Soccer in Seattle: A New Kind of Football Team Woos Fans

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Elaine Thompson / AP

Chelsea's Deco, right, of Portugal, gives chase as the Seattle Sounders' Freddie Ljungberg, of Sweden, moves the ball upfield during the first half of a friendly soccer match on Saturday, July 18, 2009, in Seattle

The more than 65,000 fans who filled the seats at Seattle's Qwest Field on a recent Saturday made clear by their neon-green body paint and their buzzing South African–style vuvuzela horns that this was no Seahawks game. They had come to see a different kind of football, the kind that speaks the word with a foreign accent: Chelsea, erstwhile champions of England's Premier League, vs. the Seattle Sounders, the Emerald City's new Major League Soccer franchise.

There was no shortage of pageantry to welcome such Chelsea legends as Frank Lampard and John Terry; a "golden scarf" of the match was awarded to world-renowned Seattle glass artist Dale Chihuly, and the national anthems of Britain and the U.S. bellowed as gigantic flags were pulled taut by teams of field hands and then rippled up and down amid exploding fireworks — all before a ball had even been kicked.

That the Sounders went on to lose 2-0 did little to dampen the game's carefully cultivated carnival atmosphere. Since the team's resurrection this past March (the Sounders name was first used by a team in the old North American Soccer League in the late '70s), its rollout has been carefully orchestrated to appeal to a Seattle audience. To play to the city's devoted soccer fans — who have loyally followed different iterations of the Sounders across more than three decades — the promotion effort began with local soccer clubs and blogs. Comedian and TV star Drew Carey, one of the team's owners, announced that Seattle had won an MLS franchise at the city's longtime soccer headquarters, the George and Dragon, an English-inspired pub regularly crammed with British expats and American soccer fans.

Former Swedish national team captain and Arsenal star — not to mention Calvin Klein underwear model — Freddy Ljungberg grinned down at residents from billboards throughout the town declaring, "The World's Game Comes to Seattle." Kasey Keller, a native of the state of Washington who once starred for the U.S. national team and Premier League sides Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham, worked the local media, talking up the future of soccer in the U.S. And as these efforts began to yield a crop of fan groups and bloggers, those people in turn were embraced and given front-row seats in the press box. And the original devotees soon began generating their own followers and rituals, such as Gorilla FC, a group that meets before games in a local pub and, after a few beers, follows a man dressed in a full gorilla suit to the game.

If it all seems a bit contrived, it is, but the owners are unabashed about their tradition-building. Carey's enthusiasm for "the march to the match," a pregame procession to the field led by the Sounders' very own 53-piece marching band, is evident. "The march from Pioneer Square, that's going to be great 20, 30, 50 years from now," Carey says. "Your kids are going to be like, 'Oh, we can't miss the march! We've got to go there!' " His inspiration for creating the team's instrumental cheering squad came from years of watching Los Angeles Galaxy games, which Carey said had a lackluster feel at times. In contrast, the persistent thumping of the bass drums and triumphant declarations from the horn section ensure that there's seldom a dull — or quiet — moment during Sounders games. "Why not a marching band?" Carey says.

Carey owns the team along with Adrian Hanauer, the former owner of the United Soccer League Sounders, Hollywood producer Joe Roth and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. There's no doubting the franchise's business clout. But it's Carey and Roth who are the most prominent faces of the team, devoted soccer fans as immersed in the U.S. game as in the goings-on in England's Premiership, Spain's La Liga or Mexico's Primera División. They know that the Sounders' survival will depend on generating a devout following that will keep the cash flowing in. And while the U.S. as a whole works its way to a higher caliber of play, buttressing the game with ritual is part of the strategy. "We're not Chelsea or Arsenal," Carey says, recognizing that most of the game's deepest devotees in America know that the European Champion's League are really the "majors" as far as soccer is concerned. "But you can see good quality play and have the experience of being at a good professional soccer game."

So far, it's working. Each of the 11 home games has sold out, and Sounders paraphernalia is flying off the shelves, with replica jerseys costing $70 and up. Before the team even played a game, they'd sold some $850,000 worth of merchandise through one online store. Teaming up with the NFL's Seahawks to share Qwest and front-room resources has helped defray costs, of course, but beyond savvy business tactics and smart marketing — another exhibition game is scheduled for early August, against European champions Barcelona — timing has been everything. For one, soccer tickets are cheaper than those of the other main seasonal sport, baseball, and with the Mariners playing nearly every other day, Sounders games feel like a bigger deal. And for a city so recently wounded by the departure of its decades-old basketball team the Sonics, being able to root for a new, dedicated franchise is a restorative tonic. "That was one of the planets that lined up in the eclipse," Roth says.

Carey puts his own spin on it. "Your fiancée dumps you by text, and here we come," he laughs. "While you're on vacation trying to forget it all, we're good-looking, we're coming out of the water from our swim," he continues. "I just moved here. I'm sensitive, I love to cook, and I have a great sense of humor."

And Roth chimes in, "And I just signed a 99-year lease on my job."

Longevity is a recurring theme from Roth and Carey, who emphasize that their mission isn't solely bringing soccer to Seattle but also fulfilling the more epic yet elusive goal of getting people (besides the parents of kids and youth-league players) hooked on soccer. And they believe, at least in the Northwest, the goal is in sight. Before their first game, the Sounders had sold more than 22,000 season tickets, more than any other team in the league's history. "If we're right about this, these 22,000 season-ticket holders are going to end up passing them on to their children and their children's children," Roth says.

For some Seattle residents, the passion for soccer is transmitted in the opposite direction. Miles Greg, a 10-year-old who sported spiked fluorescent-green hair at a game earlier this season, says his parents never followed soccer when he wasn't playing. Now the family has season tickets to see the Sounders. Miles' enthusiasm is clearly contagious. Says his mom, Theresa Greg: "We learned the game through him."