In the bounty of fall sports, behind the screen of Seahawks, Huskies, and faint Mariners, one Seattle team has reached the finals. The Sounders will play on Saturday, Sept. 29, at Starfire Stadium Tukwila at 7 p.m. for the 2007 United Soccer League's First Division Championship. As they say on the plane, you have plenty of choices, and we are pleased you have chosen to be with us.
So you might consider driving south to this soccer complex and catch the finals against the Atlanta Silverbacks. But get there early. The true veterans of this league have been on board for months and would not miss this finale and could care less if you choose karaoke or seared tuna. The stands will be filled, and there are no reservations, just anticipation and anxiety and hope.
The Sounder fans are a veteran lot and for six months have settled into seats at Qwest Field with a couple thousand others, where they never much notice that there are 48,000 other empty seats. When the Portland team comes up to Seattle and brings as many fans as can be mustered, even then they seem not to notice. The audio at Qwest, but only at Qwest, plays Carmina Burana moments before the team surges out, that dark omen of bum/bum boom/boom, and you think, well, there are not a lot of us but let's get to it.
I went with family and friends to the semifinals at Starfire last Sunday, Sept. 23. It was the only venue that was available, and 3,500 fans snugged into 2,500 unmarked bleacher seats, the reserved and the unreserved and all for one team, in one twilight. In truth, these fans would watch this game behind a drive-in theatre, which metaphorically is what they do. You find yourself in an office park, alongside the Green River, in a small stadium surrounded by soccer fields.
And once you get there, once you look around at legions of kids and team jerseys and parents and ex-players and current players and couples who whisper and where English is a second language and guys who would never bring their wives and wives whose husbands are out watching American football and loners and scouts and young women and the two Frenchmen who wave hello but keep talking in French – once you settle in with this crew, well, then you are done and it is time for soccer.
There are no intermissions, no TV-commercial breaks. There are refs wagging a finger and players mocking an opponent, there are acts of cunning and of cruelty, there are no free throws nor flags, no coach is even allowed on the pitch. The hope is that the flow can be sustained and kept, that both sides try their most brilliant and improvised sense of possible and near impossible. It is as if motion itself shall unfold the better and reveal the very fact of which club can venture furthest into a complexity that has no rival nor peer, and in the end to score.
If you are coming for the first time, you are late to the Sounder tale. In August, the Sounders nearly rose out of their league as they played into the semifinals of the Lamar Hunt Challenge Cup. They beat two Major League Soccer teams, L.A. and Colorado, teams they feared with all common sense, pounded them with youth and will and goals, and suddenly were set to make the finals if they could get past Dallas. And well they might have but for nerves and circumstance. Qwest field was 10,000 strong for this match in late August, where the winner would go to a final that had money and prestige and TV and all that comes with it. But Dallas has 20 times the payroll and six guys from World Cup teams and, most crucially, scored first. Brian Schmetzer, the Sounder coach, had said before the game, we score first, we win. After that first score, Dallas held on to win 2-1, and the Sounders fell back to Earth.
But points were made. Very likely by 2009 the Sounders will have moved up to the MLS league, the best of this country. For the moment, they are an off-broadway stud.
So back went the Sounders to their own league, to try for their own title championship that they had last secured in 2005. It all seemed on pace until Sunday night, when they had to tie or beat the Puerto Rico Islanders to make the finals. The Sounders had been in Puerto Rico that Friday, flown back on Saturday, and for much of this game looked thick-legged with travel. Puerto Rico played as a team possessed, with a fury and even rage, forcing and insisting the ball into the Seattle defenses. They scored first and they scored last, with three minutes overtime left, to force the issue to penalty kicks.
The Sounder goalie, Chris Eylander, has just gotten engaged, and he has just told the team all about it, even though most of the time he hardly talks. So he is right to the front of himself, in full broadcast, and by some description, he became the difference. Eylander amazingly blocks two of the penalty shots he faces. On one he is even a bit early. And the Sounders have won. They are in the finals, on their own field down there in Tukwila, alongside the railroad tracks, beneath a near full moon, with every one of their true fans relieved and relieved for them. Puerto Rico, which had played so bravely and so passionately, was left abandoned, as far from Puerto Rico physically and psychically as teams can be.
For the final this Saturday, you might pay certain attentions. It is a last game, and in this league, with the possibility of league changes, you will surely never see this exact lineup again. There is the French forward Sebastian Le Toux, the only Sounder chosen for the league's First Team, a 23-year-old who still eats fish and chips with a knife and fork. Le Toux perhaps won the game on Sunday. He broke from the center line with the ball and one defender and they flew toward the goal, like two thrown out of a plane, until Le Toux blasted a shot that hit crossbar and down but it was too quick for the linesman, and he ruled it not yet a goal.
Leighton O'Brien, the 160-pound midfielder, the weight of choice for this crew, is already the player for any penalty kicks, the one who keeps order and brings justice and serves the papers for the entire affair, be it genteel or disorderly. Kenji Treschuk, from Hawaii and a four-year starter at Penn State, has a baby face that would get him carded in his own neighborhood. The high school girls have him on particular radar, but he is a fierce young fellow, with an armful of agendas, and it was his single-mindedness that kept the Puerto Rico game in sight. Danny Jackson, the Brit captain on defense, sat out Sunday with a red card, so now he has some ground to make up. You will know if he plays a brilliant match, for Atlanta has two great forwards, and you will be able to tell by their absence and Jackson's very slight swagger.
Soccer is a game best played in town, not out by the Green River, but things take time, and one day, when it simply makes sense, the Sounders ought to be playing at a newly remodeled Memorial Stadium at Seattle Center. There will be 20,000 people up in arms, and someone will point out, it is just like coffee, back when all the rest was just Folgers in a can, and people, once they know the real stuff, just will not stand for it.