section and a few in the designs of merch worn by fans and marching band members, several of whom sported rainbow pins or instruments featuring rainbow colors. While Seattle was far from matching the flood of rainbow flags I saw waved by fans of Cascadia rivals Portland, both experiences were encouraging and made me proud to be part of the North American soccer scene.
Unmatched: March to the Match
An awesome feature which, as far as I know, is not shared by any other MLS team is the legendary March to the Match, which dates back to Seattle’s USL First Division days and sees those gathered at Occidental Park make their way to the stadium singing and chanting. The videos below can only do so much to convey the atmosphere, so be sure to catch this unique tradition in person if you’re ever in town.
Putting BC Place in Its Place
There’s a reason large venues not primarily built for soccer have been faded out in MLS. The fact they’re hard to fill and don’t contain the sound well makes them feel less intimate and games less relevant. My stop at Vancouver’s BC Place just two days prior to the Seattle match had illustrated this point nicely. One might ask then why the atmosphere at Sounders FC’s home is so much better. Aside from the superior attendance, Century Link Field is not simply a football stadium rented by a soccer team. While BC Place is fairly “matter-of-factly” owned and operated by the city of Vancouver, in Seattle the operating entity is First & Goal Inc., founded by the owner of the NFL’s Seahwaks and now part-owner of Sounders FC, Paul Allen. In other words, the teams’ shared venue was developed and has been run with the beautiful game in mind, making for a more favorable architecture and a fairly equal division of the branding (see photos below). As a result, Century Link Field feels far less sterile and much more like a true home. The fact the soccer team is also quietly promoted at every football home game comes as an added benefit.
Sounders FC rudely defied my thesis that a killer atmosphere and die-hard supporters proudly sporting team colors depend on that team having its own limited-size stadium designed primarily for soccer. The below videos of the pregame festivities are a testament to sophistication and passion on the part of the Seattle faithful and to the club’s dedication to doing its part by putting on a heck of a show. And while we’re at it, another thesis of mine failed the Emerald City test. Because supporters sections in Germany tend to be packed and rocking during warm-ups, I contended elsewhere that an MLS team with highly invested fans should be able to replicate this. Turns out, the Sounders FC faithful don’t really care about the warm-ups but do care a heck of a lot about the game. Fine by me.
Keepin’ It One Hundred
Here comes my minor knock on Century Field. While the gameday experience there is among the best in MLS, one can only imagine how much better it would be if Sounders FC had a more intimate home built specifically for soccer. While many behind the goal at the south end sang and chanted their tails off, the below videos are indicative of something I had also noticed in Vancouver – namely flat stands keeping the fervor from consistently spreading beyond the vocal die-hards in the heart of the supporters section. Props to broadcast crews for strategically placing mics in a way giving television viewers the impression that the whole place is rocking. In reality, the unofficial title for best atmosphere in Cascadia goes to rivals Portland Timbers FC, who take full advantage of a more favorable setup.
Hailing from Germany, I was excited to see a pair of players lace up for Seattle each of whose résumés includes past Bundesliga stardom. While Andreas Ivanschitz featured prominently for Mainz from 2009 to 2013, Peru’s Nelson Valdez shined for Bremen and Dortmund between 2002 and 2010. Here’s hoping they were among the first in a long line of high-caliber acquisitions from my native country going forward, courtesy of GAM, TAM and the continued growth of MLS.
Back to the Future
Speaking of big names, it was also cool to witness the very first MLS goal of then brand-new acquisition Nicolas Lodeiro, who would go on to make history by almost single-handedly leading Seattle into the playoffs and to the 2016 trophy. And as if that weren’t enough, the game also saw a one-on-one duel between two legends of the American game, with RSL ‘keeper Nick Rimando reading yet another penalty kick perfectly but not needing to intervene as Clint Dempsey smashed his shot off the crossbar.
Given the relatively short geographical distance between the day’s two foes’, as well as the fun experience that is a Sounders FC home game on a gorgeous summer day, I was disappointed not to see any traveling RSL support. Makes one wonder if the club purchases away tickets and gives them out free to those willing to embark on the journey. If they don’t, they might take a leaf out of the book of Sporting Kansas City, which did cover the admission cost of its fans headed to the road clash with Portland one week prior. Perhaps not a coincidence SKC’s traveling support was impressive despite the distance in that case being more than double that between Salt Lake City and Seattle.
Former Player Sighting: Bold is Beautiful?
I couldn’t conclude this edition of the column without featuring at least one former player whose sighting made me a bit sentimental for the old days of MLS. In this case, old days means over 15 years ago, as I spotted ex-Galaxy, Rapids, Quakes and Dynamo defender and current RSL GM Craig Waibel behind the scenes. During my days as a high school exchange student in the early 2000s, I watched Waibel live and in person at LA’s historic Rose Bowl on a few occasions. Anyone else impressed with how little the guy seems to have aged since then? Or is that just the deceptive power of avoiding gray hair by way of the complete scalp shave? If so, I may give it a shot when my time comes.
0.45 Seconds of Glory
Quite possibly one of the best moments of my life came as I walked out of the locker room area among several players following the postgame press conference. Mistaking me for one of those players, a hero suddenly emerged from the many waiting Sounders FC fans to give me a thumbs up and compliment me on my “good game,” thus providing me with the briefest of insights into what it must be like to be a popular professional athlete. What a way to go out. Thank you, random guy. Thank you, Seattle.
That’s all for now, folks. Stay tuned for my next round of reports – from NYC, Toronto and Montreal.
Gunnar Berndt is a long-time soccer writer and the former Director of Communications with USL side L.A. Blues (now Orange County SC), PASL side Anaheim Bolts and NWSL side Chicago Red Stars. Click here to follow Gunnar on Twitter!