Seattle Sounders FC

  • By Glenn Drosendahl
  • Posted 4/08/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11056

Seattle Sounders FC is a Major League Soccer (MLS) team that began play in 2009. The name, however, dates back to 1974 with the birth of the North American Soccer League's Seattle Sounders. That early team folded in 1983, and pro soccer in Seattle went into a holding period of less ambitious clubs and fast-changing leagues before landing an MLS expansion franchise that began play in 2009. The MLS Sounders made waves with some early signings and then a big splash with a debut season that was hailed as a model for all professional teams. Fans played a vital part, turning out in record numbers and creating a stadium atmosphere unrivaled in North America.

The First Sounders

The original Sounders sprang from efforts to land a National Football League (NFL) franchise for Seattle. A group of prominent Seattle businessmen hoping to get a football team was steered toward the North American Soccer League (NASL), which offered them an expansion franchise in 1973. Six members of that group -- Howard S. Wright (1927-1996), Lynn Himmelman (1912-2007), David "Ned" Skinner (1920-1988), Lloyd Nordstrom (1911-1976), and Herman Sarkowsky (1925-2014) -- later became original owners of a new NFL team, the Seahawks. Meanwhile, the Sounders emerged in 1974 as a hard-working, hard-playing team dominated initially by veteran English players. They taught Seattle fans to call the soccer field a pitch and to appreciate the subtle intricacies of the game.

The Lads, as the Sounders came to be called, played their first two years in Memorial Stadium at Seattle Center, where they were quickly adopted by enthusiastic fans. They drew 12,132 for their first home game and midway through their debut season attracted the first league's capacity crowd, about 13,000. Sellouts became commonplace. In 1976, the Sounders moved into the newly completed Kingdome. They were part of that building's first sporting event, an exhibition match against the New York Cosmos and Brazilian star Pele that drew 58,128, at that time the biggest soccer crowd in U.S. history. Over the next five seasons, the Sounders averaged crowds of about 23,000, generally outdrawing the Kingdome's other non-football tenants -- Major League Baseball's Mariners and the National Basketball Association's Sonics.

The Sounders were adept at cultivating young local talent, which helped endear them to fans. Original coach John Best, from 1974 to 1976, and his successor Jimmy Gabriel, 1977 to 1979, formed the league's first reserve program, which produced such players as West Seattle's Jimmy McAlister (b. 1957), who was signed as a 19-year-old and was named 1977 NASL Rookie of the Year, and Tacoma's Mark Peterson (1960-2011), the team's all-time leader in goals.

A Post-Sounders Transition

The Sounders reached Soccer Bowl, the North American Soccer League's championship game, twice -- in 1977 under Gabriel and in 1982 under Alan Hinton (b. 1942) -- but lost both times to the Cosmos. Their best season was 1980, their first with Hinton as head coach and Frank Coluccio (1930-2007) as owner. They won a league-record 25 games; forward Roger Davies (b. 1950) scored a league-best 25 goals and was named the league's Most Valuable Player, and Hinton was named its top coach. The NASL and the Sounders peaked in popularity that season. Player salaries and travel costs contributed to rising debts. Attendance declined over the next two years as the number of teams dropped from 24 to 13. Coluccio sold the team after the 1982 season. The Sounders folded on September 6, 1983, and the league went out of business the next year.

Looking for work, some Sounders players joined the Tacoma Stars of the Major Indoor Soccer League. The Stars were formed in 1983 and played in the Tacoma Dome. Hinton coached them from 1985 to 1990, including 1987 when they drew an indoor-soccer record crowd of 21,728 for Game 7 of the 1987 league championship series, won by the Dallas Sidekicks in overtime. But the MISL suffered from the same problem as the North American Soccer League: Costs exceeded revenue. The Stars and their league shut down in 1992.

A team called at first FC Seattle and later FC Seattle Storm operated from 1984 to 1990. ("FC" in a soccer team's name stands for "Football Club" -- many teams in England, where the game is known as football, use the abbreviation in their names.) Initially funded by Bellevue businessman Bud Greer (b. 1936) and coached by former Sounder Tommy Jenkins (b. 1947), FC Seattle had mostly local players and competed in friendly matches against visiting national and international teams. In 1985 it joined with other fledgling West Coast clubs to form the semi-pro Western Alliance Challenge Series, which in 1986 became the Western Soccer Alliance, which in turn became the Western Soccer League in 1989, and then merged with the American Soccer League in 1990 to become the American Professional Soccer League. When that league was absorbed by the United Soccer League (USL) in 1990, FC Seattle Storm and most of the other West Coast teams went dormant, unable to pay national travel costs.

