Over the summer, I was at a friend’s house and turned on an MLS game. Usually this would be cause for ridicule, but that night was different. It was different because it was a game being played in Seattle.
My friends noticed the packed stadium and the excitement displayed on the supporters’ faces. They heard the band playing. They saw the entertaining and proficient play on the pitch. One noted that this is the type of soccer that would get him watching MLS, and it did.
Whenever the Sounders were on TV, he put on the game. He learned the names of a number of the players on the squad. Now he wants to go to the game when Seattle travels to my home state of New Jersey to play the Red Bulls in their new stadium.
Another friend of mine, this one an avid futbol and MLS follower, said “(Seattle is) what all teams in the country should be.”
The Sounders have captured the attention of not only the city of Seattle, but the whole nation, footie fans and soccer simpletons alike.
Although they fell short of becoming the first expansion team to win the MLS Cup since the Chicago Fire did so back in 1998, the club was successful in so many ways.
Seattle finished its inaugural season with a 12-7-11 record and made the playoffs. Since 2005, no MLS expansion team has made the playoffs in its first season, excluding the Houston Dynamo (while considered an expansion team, Houston was really a relocation of the San Jose Earthquake that was rebranded, history and all).
In fact, Toronto F.C. and the San Jose Earthquakes, the two previous expansion franchises, have yet to qualify for postseason play.
The Sounders may also be the single most popular club in MLS, even more so than David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The city has enjoyed a rich history in soccer, dating back to the NASL and even more recently in the USL. That support has carried over in large numbers to the MLS team.
According to ESPN.com, the Sounders finished first in both total attendance and average of fans per game, 499,262 and 31,203 respectively. They were just under 11,000 fans per game ahead of the second-place Galaxy.
The team sold out every home game in the regular season, their one playoff game against Houston, and even their four U.S. Open Cup matches.
While the team was unable to play for the MLS Cup, they did win the U.S. Open Cup , a tournament played amongst all the professional soccer clubs based in the United States of America.
They were the first first-year franchise to win it since the Chicago Fire did so in 1998.
One of the toughest and unique aspects of MLS is talent evaluation. In other leagues across the globe, there is no salary cap. A team can just go buy the best talent it can put together.
However, with MLS’ small spending limit for each team, clubs must be shrewd in how they collect talent. They cannot just go and buy the best player available, and the best players will not just come over to play for what they feel are demeaning wages.
The Sounders had four players named to the MLS All-Star team —Kasey Keller, Freddie Ljungberg, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, and Fredy Montero. Keller was nominated for Goalkeeper of the Year and the Fair Play Award; Hurtado was nominated for Defender of the Year; and all three of the Newcomer of the Year Award nominees were Sounders—Keller, Montero, and Ljungberg, with Montero taking home the trophy .
Arguably the biggest accomplishment the team had this season was restoring a sense of pride in Seattle sports fans.
The city of Seattle had every reason to be fed up with professional sports.
The Mariners have finished above third place in the American League only one time since 2002 and the last time they were in the playoffs was 2001.
The Seahawks missed the postseason for the first team in the past six seasons in 2008 with a measly 4-12 record, and things don’t look more optimistic this year with a less than stellar record of 3-5.
The biggest crime was having their NBA franchise, the Seattle SuperSonics, relocated to Oklahoma City. The team had been a part of Seattle since it was founded in 1967, but due to an arena dispute, new ownership moved the team, depriving the city of their beloved basketball franchise.
The Sounders gave the city a team to be excited about. They came, they got the city of Seattle involved; for example, the Seattle FC Alliance allows members (season-ticket holders and paying non-season ticket holders) to vote on a number of club decisions, including whether or not to remove the General Manager.
The Sounders also won. It’s a great combination that has rejuvenated the city’s fan base and made them proud again.
Fans were rewarded for their passion by getting to watch the Sounders take on world powers Chelsea and F.C. Barcelona in exhibition matches and Qwest Field, the Sounders home, will host this season's MLS Cup championship match.
Things are only going to get more exciting as well.
Washington native Keller has said he plans on returning to the team next season and in 2011, the league will expand to Vancouver and Portland, creating natural geographic rivalries (or reestablishing old rivalries from the NASL and USL) in the Pacific Northwest.
Even though it was only its inaugural season, Seattle proved they are the best-run franchise in MLS (for worst see: Red Bull New York—a member since the league’s inaugural year and they still can’t get it right).
With an invested ownership group, good decision makers and talent evaluators, talented players, and the strongest fan base in American soccer, Seattle is clearly the class of MLS and what every other team in the league should strive to be like.