On March 19, 2009, Sounders FC makes its Major League Soccer debut, beating the New York Red Bulls 3-0 before a capacity crowd at Qwest Field. It is a rousing start for an expansion team, and not only because of the outcome. Fans turn out in greater numbers and with a level of enthusiasm new to MLS, which began play in 1996. Their fervor draws comparisons to soccer strongholds in Europe and South America, and announces emphatically that Seattle professional soccer is back.
The last time the city had a top-level pro soccer team was 1983, the final season for the Sounders of the North American Soccer League. That team had been popular, playing first in Memorial Stadium at Seattle Center and then in the Kingdome, but it couldn't make enough money to cover its costs. The next 25 years were a period of lower-level competition, punctuated by occasional big crowds for visiting international teams. Seattle's attempts to get a Major League Soccer team were foiled until 2007, when the league awarded an expansion franchise to a group headed by Hollywood movie producer Joe Roth (b. 1948). His partners were Adrian Hanauer (b. 1966), Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen (b. 1953), and Drew Carey (b. 1958). The new team adopted the old Sounders name, built a roster headed by goalkeeper Kasey Keller (b. 1969), and signed two-time and reigning MLS champion Sigi Schmid (b. 1953) as its coach.
The owners had high hopes for the team that included some key foreign imports, veterans from other MLS teams, and several players from Sounders FC's immediate predecessor and namesake, the Seattle Sounders owned by Hanauer that until 2008 played in a league one step down from MLS, the United Soccer League. Other MLS expansion teams had not fared well in their first seasons, but Roth expected his team to succeed right off: "If we don't make the playoffs the first year, I don't know what's wrong" (Romero, "Sounders FC Ready ...").
Pomp, Tears, and Goals
Pregame festivities on opening night started outside the stadium. Sound Wave, the team's drum and brass band, led the so-called March to the Match, a singing and chanting procession of fans in team colors from Pioneer Square's Occidental Park into the building. Among the marchers were Roth, Carey, and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels (b. 1955). Inside, after a parade of foreign flags representing the sport's world-wide reach, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire (b. 1947), MLS Commissioner Don Garber (b. 1957), and the team owners addressed the crowd from a stage on the field. Roth told the fans, "It only took 25 years, but the world's game is back in Seattle. And you guys did it with a big bang, 22,000 season tickets, the most successful launch of any team in the history of Major League Soccer. So you proved Seattle is the capital of soccer in this country" (Johns).
The crowd of 32,523 was deliriously boisterous, chanting, singing, and waving banners and team scarves like soccer crowds on other continents. Hanauer, who had worked for so long to get an MLS team, had tears in his eyes. So did Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke (b. 1960), who played a major role in launching Sounders FC. They were seeing their dream come true. Players marveled at a North American crowd being that big and demonstrative. "I've never had chills or wanted to cry walking out on the field before. I almost did," said midfielder Brad Evans (b. 1985). Schmid said, "My dad was there and my wife told me he was in tears during the national anthem. And he's not an emotional guy. That left an impression" (Gastineau, 209).
A One-Sided Victory
The game itself was nationally televised on ESPN2. The Sounders attacked from the start, and a new city sports celebrity quickly emerged. Fredy Montero (b. 1987), a baby-faced forward from Colombia, surprised the Red Bulls with his speed and creativity. He scored the first goal in team history 11 minutes into the match, after taking a pass from Sebastian Le Toux (b. 1984), and then did a planned celebration routine with two Spanish-speaking teammates -- defender Jhon Kennedy Hurtado (b. 1984) and midfielder Osvaldo Alonso (b. 1985). They lined up and pumped their arms in unison while the crowd danced and roared. Montero called it El Moto, the motorbike, and explained they did it "to show that Sounders FC is taking off for the start of great things" (Romero, "Goooooooals!").
True enough. In the 25th minute, Montero passed to Evans, who sent a shot between the goalkeeper's legs for a 2-0 lead. The Red Bulls tried to clamp down on Montero in the second half, but he got loose for another goal in the 75th minute. Meanwhile, the Seattle defense limited New York to two shots on goal, and Keller blocked them both. When the game was over, he triumphantly punted the ball into the crowd. He was giddy over the 3-0 victory -- by an expansion team over the 2008 MLS runners-up, no less -- and especially the fans' reception: "Having spent my whole career in Europe, I was worried about being let down -- why come home for this? ... But there's probably not a better atmosphere for soccer in America" (Thiel).
"It was definitely a European atmosphere. ... a South American atmosphere at its best," Schmid said. "It was something, being very frank, that was very unique to MLS. Hopefully, as other teams and other fans across the country watched this game today, it'll raise everybody's level. Everybody is going to say, 'Hey, we want our place to be like that'" (Myhre). Assistant coach Ezra Hendrickson, who had played a dozen seasons in the league, said, "I had never witnessed anything like it. I remember walking off the pitch and thinking to myself, 'Wow. Maybe soccer has finally arrived in America'" (Gastineau, 215).
Plaudits from the Press
Talk about rave reviews. After the match, local media heaped praise on Sounders FC. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer had published its last print edition three days earlier, but columnist Art Thiel wrote on its website "it appears the Sounders did the game and the production so well that they have become almost instantly the template for the rest of the league" ("Sounders Hit Seattle ..."). The News Tribune in Tacoma ran as a front page headline "Welcome Back, Soccer!" and topped the first page of its sports section with the banner headline "A Beautiful Beginning." Columnist John McGrath's impressions were headlined "Sounders' Debut in a Word: Wow!," and his first sentence read "So far, so great." The Seattle Times sports page was more restrained, displaying a University of Washington victory in the NCAA men's basketball tournament over the soccer game, but columnist Steve Kelley hailed the Sounders' debut as an antidote to Seattle's recent sports woes: "This was the perfect beginning for a franchise that is doing everything right" ("Remember This ...").
Similar praise came at halftime from Garber, the league commissioner, who had just announced an expansion team in Vancouver, B.C., and was about to announce one for Portland:
"This team is raising the bar for what our teams could achieve. There's a belief by some that the sport has to base itself in cities with large Hispanic communities. But Seattle is an active international city, with a diverse population and large youth soccer base and a little less (sports market) competition than in other cities. We have to learn from this ("Sounders Hit Seattle ...")."
The success of the opening night was a precursor to an extraordinary season. Unlike previous MLS expansion teams that had finished at the bottom of the standings, Sounders FC made the playoffs in its first year, won the U.S. Open Cup (in a tournament open to all U.S. teams), and smashed league records for attendance.