A Return of the Sounders

In 1994, Seattle reentered the United Soccer League, later called the A-League, with a new Sounders team, this one owned by former Microsoft executive Scott Oki (b. 1948). Hinton coached the team for the first two seasons. With mostly players from the Puget Sound area, they won championships -- under Hinton in 1995 and under new coach Neil Megson (b. 1962), another of the original Sounders, in 1996. Major League Soccer launched that same year, becoming the nation's top soccer league and prompting the Sounders' move to the second-tier USL First Division in 1997. That Sounders team's longest-tenured coach was Seattle native Brian Schmetzer (b. 1962), who took over in 2002 and coached them to the end of their existence in 2008, adding USL championships in 2005 and 2007, before becoming assistant head coach of Sounders FC, the new Major League Soccer team. Schmetzer was a 17-year-old defender from Seattle's Nathan Hale High School on the 1980 Sounders team that went 25-7. His first USL team nearly duplicated that record, going 23-1-4.

Also in 2002, Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer (b. 1966) became the team's majority owner. He was eager to land a Major League Soccer franchise for Seattle. Previous attempts had been rebuffed, with the league's commissioner saying the city first would have to build a stadium that met MLS and international soccer standards, but that had since been accomplished. Seahawks Stadium, as the venue was initially named, was built on the former site of the Kingdome to house both the city's National Football League team and soccer contests. On July 28, 2002, Hanauer's USL Sounders played in the building's first event, a match against the Vancouver White Caps. The crowd of 25,515 set a USL record and was well above MLS averages. Two years later Seattle was passed over when MLS added two new teams, Chivas USA in Southern California and Real Salt Lake in Utah, but Hanauer was optimistic his turn would come.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles movie producer and longtime soccer fan Joe Roth (b. 1948) also wanted to own a team. MLS officials told him the league's next expansion would be in the Pacific Northwest, so Roth zeroed in on Seattle. He met Hanauer in July 2007 at the MLS All-Star Game in Denver and they agreed to join forces. They later added Seahawks owner Paul Allen (b. 1953), who would provide his team's staff for business operations, and comedian Drew Carey (b. 1958), who asked Roth if he could be included. The ownership group for a future Major League Soccer team was set. Roth would own 35 percent, Hanauer 32.5 percent, Allen 25 percent, and Carey the remaining 7.5 percent.

Seattle Joins Major League Soccer

On November 9, 2007, MLS confirmed that Seattle would get the league's 15th team, with play scheduled to start in 2009. Roth and his fellow owners paid a franchise fee of $30 million. The official announcement came four days later in a press conference on the 75th floor of the Columbia Tower. Hanauer said the USL Sounders would play one more season. Initially there was no plan to call the new MLS team the Sounders, but that name was the runaway winner in fan voting and was officially adopted as Sounders FC.

The new team lined up some top talent. The first acquisition was the USL's reigning Most Valuable Player, Sebastian Le Toux (b. 1984), who was signed in May 2008 and loaned to the USL Sounders for their final season. In August 2008, the MLS team landed the U.S. national team captain, goalkeeper Kasey Keller (b. 1969), a three-time U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year from Lacey in Thurston County and a respected veteran of the English Premier League and Germany's Bundesliga. Like Le Toux, he began training with the USL Sounders and established himself as a team leader. Later that fall Sounders FC added Swedish midfielder Freddie Ljungberg (b. 1977), a 10-year veteran of the English Premier League and former star with Arsenal, at a salary of $2.5 million.

