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Soccer in Seattle: Blinding in the Rain

Seattle is an unfriendly city. Its cloudy core is provincial, cold, and superior. Too superior for sports, the modern-day refuge of the unwashed? Perhaps. Seattle and sport have never walked in perfect step for more than a few moments before parting bitterly. King County has not a single major title to crow about.

And the last year in Seattle was perhaps the worst that any American fan base has had to endure. The Mariners set a baseball record by becoming the first team to lose 100 games with a $100 million payroll, and the University of Washington’s beloved Husky football team lost every single game it played. The professional Seahawks fared not much better. And then there was the most notable affront to Seattle pride, engineered by a Midwestern businessman who threw up his hands with a sly shrug and assigned the once-raucous, once-critical Key Arena to the garbage disposal of professional basketball. The Sonics’ departure for Oklahoma City was made especially painful by the surprising manner of its execution: the most literate county in America lost a pro basketball team to the flyover states, exactly the sort of place Emerald City fans might have thought their own home superior to in every way.

Maybe Seattle’s dignity has hit bottom, though, as its teams and even its institutions crumble—the venerable Post-Intelligencer printed its last sheet two weeks ago. And maybe those peculiar Northwesterners are beginning to realize that they’d like it back. Football is the one area in which the city’s teams have excelled in recent years, and that is due in large measure to the near-flawless ballpark that was built just south of downtown in 2002: Qwest Field, home of the 12th man, that screaming heathen who derives a large portion of his power from the fact that he represents an alien element in the city where he dwells. (The Seahawks have enjoyed a significantly greater-than-average home-field advantage since Qwest Field opened.) That fabled fan has brought himself to the new pitch, with very little reluctance. Not just any pitch, mind you, but XBox 360 Pitch at Qwest Field. And what a pitch it is, blinding in the characteristic drizzle. Field turf or no, it could be argued that no other American professional soccer team plays its home matches on a better one.

Based upon the reaction from the crowd of over 28,000 on Saturday night, Seattle has indeed taken exception to its sporting setbacks, and grabbed hold of the new professional franchise. Qwest’s lower bowl was stuffed on Saturday night, and the fans turned it green with their scarves. Bleating plastic trumpets filled the air with a baritone rumble reminiscent of Viking combat. Wet sky above, slick field below, the place buzzed with chants from the general admission section behind the south goal, where sitting down is unofficially banned: When it’s us versus them / You can always count on me / When it’s us versus them / It’s a Sounders unity. And while some of the melodies were oddly off-key and hesitant, the enthusiasm for acting like a beer-swilling European crowd was apparent. The Sounders don’t really seem like an expansion team; the fans seem simply to have carried the tradition of the famous Sounders club team over to their new pitch. The result is a soccer honeymoon in full swing on Puget Sound: these fans were there, they were loud, and they were hungry.

And they cared little that the action on the green was much more chaos than choreography. In their second game of the regular season as an MLS franchise, the Sounders burst open at the proper moments to throttle Real Salt Lake, 2-0, and move into first place of the Western Conference. It was not, however, an elegant affair. The Sounders started off well, scoring on a neat cross in the 17th minute, but then the run of play swung hard across the axis to the Royal attackers, who pressed the action upon Casey Keller for the rest of the first half. But simply pushing the ball around is not enough, as it turns out, and Salt Lake seemed to have no one who wanted or was able to take the key shot, or even responsibility for the squad’s action. Its attempts on goal were flaccid at best.

That was unfortunate for the Mormon strikers, because the Sounders began to flow in the second half, and the crowd grew more cocky along with its newfound squad as the pace elevated and the players fitfully gained confidence. Fredy Montero, who staked his claim to the young team’s leadership with a pair of goals in the opener, further cemented that status in the 77th minute when he drove an elegant scimitar into the east corner of the south goal from near 30 yards out, officially pushing the stake into Salt Lake.

The crowd let him know how much it appreciated this moment of grace. The other major roar was elicited by the team’s more famous Freddy, who trotted on midway through the second half. What was left of Salt Lake’s chances at that point flitted away as the former Arsenal attacker snuck dainty passes to his eager teammates, overwhelming both foe and friend with technique, and therefore never actually coming close to a helper.

But it did not matter. Even if he is mainly a figurehead, the acquisition of Ljungberg was a wise move for the Sounders, who have given their fans a character upon which to throw up their scarves. There is some pride returning to a wounded city. Is it real? And does this city deserve it? In both cases, the answer at the moment is a tentative “yes.”

Caleb Peiffer is a writer for Baseball Prospectus and is also my brother-in-law.

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Soccer in Seattle: Blinding in the Rain

by Caleb Peiffer · March 30, 2009

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