If you've been anywhere near Major League Soccer this season you will have heard of the Seattle Sounders FC, the league's newest club. Not so much for what they've done on the field--this being MLS most clubs do pretty much the same thing--but for the attention they've attracted locally.
The team is a massive hit in the Pacific Northwest, where it has become a pop culture phenomenon. More on the cultural impact in a bit. First some numbers to put the Sounders success at the gate into perspective:
- The team averaged 30,943 spectators for its 17 regular season home games this season. That is an MLS record--not for an expansion team, for all teams, all time.
- That number is higher than it is for German champions Wolfsburg, French champions Bordeaux and Premiership side Fulham FC among others, according to this Wikipedia table, which is probably wrong (did Juventus really average 21,000 fans last season?) but whatever.
- Perhaps most impressive of all: The Sounders are the first U.S. soccer club to rank in the top 50 in the world for average regular season attendance (they're 50th but still).
The club has a FC Barcelona-type ownership structure, which came about at the behest of minority owner Drew Carey (yes, that Drew Carey). Carey also thought up the idea of having supporters march into the stadium en masse on game days accompanied by their very own marching band, the Sound Wave. This concept marries traditions from Latin America with those from U.S. sports and is precisely the type of thing America needs to do to make soccer its own.
Seattle may be the perfect place to launch such initiatives. It was here, after all, that Starbucks began charging (and receiving!) outrageous rates for coffee on the premise that it would provide patrons the "third place" that had been sorely lacking from U.S. culture. The flannel shirt, grunge music and self-loathing were all popularized here. Why not soccer?
Of course, Americans have had various love affairs with the sport in the past, but all were short-lived. There was Pele and the New York Cosmos and the North American Soccer League, which peaked around 1978. The 1994 World Cup caused a stir when it was held in the U.S., as did its 2002 incarnation when the U.S. national team made a run to the quarterfinals. The history books tell us of other "golden ages" in the more distant past.
Is this merely another "false dawn" in American soccer? Or is the sport finally, finally making sustainable inroads with the U.S. public? In other words, is this the $5 latte, which is alive and well nationwide despite the recession, or flannel shirts, which are not (though I heard somewhere they're making a comeback. Or maybe I just dreamed it).
Only time will tell. There is probably evidence on both sides, but consider this: The Philadelphia Union, a club that begins play next season (in its own soccer-specific stadium to boot) had sold 6,000 season tickets by May and has a fervent fan base ready to go. New York's MLS franchise will open its own soccer-specific stadium (in New Jersey, but still) that is attracting rave reviews from players and fans. Even the local business community is anteing up. If the "Sounders phenomenon" catches on in those cities, soccer will be a lot harder to displace from the American imagination.
Photo supplied by AmericanSoccerNews.net