Among those watching with interest was Sigi Schmid (b. 1953), who was in the process of coaching the Columbus Crew to Major League Soccer's best record and his second league championship. Shortly after Columbus won the title, Sounders FC signed him as its first head coach. Schmid, a German native who grew up in Los Angeles, played for UCLA and coached the Bruins to three NCAA championships. His UCLA teams made the national tournament in 16 consecutive years. He later coached the Los Angeles Galaxy to the MLS championship. He knew Hanauer from visiting Seattle while his son was in school at the University of Washington. Schmid said getting Ljungberg "was huge for the franchise for name recognition. ... His signing and Kasey's signing made people think 'these guys are serious with what they're trying to do.' It was a statement signing" (Gastineau, 143). By that time, the team had sold more than 17,000 season tickets and was on pace to lead all MLS teams in that category.

Connecting With the Fans

From the early days at Memorial Stadium, Sounders teams had a boisterous cadre of loyal, demonstrative fans. The MLS Sounders actively embraced them, while also going after those who gathered at local pubs such as the Atlantic Crossing, the George & Dragon, and Fuel to watch international matches broadcast locally at 7 a.m. or earlier. Singing and chanting, common among fans in other nations, were part of the scene. Sounders executives decided that this was the demographic they wanted to reach. With the launch of Sounders FC, membership in the diehard fan group Emerald City Supporters (ECS) grew from 30 to 2,000.

Following up on an idea Carey borrowed from FC Barcelona in Spain, Seattle's new team created Sounders FC Alliance, the only association in U.S. professional sports to offer its members a voice in club matters. Season-ticket holders automatically were included; others could join for $125. Alliance members would, among other things, vote every four years on whether to retain the general manager or petition for such a vote based on performance. (In 2012, Hanauer, the team's first GM, won his four-year vote with 96 percent approval.) Carey had insisted on fans having that right as a condition of him joining the ownership group. He also wanted the team to have a marching band. The resulting group, called Sound Wave, would lead the March to the Match, a pre-game parade of singing, chanting, banner-and-team-scarf-waving fans from Occidental Park in Pioneer Square into the stadium.

Emerald City Supporters, which had instituted the march for USL games, helped it grow much bigger with the arrival of the MLS team. The ECS also independently created and unfurled in the stadium enormous banners called tifos -- often elaborate designs that covered multiple sections of the stands -- and sang and chanted throughout matches, creating an atmosphere resembling top pro-soccer strongholds on other continents. "They (ECS members) were the passion of the franchise. The secret sauce," said Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke (b. 1960), who helped launch the soccer team. "We always thought they were critical, but then they really became the centerpiece. ... They were what differentiated us from all the other teams. The authenticity of our fan base made us different" (Gastineau, 187)

A Rousing Debut

The Sounders played their first MLS game on March 19, 2009, in what was then called Qwest Field, against the league's 2008 runners-up, the New York Red Bulls. A crowd of 32,523 witnessed pregame pageantry and generated a level of enthusiasm that brought tears to the eyes of team executives who were seeing their dream come alive, and to the eyes of players and coaches who had never seen such a reception in North America. It helped that Seattle won 3-0. The first goal in franchise history came in the 11th minute on a shot by Fredy Montero (b. 1987), a 21-year-old forward the Sounders had found in Colombia. Midfielder Brad Evans (b. 1985) got the second later in the first half, on an assist from Montero, and Montero scored the third on a breakaway in the 75th minute. The Red Bulls managed only two shots on goal. Sounders FC had arrived in a big way, fielding a team to match the rousing welcome of its fans.

Sounders FC achieved extraordinary first-year success for an expansion team. The Sounders won the U.S. Open Cup, a competition open to all levels of certified men's teams, and made the MLS playoffs with a record of 12-7-11. Keller set a league record by not allowing a goal in the first 457 minutes of the season. Montero led the team in scoring with 12 goals and seven assists. Seattle set an MLS attendance record, averaging 30,897, and Senior Vice President of Business Operations Gary Wright (b. 1944) was named MLS Executive of the Year. Sports Business Journal and Sports Business Daily named the Sounders the North American professional franchise of the year, crediting them with establishing a model for future franchises.

The Sounders posted winning records again in the 2010 and 2011 seasons, making the playoffs each time and winning the the U.S. Open Cup both years. An emotional moment came on October 15, 2011, when Keller played his final game, an event that drew 64,510 to the stadium, which had changed names again, to CenturyLink Field. In 2012, the Sounders traded for high-scoring forward Eddie Johnson (b. 1984), a U.S. national team member returning to MLS after playing in England and Greece. He scored a team record 14 goals, and was named an All-Star and MLS Comeback Player of the Year. That season the team made the playoffs for a fourth straight time and for the first time won a postseason game, beating Real Salt Lake in the conference semifinals before losing to the Los Angeles Galaxy in the conference championship game. Their bid for an unprecedented fourth straight U.S. Open Cup tournament also ended in a title-game loss.

