Note: This was first published by The Seattle Times on October 27, 2002.
Are you ready for some futbol ?
We’re talking shin guards and shorts. We’re talking the world’s game, played by the best athletes around and at the highest possible level. We’re talking about a steady diet of big-time soccer for the local community, not only next week but for years to come.
Last spring’s stopover by the U.S. World Cup team and the women’s Gold Cup next weekend represent a beginning. But Seattle and its surrounding soccer community deserve the best, and more of it. Now it’s time we demand it.
Top-class soccer is what’s been missing in this city for 20 years, and I dearly want it to return. I’m not alone, either.
One-hundred seventy-three miles separate the Cascadian battlefields of CenturyLink Field and Providence Park. In between are significant mileposts positioned along Interstate 5: Tacoma, Olympia, Centralia, Longview and Vancouver.
And somewhere between where Merritt Paulson placed his Soccer City signage in 2011 and the state borderline under the Columbia lies the dividing line, where the Rave yields to the deeper green color of the arch-rival.
Throughout the world of football there are myriad rationale why fans flock to one side of a derby or another. In close quarters it will likely be differences of religion, social class, political ties or cultural heritage. Generally, however, geography is always a factor. The next most proximate league club to one’s neighborhood is thine enemy. And so it is with Seattle and Portland, and it has been since territorial times of Oregon and Washington.
Much of the focus on Obafemi Martins this season has been about his prolonged absence, followed by his form upon returning. Less conspicuous has been his scoring rate, which is remarkable.
In terms of goals per match, Martins is accumulating goals at an astonishing rate, the likes of which haven’t been seen in Seattle in 13 years. He reached 10 goals in just 14 games–faster than any previous player for Sounders FC (Clint Dempsey did it in 16 MLS appearances last season).
For every 10 kids out there dreaming of the day they deliver the big game-winning goal, there’s one moppet visualizing the sensational dive that saves the day.
These Tim Howard and Hope Solo wannabes may see themselves flinging themselves from post to post, effectively serving as a force field denying balls entry to the ol’ onion bag.
Sometimes dreams come true, such as Kasey Keller’s signature performance versus Brazil in 1998. He saved everything, secured the shutout and the U.S. won, 1-0. But a busy day at the keeper’s office more often ends in defeat, such as Howard’s fate following his World Cup record 16 stops against Belgium.
So it should come no real surprise that in tying the Sounders FC record with 10 saves at Columbus, Stefan Frei was unable save the day. In fact, given that Frei’s made a total of 18 saves in the previous three matches, it’s a bit of a wonder that Seattle had won three straight.
Seven years on, and it’s lunacy to think they could be called anything but Seattle Sounders.
To many, even seven years ago, any alternative seemed sacrilege. On March 25, 2008, newly christened and generically dubbed MLS Seattle put its to a public vote. They asked fans to choose between three nickname options: Alliance, Republic or Seattle FC.
While locals associated ‘Sounders’ with professional soccer’s storied Seattle history, in the upper reaches of MLS the name was met with resistance. