The orginal Seattle Sounders played in the North American Soccer League (NASL) from 1974 until 1983. In their early seasons, they routinely packed Memorial Stadium at the Seattle Center; in later years, they drew massive crowds to the Kingdome. In this People's History, Heather Johnson writes about the Sounders, their rabid fanbase, and their pesistent nemesis, the New York Cosmos.
Camelot, Seattle Style
To longtime Seattle soccer fans, "Camelot" doesn't bring to mind images of knights and round tables. Instead, it evokes fond memories of the likes of Davy Butler, Adrian Webster, Tommy Hutchison, and the early years of the Seattle Sounders. The soccer team, which existed for 10 years, seemingly suffered from a split personality. The first five years saw steady growth, and are considered, by those in the know, to be the Camelot years. The last five years were both glorious and awful, marked by inconsistency and high drama.
The team began in December 1973, when the North American Soccer League (NASL), founded in 1967, decided upon a course of westward expansion, hoping that this would stabilize the rocky league, awarding franchises to Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia. (Portland would enter the league in 1975). Seattle's entry was owned by a group of local businessmen and women who promptly named John Best coach of the team, and held a "name the team" contest. A month later, Sounders was selected as the winning name, beating out over 3,000 other suggestions, including "Mariners" (one of the finalists).
Unlike many expansion teams (think of, say, the Mariners), the Sounders made an instant impact on both the league and city. Playing in Seattle Center's Memorial Stadium, the Sounders hosted the first sell-out crowd (13,876) in NASL history on June 22, 1974. They played to six sellout crowds in their inaugural season, and despite a rocky start, the team ended the season with a 10-3-7 record, narrowly missing the playoffs. Based on their first season success, seating was expanded in 1975, and in July 1975 the team set a NASL attendance record with a crowd of 17,925, a number they achieved two more times that year. They also achieved their goal of making the playoffs in only their second season. Even more unusual, it never rained on the team in any of the games played in either of the years the Sounders played in Memorial Stadium.
In 1976 the Sounders moved to the "state-of-the-art" Kingdome (where there was no chance of rain, but they did have to deal with the evils of AstroTurf), facing the New York Cosmos in the first event ever in the new stadium, before a sold-out crowd of 58,128. The home team lost 3-1 to the Pele-driven Cosmos. Despite the intensity of the Vancouver-Seattle-Portland "I-5 rivalry" it was the moneyed Cosmos that would prove to be the Sounders' true nemesis. Although the Sounders would never again play before a crowd of this size, their attendance continued to grow, as they moved to the playoffs once again.
The Jimmy Gabriel Years
When Best moved on to the Vancouver Whitecaps, assistant coach Jimmy Gabriel took over the head coaching reins in 1977, yet another strong year for the team. Average attendance broke 22,000 as Gabriel took the team to Soccer Bowl, the league championship, which they lost 2-1 to the Cosmos. To the delight of the fans, Kennedy High School graduate Jimmy McAlister took NASL Rookie of the Year honors.
The team originally comprised largely English imports, but as time went on, more and more North Americans such as McAlister began creeping onto the roster, helping solidify the growing local fanbase. Grade schoolers pretended to be Sounders players on the playground, hoping that they would one day play for the home team. The Sounders had media support in those days, too. Games were carried on major radio stations and most games, both home and away, were televised. The team's first four years had been startlingly successful, and it seemed that the team's place as the glorious boys of summer was secure.
Unfortunately, Gabriel's subsequent years were not as successful as his first. The team squeaked into the playoffs in 1978, only to lose to the Cosmos in the first round, and suffered its first losing season in 1979. Attendance fell to 18,997, and the team was sold to another local businessman, Vince Coluccio, who removed Gabriel as coach in favor of the fiery Alan Hinton. The media took to Hinton, but he was controversial with players and fans. Although rumors of infighting abounded, play was stellar. The 1980 Sounders were 25-7, setting the NASL record for most wins in a season. Attendance averaged more than 24,000 and the team nearly swept the post-season awards. Hinton was coach of the year, goalkeeper Jack Brand won player of the year, and striker Roger Davies earned Most Valuable Player honors. Tacoma natives Jeff Stock and Mark Peterson were both in the running for Rookie of the Year, an award which was given to fellow Tacoman Jeff Durgan of the dreaded Cosmos.
From Glory to Gory
It seems inconceivable, given the glory of the 1980 season, that the end of the team was so near. The team imploded in 1981, going from record highs the year before to their second losing season. Tales of bickering between the players and the coach increased. Despite a dramatic improvement the following year, in which league MVP Peter Ward led the team back to Soccer Bowl (which was lost, 1-0, to none other than the Cosmos), the Sounders were unable to recover from the damage of the previous season. Attendance was barely half of what it had been only two years previously, and both the team and the league were in dire financial shape. The Sounders went up for sale.
Former football player Bruce Anderson bought the team before the 1983 season and made wholesale changes. He felt the game was too British, and tried to "Americanize" the team. He replaced Hinton with the calmer Laurie Calloway, changed the logo, uniforms, and installed "red, white, black, and blue" as the team's advertising catch phrase. Although his intentions were presumably good, many longtime fans were alienated by the rapid changes, and attendance continued to drop. The team had a hard time making payroll several times that season. The players were on a proverbial roller-coaster ride, and it showed in their play. The distractions proved disastrous, and the Sounders' final season was their worst in all respects. They finished with a 12-18 record and eked out only 8,317 in average attendance. Barely 4,000 diehard fans attended their final game. The team that had come in like a lion went out like a lamb, folding quietly on September 6, 1983. The rest of the league followed in 1984.
The Sounders Return
There were several attempts after the demise of the Sounders to bring professional soccer back locally. The Tacoma Stars, FC Seattle Storm (who were the original owners of the name, incidentally, not the Women's National Basketball Association with its Seattle team called the Seattle Storm), and Seattle Seadogs were all good teams (and all had former Sounders in their lineups), but none of them lasted even 10 years.
In 1994 the Sounders returned in a new guise: Alan Hinton had obtained the rights to the name and represented an ownership group that formed a new team, in a new league (the American Professional Soccer League, called the A-League, essentially a semi-pro league), with the old name. These Sounders also began in Memorial Stadium, but lacked the same kind of fan support despite maintaining a consistently high level of play. They followed in the footsteps of their namesakes, making the bold move to the big new stadium in town, Seahawks Stadium. It wasn't until 2009, when Major League Soccer (MLS) expanded to Seattle, that top-tier soccer returned to Seattle. In a nod to tradition, the new team was named Seattle Sounders FC.