Upping Their Game

Although Hanauer was overwhelmingly retained by the Alliance vote after the 2012 season, the Sounders had set such high standards and expectations with their early success that it was hard to show continued improvement. They addressed that with the costliest player acquisition in MLS history. On August 3, 2013, the Sounders announced they had signed U.S. national team captain Clint Dempsey (b. 1983), widely regarded as the country's best player. Terms were not made public but multiple sources said Seattle paid a $9 million transfer fee to Dempsey's team, Tottenham of the English Premier League, and gave him a contract worth $30 to 35 million. That meant the Texas-raised forward would earn more in base salary than either David Beckham (b. 1975) or Thierry Henry (b. 1977), the league's highest-profile international stars. Both the transfer fee and Dempsey's salary were considered league records. By all measures it was a big deal -- a coup not only for Seattle but Major League Soccer in general.

Hanauer called the Dempsey signing "giving ourselves a little more rocket fuel ... To reinvigorate the fan base and the people who work in the organization and the team itself" (Gastineau, 249). Roth, the team's majority owner, said, "It feels like a second opening to me. We're injecting a piece into this that's big enough to suggest there's another wave of people coming" (Gastineau, 249).

Despite that highlight -- plus the addition of Nigerian forward Obafemi Martins (b. 1984) and a victory over Northwest rival Portland in front of a record crowd of 67,385 -- the 2013 season turned disappointing. Dempsey was often traveling with the national team, and when he was with the Sounders he didn't mesh well with Johnson. The Sounders went winless in their final seven regular-season games and were bounced from the playoffs by Portland in the Western Conference semifinals.

Best Season Yet

Shortly after the loss to Portland, Schmid met with three key players -- Evans, Dempsey, and four-time All-Star midfielder Osvaldo Alonso (b. 1985) -- to get their feedback. He then set about retooling the roster. The Sounders got rid of two former league award winners, Johnson and midfielder Mauro Rosales, and brought in goalkeeper Stefan Frei (b. 1986), winger Marco Pappa (b. 1987), and midfielder Gonzalo Pineda (b. 1982), plus defender Chad Marshall (b. 1984) and forwards Chad Barrett (b. 1985) and Kenny Cooper (b. 1984) -- a trio of veteran MLS starters willing to accept smaller roles for a chance to win. "More plumbers and less dancers," Roth said (Pentz, "How Sigi Schmid...").

The recast club produced the team's best season to that point. Martins scored a team-record 17 goals, Dempsey added 15, and the 2014 Sounders had the league's top record, 20-10-4, giving Seattle the MLS Supporters Shield for the first time. They also won their fourth U.S. Open Cup and advanced farther in the playoffs, reaching the Western Conference finals against the Galaxy. The Sounders lost the first game of the series 1-0 in Carson, California, but put themselves in position to win the series by taking a 2-0 lead in the second game on goals by Evans and Dempsey . It was a cold night at CenturyLink, and it came to a bitter end for the Sounders and their fans. The Galaxy scored a second-half goal, which meant that even though Seattle won the game 2-1, Los Angeles won the series. The two-game aggregate score was even, but the Galaxy advanced because of having scored more goals on the road (one) than Seattle (none). The Galaxy went on to win the league championship, while the Sounders stewed over having let the opportunity get away. "Such is the paradox of Major League Soccer's two-game series playoff system," Seattle Times reporter Matt Pentz wrote, "that a team can lose with a victory" ("A Win Won't Do").

Signs Pointing Up

Despite failing to reach the championship, Sounders FC had led Major League Soccer in attendance by a wide margin in each of their first six seasons. Their 2014 average of 43,734 was nearly double the league's next best. They had the equivalent of 34,500 full-season ticket holders. They were the only team to have won four U.S. Open Cups, and they had done so in just six seasons. In March 2014, the team offices moved from the Seahawks headquarters building in Renton to space in Pioneer Square. Allen continued to own 25 percent of Sounders FC, but otherwise the soccer team had achieved independence, no longer relying on the Seahawks for business operations. With the heaviest lifting accomplished, Hanauer retained his ownership role but stepped aside from the general manager position in January 2015. He was succeeded by Garth Lagerwey (b. 1972), a former MLS goalkeeper who had been Real Salt Lake's general manager since 2007. The team also extended Schmid's contract and its CenturyLink lease, ensuring future stability.

