MLS Cup and the Geography of Soccer in Seattle

geography iiMuch talk around the MLS Cup in Seattle was about what has arguably been the biggest story in American soccer this year: the city’s overwhelming embrace of the Sounders and Major League Soccer.  Whether you like the Sounders or hate the Sounders, the success of MLS in Seattle seems to have contributed to new perceptions about the trajectory of soccer on this side of the pond.  They’ve done just enough to make skeptics wonder if we may someday be a real footballing nation.

Much credit for that success gets attributed to the Sounders business model and a constellation of distinctive circumstances—such as a hulking NFL stadium that actually seems to work for soccer.  I was among the 46,000 fans in that stadium on Sunday for the MLS Cup final and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  The game itself was a bit dull, but the pre-game gathering at Occidental Park bubbled with enthusiasm and local character, the “Sound Wave” marching band seemed much less kitschy when rocking out during the march to the stadium than they do on TV, the full house crowd had good energy amidst its uncertainty of who to cheer, and the whole scene had the type of collective effervescence that keeps people coming back.

But the story of the Sounders’ business success this year has been well-told by others.  So I found myself thinking about the whole thing in relation to the broader scope of soccer in Seattle and soccer in the US.  I grew up in Seattle in the 70’s and 80’s, left to see the world, came home about a decade later realizing real estate in Seattle had become so insanely expensive I could never afford to live there, and eventually settled in Portland.  With that perspective it strikes me that the success of MLS in Seattle necessarily builds on a foundation that has gone underappreciated: the culturally odd, sometimes underwhelming, but largely functional soccer infrastructure that has evolved across many American towns.

In other words, the 2009 Sounders and MLS are only one landmark in the Seattle soccer story.  Coming back for the MLS Cup gave me a chance to reflect on some of the other landmarks.  And while there are distinctive things about Seattle’s success, there are also ways in which I suspect Seattle is merely a case study of soccer in anycity USA.

Landmarks of Seattle / American Soccer

DSCN0653The Eclectic Stadia: At the supporters summit on Saturday before MLS Cup the most interesting exchange of the Q & A between Seattle co-owner Drew Carey and MLS commissioner Don Garber riffed on the issue of flares.  Garber basically dismissed any possibility that MLS could ever allow supporters groups to use flares, to which Carey prodded “actually, I kind of like the flares.”  Garber said “Yeah, you like them until your stadium burns down and you have to play at Memorial Stadium.”  To my mind Carey took the points with his retort: “Right—name me one stadium that’s burned down because of fans lighting flares.”  But I was also impressed that Garber knew about Memorial—an old war-horse of a stadium directly underneath the Space Needle that has probably hosted thousands of soccer games in its decades of existence (including most of my Seattle public high school matches and many of the Sounders previous incarnations).  The stadium is a simple pair of concrete sides that could seat 17000 on the rare day that was necessary.  And it long had a terrible old-model Astroturf with an arced crown that made seeing from one touchline to the other problematic.  But it was a reasonably sized stadium right downtown that was soccer-friendly and gave several generations of Seattle players a starting point from which they might hope for more.

And that is to say nothing of the old Kingdome—host of the glory years of the NASL Sounders, full to the rafters with 50,000 soccer fans on big occasions.  The Kingdome was, quite frankly, a cement monstrosity and not a great place to watch any sport.  But it was dry, could be kind of cozy, and in its day made you feel like you were at a major sports venue.  As a kid I once got my picture in the local newspaper for going to an NCAA championship soccer game at the Kingdome with my Dad and some friends during a time when the NCAA had decided that ties should be decided in overtime only—they’d just keep playing them until someone scored.  In that particular game no one scored for 7 overtime periods (until that 1985 UCLA squad—coached by none other than current Sounders manager Sigi Schmid—won it in the 8th), and my friends and I simply spread ourselves out in the Kingdome’s climate controlled comfort and went to sleep.  It made for a cute picture.  And while the Kingdome ultimately failed as a soccer venue (and was demolished in 2000 to make way for Qwest Field), it did introduce the city to the idea that soccer could be a major event.

The Suburban Mega-Field Complex: Most soccer in American cities happens on local fields rather than in major stadiums.  In cities such as Seattle, combining the immense popularity and growth of youth soccer in the US with the fact that soccer is not a “traditional” American sport, there were rarely enough of those local fields for soccer.  One solution has been the conversion of urban park space, but the main solution has been suburban mega-plexes carving huge swaths of what often used to be farmland into dozens of identical fields.  In Seattle the iteration from my youth is called 60 Acres, and it has likely hosted tens of thousands of youth games and training sessions over the years—socializing hundreds of thousands of us into the game, even if many are only in that temporary state known as “soccer mom.”  60 Acres is also representative in that its growth has proved controversial.  The seemingly insatiable need for fields among youth soccer clubs tends to generate civic opposition—from both the otherwise distinct anti-soccer and anti-sprawl forces.  But they are one small piece of keeping American soccer relevant.

The Public-Private Venture: Starfire Sports Complex, the place the modern Sounders call their “official training facility and administrative home,” is basically a failed public park.  Previously called “Fort Dent,” the park was run by the City of Tukwilla King County [corrected 11/24] until the starved local government could no longer afford the upkeep.  Into the gap stepped “Starfire Sports:” a private group organized as a charitable organization.  This transition only happened this decade, so I’m more familiar with Fort Dent than Starfire, but the entrepreneurial conception of the thing seems characteristically American.

