The history of professional soccer in Seattle was rich long before Major League Soccer arrived in the city and announced an expansion team, today’s Seattle Sounders FC, who played their inaugural season in 2009.
Decades before, in 1974, the Sounders of the North American Soccer League became the first iteration of Seattle’s beloved team. They played for two seasons at Memorial Stadium, often in front of sold-out crowds, before joining the city’s brand new NFL franchise as occupants of the Kingdome.
There, the NASL Sounders played in the freshly finished stadium’s inaugural sporting event, an exhibition against the New York Cosmos, drawing more than 58,128 fans. The support — which was at that point a national record for a soccer crowd — the city showed for the sport was evident.
It continued when the NASL Sounders played in a pair of championship games on the road in 1977 — in front 35,548 at nearby Civic Stadium in Portland — and 1982, though they lost to the Cosmos in both matches.
Though that team folded in 1983, and the league collapsed the following year, the city still thirsted for soccer. Some professional teams in the region emerged but folded, and the next edition of the Sounders became a member of the United Soccer League in 1994, winning a pair of titles the following two years.
After MLS emerged in 1996, the Sounders moved to the USL First Division, hosted and won a pair championships under current Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer in 2005 and 2007.
Schmetzer, a Nathan Hale High School graduate who played for the NASL Sounders, and has been heavily involved since, remembers many of those moments that defined the soccer culture in Seattle — including that dominant 4-0 performance against Atlanta at Starfire Sports back in 2007, which is still the club’s most recent league championship win in its own backyard.
“Watching Craig Tomlinson take his shirt off and run down the field after he scored the fourth goal was pretty exciting,” Schmetzer said last week. “He was excited. The fans at Starfire … we’ve always had enthusiastic fans. We’ve always had loyal supporters.”
The memories of what Seattle soccer has been over the past four decades, and how it has grown, are all fond, Schmetzer said. But, no match has ever been on the scale of what is coming Sunday afternoon at CenturyLink Field.
“More people, more volume, more excitement, it’s a bigger deal,” Schmetzer said. “We get it. Those days are fond memories, but this is going to be a big event.”
For the third time in four years, the Sounders will play for the MLS Cup. But, for the first time, they’ll play for it at home, in front of a record-breaking crowd of more than 69,000. Tickets for the biggest soccer event in Seattle — and state — history sold out in minutes last week.
When the Sounders host Toronto FC in this match, the stands will be even more packed than they were when 67,385 fans flooded the stadium when the Sounders hosted rival Portland in a regular-season game in 2013.
“I knew — I believed — that if we ever brought MLS Cup here to Seattle that we’d fill the building,” Schmetzer said. “There was never a doubt in my mind. Not the way this club has been run. Not the way the energy is in the city. There was just no way that wasn’t going to happen.”
Seattle has hosted the MLS Cup before, the Sounders just didn’t play in it. CenturyLink (which was then Qwest Field) was used as a neutral site in 2009, when Real Salt Lake topped the L.A. Galaxy on penalty kicks. That match drew just over 46,000. This will be something quite different.
“It’s such a cool event for the city,” said general manager Garth Lagerwey, who was the GM of RSL when it won. “Having been here in 2009 when Seattle hosted its first MLS Cup, to now, and to see how the league has transformed itself, but to see Seattle still front and center as one of the preeminent cities in the league hosting the MLS Cup a decade on, and having it sell out in a really limited amount of time — under an hour from what I understand — that just speaks volumes to the fans here.”
The Sounders posted the highest average attendance in MLS from their first season in 2009 until 2016 and have continued to average more than 40,000 fans per game since.
But the opportunity to host the MLS Cup in front of a historic crowd could elevate the club to another level in the Seattle’s sports community.
“Do I think it really helps boost awareness within the community? Yeah, I mean, look at it,” Lagerwey said. “People are literally clamoring for this. It’s the hottest seat in town. … There haven’t been many postseason games in Seattle, certainly not in recent memory, and this kind of puts us on the map. I think it is absolutely a way to take us forward and lift our organization up and hopefully take us up a notch.”
But, Lagerwey hesitates to say hosting the final alone will be enough to increase interest in future seasons significantly.
“We have to win this game,” Lagerwey said. “It’s a big swing from historical perception if we win this one or we don’t. … We’re going to be prepared for every contingency, and I believe in the players. I think this is the best team we’ve ever had in Seattle. I’ve said that from Day 1 of the season. I still believe it.
“You mix that excellent preparation with excellent talent and excellent character of our staff and players, and I think that’s been our formula that’s allowed us to have sustained success. Now we’ve got to go win this thing.”
As one of only four franchises to appear in three MLS Cups in a four-year stretch — this Toronto team, D.C. United (1996-99) and the Galaxy (twice, from 1999-2002 and 2009-12) are the others — and with their upset win over a seemingly unbeatable LAFC in the Western Conference Finals last week, the Sounders have the opportunity to be considered a “great team,” Lagerwey said.
Pair those accolades with the excitement of a massive community event descending on the city this weekend, and it should make for an “amazing experience” for fans old and new, Sounders forward Jordan Morris said.
“I think people are going to fall in love with the game and the team and the sport if they haven’t already here in Seattle, and it’s just going to be great for the city,” said Morris, a Mercer Island product.
There has been a buzz around professional soccer in Seattle for decades, but Morris said he could certainly feel the buzz surrounding this particular match.
“I think it’s been a long time coming,” said Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan, who played college soccer at Washington. “We’ve wanted this for such a long time. … We have to take full advantage of this. You don’t get opportunities like this very often, so embrace it, enjoy it, and then take full force. Show the league why you’re hosting and why you want to win so bad.
“Playing in front of our fans is going to be extra special, and hopefully we can raise a trophy in front of them.”