For the 2015 season, the Sounders returned 10 of 11 regular starters from 2014, and that one missing player was a source of pride. He was young star DeAndre Yedlin (b. 1993), who landed a contract with Dempsey's former team, Tottenham Hotspur. Yedlin, a Seattle native who got his start in soccer in local youth programs, had signed with the Sounders in January 2013 as the team's first Homegrown Player, a designation meaning he had come up through the team's developmental program. Yedlin was named an MLS All-Star as a rookie and again the following season when he also played for the U.S. in the 2014 World Cup. To have him join the English Premier League was a loss in terms of personnel, but a triumph in the sense that it showed that MLS, and Seattle in particular, was producing talent that could compete with the best in the world.

Reaching New Heights

Despite the stable roster, the 2015 season was a drop-off from the heights of 2014. The Sounders finished fourth in the Western Conference, and although they made the playoffs again, they were ousted by FC Dallas in the conference semifinals. But 2016 made up for that in drama and unprecedented achievement.

The season started on a promising note, with the Sounders in January signing the national college player of the year, forward Jordan Morris (b. 1994), a homegrown talent from Mercer Island. But then, 10 days before the MLS season opener, high-scoring Martins left the team to play in China. And once the season started, the Sounders struggled. By late July, they were in ninth place in the Western Conference and in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time. Schmid, the winningest coach in MLS history, was let go on July 26 in what the team described as a mutually agreed decision, and his longtime assistant, Schmetzer, was named interim head coach. One day later, the Sounders announced they had signed Nicolás Lodeiro (b. 1989), a Uruguayan midfielder playing for Boca Juniors of Buenos Aires. He turned out to be just what they needed, a talented playmaker who made those around him better.

With a new coach and a new star, the Sounders took off. They even overcame the loss of Dempsey, their highest-paid player, whose season was cut short after he was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat in late August. The Sounders lost just two of their 14 remaining regular-season games.

They beat Sporting Kansas City 1-0 in the knockout round and routed top-ranked FC Dallas 3-0 in the first game of the conference semifinals. Ownership responded by announcing on November 2 that "interim" was no longer part of Schmetzer's title; he had earned the job of head coach. Dallas won the second game of the semifinals, but Seattle advanced to the conference finals with the better aggregate score. The Sounders beat the Colorado Rapids 2-1 in Seattle and 1-0 in Colorado to win the West. For the first time, the Sounders would be playing for the MLS Cup.

The game was set for December 10, 2016, against Toronto FC in Toronto. The home team had scored 17 goals in five playoff games and had two standout forwards, Sebastian Giovinco (b. 1987) and Jozy Altidore (b. 1989). The Sounders would need stout defense and a big game from goaltender Frei. Toronto mounted threat after threat but did not score. The Sounders, meanwhile, were barely able to get off a shot. The teams played 90 scoreless minutes, then 30 more in overtime. Toronto had a chance to win in the 108th minute when Altidore sent a header toward the corner of the net, but Frei made a fully-extended leap to deflect the shot. The game came down to penalty kicks. The shootout was tied 4-4 after five rounds, but then Toronto's Justin Morrow (b. 1987) bounced his kick off the crossbar, leaving the title up to defender Román Torres. The burly centerback made his shot, triggering a raucous celebration by the Sounders. For the first time in their eight-year MLS history the Sounders owned the MLS Cup.