The Indoor Centers: Indoor soccer is another example of an American bastardization of the game that kind of works and kind of matters.  Indoor soccer centers (growing up in Seattle mine was Woodinville Indoor Soccer because of location, but there were and are several others around the city) offered a place to keep playing in the wet and dark winters, taxing a different set of skills and fostering some imagination.  In fact, it is easy to forget that after the demise of the NASL , American professional indoor soccer had a brief run of significance.  88tstarcalendar2I made the 45 minute commute down I-5 more than a few times to see the Tacoma Stars play a bizarre high-energy version of the beautiful game in the Tacoma Dome that was entertaining enough to keep me interested.  In fact, buried in the recent press release about Preki’s hiring as the new coach of Toronto FC is the trivia nugget that he first came to the US because of an offer from the Tacoma Stars (who had seen him playing for Red Star Belgrade).  The ability of Preki to parlay the Tacoma Stars into a career with Everton, the US National Team, and MLS is a tribute to the odd way that soccer success happens in the States.

The British/Irish Soccer Pub: For reasons of legal drinking age, this one wasn’t so important when I was growing up.  But it seems that every town American town has a couple pubs, most often owned and managed by either British or Irish immigrants, that have long offered soccer fans a refuge where you don’t have to feel bad about asking if one of the TV’s can be put on soccer.  In Seattle, a place like The George & Dragon pub looks from the outside like an obscure hole in the wall, but functions in the community as a place that makes soccer fans feel legitimate.  While that continues to be a valuable service, the growing popularity and changing demographics of soccer fandom mean that other establishments are finding their own niches—the Mexican restaurant with the Primera División or the hipster bar with US National Team jerseys on the wall.  It may be that for soccer to really succeed US cities need to get to the point where almost any bar or pub keeps up on the game, but for now we can at least rely on capitalism to ensure market niches get filled.

The Small Soccer Specialty Store: Before an American soccer player or fan could get anything their feet desired through the internet, we needed a local specialty store that fulfilled our consumer fantasies—be that the boots that we imagined would give us just the right touch, or the replica jersey that established a connoisseurs identity.  Like the pubs, the stores often seem to appear modest and mostly have immigrant origins.  In Seattle it was a family of German immigrants that founded what we always called “Sporthaus Schmetzer”—a family that also included some pretty good players and coaches.  Current Sounders Assistant Brian Schmetzer is probably the one a contemporary MLS fan would know.  (As a side note, I think one underemphasized key to the Sounders success has been their tapping local soccer families for key personnel—in addition to Schmetzer, Technical Director Chris Henderson hails from a suburban Seattle family of players and coaches that have had decades of influence on the game in Washington State).

DSCN0660The Adult Leagues: Seattle has long had extensive networks of adult soccer leagues at all levels serving thousands of locals at all ages.  My own love of soccer is due in no small part to the fact that my Dad, who grew up in Texas in the 50’s completely unaware of soccer, stumbled on over-30, over-40, and finally over-50 soccer as a way to exercise, socialize, and recreate.  He never was a great player, but he kept at it for decades, became a fan of the game, and made sure I was too.  In my own adult life during a nine month return to Seattle after the end of my competitive soccer days I had what remains my favorite adult soccer experience in Seattle Co-Rec leagues.  Unlike the corporate “sport and social clubs” models that feel contrived, Seattle Co-Rec was great at being about really finding the right level of soccer for any adult to enjoy—from the former pro to the total newbie.  I don’t know enough about adult recreational soccer in other parts of the world to say how distinctly American this all is—but I suspect that a significant number of the Sounders fan base keeps connected to the game at least partially because of such leagues.

The Colleges and Universities: As I’ve written before, while soccer aficionados inevitably write-off college soccer as a major problem with the American game, the reality is that colleges and universities offer the kinds of genuine community roots that a confusing corporate creation such as Real Salt Lake (in tribute to the Spanish monarchy!?!?)  can never have.  European teams usually started as real clubs, and have meaningful connections to their cities and towns.  For better or worse, college teams often serve that role in the US—particularly since there will always be college and university teams in American towns that will never have professional soccer.  In the Seattle of my youth this role was filled largely by Seattle Pacific University, a smallish regional school that was fairly obscure as a University but dominant in the local soccer world.  SPU’s soccer prominence seemed due largely to their coach Cliff McGrath, a local soccer icon who was the hub of a broad soccer nexus that included extensive summer camps socializing thousands of local kids into the joy of the game every year.  Times have changed: the University of Washington started devoting more resources to soccer and took over local prominence and Cliff McGrath seemed to have an unfortunate falling out with SPU (though it was fun to see him as an announcer on a few of the Sounders telecasts this year).  And MLS may well come to predominate in its 18-20 US cities.  But Americans love their college sports and local soccer icons from that world should get some due.

Locating MLS in this Geography

At the MLS supporters summit on Saturday prior to the MLS Cup, the MLS “Director of Player Programs” offered a brief overview of how the league is working to improve player development.  The theme of the presentation seemed to be tired soccer snobbery—Americans have it all wrong with their youth tournaments and college soccer, and need to turn everything over to European style professionalism.  At one point the MLS official actually made the astonishing statement that “the only group [in this country] that has a real interest in youth development is MLS.”  The implication that MLS is the only group that has a “real interest” in American soccer seems to me both delusional and counter-productive.

The way soccer works in the US has many idiosyncrasies, and much needs to change as the game evolves—just as the game evolves everywhere in the world.  But my point here is that there are many diverse groups that have a “real” and long-standing interest in soccer in America.  So while the 2009 MLS Cup was a nice tribute to the success of MLS in Seattle, much of that success may actually derive from an eclectic American geography that created the landmarks to make it all possible.  And may yet make it possible elsewhere.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

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