Last Thursday night, at Qwest field, was the debut of Major League Soccer in Seattle, the very first game of the season, the first game of the Seattle franchise and the first presentation of Microsoft as major sports sponsor. It has been a cold, grim winter in Seattle, the weather a sort of central casting for the economy. No one sells a Seattle March for tourism, but even the sun arrived for the opener, along with the mayor, governor, the League president, and the owners.
It was a fine victory for the Sounders, 3-0 over last year'ês MLS Cup finalists, the New York Red Bulls (in US football scale, probably 27-0). The Seattle Club played with great intensity and some justified trepidation, for they are a chosen clump of a team — chosen from dozens of leagues and rosters and colleges all over North America and South America, Europe and Africa, aging veterans and true youths, at least eight different natural languages and probably eight of the starters had never heard of Mt Rainier. In soccer terms, they have played together for only a moment, really no more than a month. Four of the starters had never played a minute in the MLS league.
32,000 fans, some sick of the economy, sick of Seahawks and Sonics and Husky football and Mariner mumbles, sick of TV ads and Seagals and instant replay, sent in a record number of credit cards for season tickets, and game tickets and pale green scarves. 'êThis is the first game, man, the very first game ever and I am going to be there!'ê They combined with the true vein, or weathervane, of just plain soccer people to completely fill up the main level of Qwest Field.
The Northwest soccer people are a particular lot indeed, and there are thousands of them. Their kids play and will play and they know the coach in Kitsap and the field in Benton City and the wind at the Regionals in Boise, and they know where the World Cup will be, not just next year( South Africa), but four years later (Brazil) and four years after that (perhaps France). And some remember the games at Memorial Stadium, the first pro soccer in Seattle, the sweet surprise of sitting and cheering with so many people who were not speaking English.
Soccer people have no idea why Cincinnati would name a team the Bengals and they also do not know what sport the Bengals play. They know soccer shoes and insteps, and when you say Deco, they know he is injured, and they know Fabio was the most valuable player at the last World Cup and he was injured by his own teammate who cried because Fabio could not then play for the Italian National team.
They are organized, these soccer people, not militantly but relentlessly by Internet, cellphone, and glance. They play, or their kids play, on school and club teams. Many of them could rattle off the coaches, managers, players and such from dozens of clubs, the boys and girls who went off to this and that college, the D1s and D2s, with their cleats and reputation and hopes. Quietly, for soccer is at its heart an unspoken game, quietly they have become a great mass of details and people and local soccer history. They have lured and secured the boys who would have starred at football and fed them a special diet of soccer, often starting at 6 years old. After a few years of running up and down the field in shorts and a t-shirt in front of friends and parents, any boy is a bit less likely to want to don the physical or psychic armor of football.
There are literally vast fields of soccer. In Bellevue at 60 Acres they play 16 games simultaneously, and in Bellingham, like lengths of tulips, 18 games can be going on at once, the first group at 8 am and the last, the 18 year olds, at 5 pm.
It is soccer and the soccer people that hold the heart valve of this new Sounders team. And it is not completely obvious that the Sounders FC management is together on what the customs of the soccer people might be. Adrian Hanauer knows perfectly, all of the coaching staff knows intuitively but the Xbox, Paul Allen, and California ownership seemed less clear. The public address announcer mispronounced the Sounder player names, very poor form in a very proud sport collected from so many countries.
And the start of the second half was delayed for a minute or so by a television prompter — and that must never happen. In soccer, the referees are the clergy; they tell you when it starts, not the networks. And when it ends, it is the referee who will determine what extra injury time must be added to the game, a decision that is non- negotiable by any one. The power of a referee is so absolute that he will end an argument simply raising his index finger and nodding 'êEnough!'ê It is not for him to await some blue-jeaned guy in headphones.
Eager to debut, the Sounders played this opener with a tense fury, making the game itself more physical than elegant. There were many passes off line, more balls ended up in the stands than you might ever see again (some of the fans were obviously at their first game and unsure if you might get to keep the ball), and few relationships were very clear. The Red Bulls are a veteran MLS squad but on this night they played as if they had misread the schedule and the real season opener was yet a week away.
It is a very long season, from March to November, 32 games including a couple exhibitions, and then the playoffs. Much will be revealed in this grindstone but it is clear the Sounders have some wonderful talent and some obvious ambition. They have kept six players from last year'ês Seattle USL team, but in most respects, they hardly resemble that team, or that league. The previous Sounders were a sturdy lot, feared for their defense and cunning, and they knew every nook and cranny of their league. They knew how to steal a game from a better club, or force a temper, or court a favor.
But now, the Sounders are the rookies of a league. They have some important MLS players on the squad who will help the initiation. Their fine coach, Sigi Schmid, is the perfect wagon master. He has been in this league for ten years, he has twice won the MLS title, he is Pinella and Holmgren. If anyone can hide the new stitching and uncertainty, it is Schmid. They will play with a swagger and a preparation that he distinctly controls. He will instruct how you defend against the Chicago Fire and what you must fear from the Revolution. It is his task to concoct a quick-setting gel for this team, for all of their opponents have already forged an identity. For just this moment, the Sounders are a pick-up team, a jangle of veterans and kids and humors dropped into a league.
Their Swedish superstar, Freddie Ljungberg, will not be healthy to play until later April but that may give the players time to become themselves. Ljungberg and Jarrod Smith, a fine forward/scorer also injured, will have profound effects on the look and style of the offense when they do return. For the moment, this Sounder team has a wonderful look — best heralded by their 21-year-old Colombian forward Fredy Montero, who scored two goals in this opening game. It may be genius, from several people and on a few levels, and it may be some simple luck, but Montero may well be the young man about to be superstar. You should not miss chances to watch him: he loves to score and it is hard to not smile at his passion and skill.
Sebastien LeToux, last season's fine Sounder star, has been moved back to midfield, where his relentlessness can have even more effect. Sanna Nyassi, the 20-year-old from Gambia, played only in parts last year but now the Sounders have many more pieces secured in their lineup and Nyassi can be set loose from the midfield, creating pure space from his speed.
It was announced this week that both Vancouver and Portland will join the MLS next year. This is crucial news to the Sounders, who have already a very complicated and intense soccer rivalry with both cities from the USL League. It is that very rivalry that honed and detailed and characterized the three teams, as they came to represent the three cities. Now that process will only run deeper. It is one thing to play Houston but it is personal to play Vancouver. The contest of three Northwest cites may well become the very heart of what will make the MLS a true league.
It was also announced that the MLS Championship will be played in Seattle, at Qwest field, next fall. And that poses a taunting challenge to the Sounders, for no expansion team is expected to get that far, or be that good. But it is clear from all said and implied that these Sounders are not primed to play for anything less than that championship. They have been in the league for exactly one game and now they want all of it— they want to take it, get it, and have it. They are a willful bunch.