Seattle Sounders FC won the U.S. Open Cup, became the first Major League Soccer expansion team in 11 seasons to make the playoffs, and will establish a league attendance record on Saturday when it concludes its first regular season.
But the biggest surprise may be how little any of this has surprised anyone in the organization.
From even before Nov. 12, 2007, when MLS officially awarded its 15th franchise to Seattle, these Sounders had no interest in being normal.
“We don’t really care about what has happened traditionally,” general
manager Adrian Hanauer said this week. “This is going to be a non-traditional, unconventional MLS franchise. ... It’s a little bit of chicken-and-egg: Because we did some unconventional things on the player side, the business has been successful; the more success we have with the business, the more able we are on the player side.”
Presiding over both sides is the ownership group: majority owner Joe Roth, Hanauer, Paul Allen’s Vulcan Sports & Entertainment and entertainer Drew Carey.
They signaled their willingness to cut against the MLS grain by committing to play in a downtown NFL stadium, when the league formula called for smaller soccer-specific stadiums, often out in the suburbs. They let their fans vote on the team name. Their distinctive Space Needle crest and rave green primary color have combined to help the Sounders lead MLS in merchandise sales. Carey insisted on a marching band and a supporters group with real clout, including the power to vote Hanauer out of his job.
Ownership’s money, connections, and my-way mentality got the attention of Sigi Schmid, the league’s most successful coach, and two world-renowned players: goalkeeper Kasey Keller and midfielder Freddie Ljungberg.
“We talked about it, and they said they wanted me to help to make it a good team, and we wouldn’t get battered like some other new franchises,” said Ljungberg, an English Premier League veteran and the highest-paid Sounder at $1.3 million per season. “They said they would help as much as they could that we wouldn’t be one of those teams.”
That history of batterings had run through the league’s previous four expansions: In 2005, Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA went a combined 9-44-11; in 2007, Toronto went 6-17-7; in 2008, San Jose went 8-13-9.
Seattle is 11-7-11 heading into the final game of the regular season: FC Dallas at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Qwest Field.
“I had no desire to come get my (butt) kicked – none whatsoever,” Keller said. “(But) we had an organization that was willing to go out there and make things happen. It wasn’t a case of, ‘Well, let’s just go out there and see what happens in the first year.’ No, they made it quite apparent that they wanted to be successful from the beginning.”
Even before the club took the pitch, it became obvious that Seattle would be successful in the stands. Sounders FC set a league record in season ticket sales. After selling out its first eight home games, the club opened six more sections of Qwest’s lower bowl, increasing capacity from 27,700 to 32,400.
With one game remaining, Seattle leads MLS with an average home attendance of 30,739. And with all tickets already gone for Saturday, the Sounders are assured of breaking the league record average of 28,916, set by Los Angeles in 1996, the league’s inaugural season.
“I didn’t know much about the team,” said Fredy Montero, a 22-year-old forward who was discovered in Colombia, became an All-Star and leads the club with 12 goals. “I just knew it was a great city to live in with very serious people here who take soccer very seriously.”
The Sounders opened on March 19 with a 3-0 win over New York in their nationally televised inaugural game. They ran their winning streak to three games while outscoring their opponents 7-0 before the first setbacks arrived.
The club went through a stretch of injuries and disciplinary suspensions that dropped them from the top of the heap. By late summer, they endured a 2-4-4 slide that suddenly put the playoffs in doubt.
But a 1-0 win at defending champion Columbus and a 3-2 come-from-behind win at Kansas City last weekend assured that their expansion season would extend into the postseason.
“I think it’s a great accomplishment for an expansion team to do this,” Schmid said. “It hasn’t been done in a long while, so I am very proud of what the team has done. ... Our fans and all the supporters here in the Seattle area have been fantastic, and to be able to reward them in year one with a playoff appearance I think is tremendous.”
Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808