By Jose M. Romero
Fall Sundays in America aren’t for soccer, right?
They’re for the NFL. Maybe the baseball playoffs. And if its soccer you want, the European or Mexican leagues. El Clasico from Spain. The best football in the world.
Anything but Major League Soccer. Especially when Sunday night’s Seattle-Portland match went head to head with the New Orleans-San Diego NFL game and two baseball playoff games.
Maybe the TV ratings for MLS weren’t there, but the people sure were. How about 66,452 to be exact?
There’s no more dismissing or ignoring or failing to mention MLS, though the ever-present critics will find some way to spin their ant-soccer rhetoric. But the masses of folks who have bought in will grow because pro soccer in the USA is here to stay. It matters. It is the world’s game, with a North American flair.
See, soccer-minded folks in the U.S. and Canada aren’t dumb. In fact quite the opposite. We took our favorite things from the English Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Liga MX, Argentina, Brazil, and other countries and blended them together as fans. MLS teams did so, too, in structuring their organizations.
The league and its teams are savvy. There is a salary cap with some flexibility for big-name international signings. There are new and newer soccer-specific stadiums across the country. There is stability and strong bases with owners, general manager/presidents, technical directors, coaching staffs, academies to develop future players and plenty of say from fans.
Seattle doesn’t stop at large numbers of fans. It allows those fans who become club alliance members to vote for retention or ousting of the general manager every four years. GM Adrian Hanauer has been in office since the first year of the club and his position is up for a fan vote at present.
It’s unprecedented. It’s sports democracy. It’s awesome.
And the league has taken a steady growth approach. There isn’t a mad rush to expand so fast. MLS has only been around for 17 seasons and the product gets better with each year.
When Major League Soccer made the decision to expand into the Pacific Northwest, it ensured itself of a strong future. No other part of the country supports soccer like the Portland-Seattle-Vancouver B.C. area.
Case in point? The crowd at CenturyLink Field in Seattle for a regular-season match – not an international friendly or an exhibition between great club teams from Europe – on Sunday night. The Seahawks game was over. The baseball season is over. It was a soccer crowd in a soccer town.
Huge crowds had turned out at the Seattle stadium before for Sounders friendlies against Chelsea and FC Barcelona. Manchester United and Celtic played before a sellout crowd. But Sunday’s match was a derby, a rivalry – the Timbers from Oregon were in town and traveled 1,200 fans from Portland.
Again, for a regular-season match between a playoff-bound club, the Sounders, and a team with nothing more to play for in 2012 but pride and the region championship – the Cascadia Cup.
Sounders fans unveiled a tifo – a large artwork display – that featured Seattle coach Sigi Schmid holding a royal flush of cards and the words “Tonight We Go All In.” Schmid certainly noticed: he became emotional in the post-match news conference expressing his appreciation.
Schmid couldn’t have landed a better coaching gig anywhere, given how the fans’ love for the Sounders started so strong when the franchise debuted in MLS in 2009 and has only grown. He even said so.
“This club has been the best thing that’s happened to me in soccer,” Schmid said. “I’m thankful every day that I’m here.”
It’s only too bad that other cities don’t enjoy this kind of support. Portland’s stadium isn’t big enough, but the Timbers have sold out match after match at Jeld-Wen Field despite two losing seasons in their first two years in MLS. Vancouver has a playoff contender in Year Two of the Whitecaps MLS franchise and draws very well.
In soccer-specific stadiums like Portland where capacities are around 20,000, the numbers can’t be there to Seattle’s extent. But the next step for MLS is to increase its fan bases in other markets outside of the Northwest on a more consistent basis.
When your crowd is larger than any in baseball, the EPL and even a few NFL games this past weekend, people tend to take notice. At least among soccer fans and the soccer world, which really is significantly larger than the football, baseball or basketball world.