With the sellout crowd tonight at Qwest Field, more than 160,000 people will have turned out to see FC Barcelona in the first two games of its United States summer tour.
The reigning UEFA Champions League champions drew 93,137 to the Rose Bowl on Saturday, when they defeated the Los Angeles Galaxy, 2-1. Approximately 67,000 more are expected to watch them play Seattle Sounders FC at 7:30 tonight.
That weekend crowd in Southern California is almost five times the Galaxy’s normal home attendance (19,292), and tonight’s crowd will more than double the normal crowd for even the MLS attendance-leading Sounders (30,204).
Similarly large crowds have greeted other international clubs that have toured the United States this summer, leaving MLS officials to consider how to lure more of these soccer fans into their own league, which averages 15,412 per game.
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“I think it is three things,” commissioner Don Garber said at the MLS All-Star game last week. “(Americans) like soccer, they’ll come out for big events, and they want to see authentic competition. The Galaxy getting (93,137) to go see Barcelona, that’s not two foreign clubs: That’s one of our teams. The Sounders playing against Chelsea – 66,000 in that building – that’s one of the most successful soccer games so far this summer. That was an unbelievable event. ... At the end of the day, fans want to see our teams play competitive matches. They’re able to see that in the MLS schedule, and our games are getting more and more competitive.”
The MLS salary cap of roughly $2 million per team does make for a competitive league. Approximately two-thirds of the way through the regular season, 11 of the MLS’ 15 teams are within 10 points of the league lead.
However, Garber’s answer does not mention quality of play or the abundance of international superstars that dot the rosters of touring teams such as Spain’s Barcelona and AC Milan, England’s Chelsea or Mexico’s Club America.
Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer doesn’t deny the importance of world-class teams and world-class players. But he also doesn’t believe MLS should pursue the kind of spending spree that eventually doomed the North American Soccer League.
“These (touring clubs) have 100 years of history and are at the top of the top leagues, the most viewed, the most brand recognition in the world,” Hanauer said Tuesday. “... You take Barcelona and Chelsea to Argentina, you’re going to sell out big stadiums, too. ... I’m not sure the direct correlation is (fans) don’t think (MLS) is good enough, but they’ll turn out for (international teams). This is sort of a rock concert, right? ... That said, I think it would be naive to say that people don’t understand that there is some slight difference (in quality).”
Sounders coach Sigi Schmid has an answer to the chicken-and-egg question about whether American soccer fans should wait for MLS quality to improve, or whether the quality will improve only after the fans support their teams. He believes the fans must step up first.
“I’ll philosophize here,” he said. “At the end of the day how well we do as a league, how many TV viewers we get, the type of TV contracts this league gets, and the fans come out in all the cities – not just Seattle – are going to allow us to increase the quality of the league. The more revenue we bring in means the more we can pay in salaries; the more we can pay in salaries means higher-level players means better soccer.
“By not supporting what’s going on in your community you’re actually slowing down the progress of our league and of the sport in this country. So, if you’re a true soccer fan, you can’t sit there and say, ‘Even though I love Barcelona, or I love Bayern Munich or Manchester United or Chelsea or whomever, well I’d rather stay at home and watch them than support Dallas,’ or whomever that team that is in their market. ... So this is my appeal to soccer fans: Support the sport you love and you support that by supporting your local team.”
Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808
FC BARCELONA AT SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m., Qwest Field
TV: ESPN2 Radio: 97.3-FM
Coach Sigi Schmid contrasts Barca with Chelsea: “Barcelona has different characteristics to their game; their ability to hold the ball, their ability to play in tight spaces, rely on quick one-twos, etcetera. It’s a different style of football. That’s the beauty of our sport: lots of different ways to play well and win games.”
Notes: Barcelona has a solid claim to the title of best club in the world. Last season, Barca won the UEFA Champions League as well as Spain’s La Liga and Copa del Rey. Through its history, Barca has 18 La Liga trophies and a record 24 Copa del Rey championships. Current stars include Thierry Henry, Lionel Messi, Xavi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. ... Sounders midfielder Stephen King (hamstring) is doubtful. ... Season-ticket holders are reminded that this game appears as “Friendly B” on their ticket strip. ... Stadium gates will open at 5:30 p.m. The “March to the Match” begins at 6 p.m. at Occidental Park. Fans are advised to arrive early due to the size of the crowd combining with normal Seattle rush-hour traffic. ... The game is sold out.
Next: Sounders return to league play at 6 p.m. Saturday at Real Salt Lake.
Don Ruiz, The News Tribune