Sources:

Seattle Sounders FC 2014 Media Guide ed. by Jeff Garza (Seattle: Seattle Sounders FC, 2014); Mike Gastineau, Sounders FC: Authentic Masterpiece (North Charleston, S.C.: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013); Matthew Gaschk, "MLS Officially Adds Seattle," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 14, 2007, p. C-3; Art Thiel, "Big-Time Soccer Arrives in Seattle -- Or Has it?," Ibid., November 14, 2007, p. C-1; Gary Washburn, "Sounders FC Makes Giant Hire in Schmid," Ibid., December 17, 2008, p. B-1; John McGrath, "A Time for Fan Input and a Marching Band," Tacoma News Tribune, November 14, 2007, p. C-1; McGrath, "Sounders' Debut in a Word: Wow!," Ibid., March 20, 2009, p. C-3; Matt Pentz, "The Passion," The Seattle Times, September 10, 2014, p. C-1; Joshua Mayers, "Getting the Ball Rolling," Ibid., September 22, 2010, p. C-1; Matt Massey, "Seattle Sounders: Kicking Through the Memories," Ibid., May 6, 2004, p. C-4; Larry Stone, "Big-Time Soccer Coming in 2009," Ibid., November 10, 2007, p. A-1; Jose Miguel Romero, "Carey Has Stake in City," Ibid., November 13, 2007, p. D-2; Romero, "Sounders Hand It to Keller," Ibid., August 9, 2008, p. C-2; Romero, "Sounders Ready to Sign Ljungberg," Ibid., October 25, 2008, p. C-2; Romero, "Sounders Land Their Star," Ibid., October 29, 2008, p. C-1; Romero, "Goooooooals! Debut a Classic," Ibid., March 20, 2009, p. C-1; Steve Kelly, "Remember This as Seattle's Best Sports Day in Many Years," Ibid., March 20, 2009, p. C-3; Romero, "Soccer 101: What New Fans Need to Know to Understand the Game," Ibid., April 9, 2009, p. C-1; Mayers, "Sounders Acquire Veteran Johnson," Ibid., February 18, 2012, p. C-1; Mayers, "Reports: Dempsey to Seattle," Ibid., August 3, 2013, p. C-1; Jayda Evans, "Dempsey Unveiled to Thrill of Fans," Ibid., August 4, 2013, p. C-8; Mayers, "Sounders Set for New Business Operation," Ibid, March 21, 2014, p. C-1; Geoff Baker, "Goal-oriented Hero," Ibid., September 12, 2014, p. A-6; Pentz, "How Sigi Schmid Pressed On and Got the Sounders Trending Up," Ibid., November 21, 2014, p. C-1; Pentz, "A Win Won't Do," Ibid., December 1, 2014, p. C-3; Jerry Brewer, "A Cruel Conclusion," Ibid., December 1, 2014, p. C-3; Pentz, "Sounders Had Successful Run but Came Up Short," Ibid., December 7, 2014, p. C-1; Pentz, "Sounders New GM Savors a Challenge," Ibid., January 7, 2015, p. C-1; Matt Pentz, "End of the Sigi Era," The Seattle Times, July 27, 2016, p. C-1; Pentz, "Schmetzer No Longer Tagged as Interim," Ibid., November 3, 2016, p. C-1; Pentz, "Realizing Dreams," Ibid., November 28, 2016, p. C-1; Larry Stone, "Strange Journey for Sounders on Way to Cup," Ibid., December 4, 2016, p. C-1; Pentz, "A Whirlwind Year for Rookie Morris," Ibid., December 8, 2016, p. C-1; Pentz, "Roman's Empire," Ibid., December 11, 2016, p. C-1; Stone, "First the Agony, Followed by the Ecstasy for Sounders," Ibid., December 11, 2016, p. C-1; Kevin Baxter, "Schmetzer Gets Rewarded; Coach Leads Seattle to Improbable MLS Title After Taking Over the Club in July," Los Angeles Times, December 11, 2016, p. D-2; Brian Sciaretta, "Seattle Sounders Win M.L.S. Cup Over Toronto F.C. in a Shootout," The New York Times, December 11, 2016 (http://www.nytimes.com/); Andrew Harvey, "Absurdly, Sounders Win Cup With No Shot On Goal," December 10, 2016, SportspressNW website accessed February 24, 2017 (http://sportspressnw.com/2227644/2016/absurdly-sounders-win-cup-without-shot-on-goal); Art Thiel, "Champions! Sounders Topple Toronto in Shootout," December 10, 2016, SportspressNW website accessed February 24, 2017 (http://sportspressnw.com/2227634/2016/champions-sounders-topple-toronto-in-shootout). Note: This essay was updated and expanded on February 26, 2017.


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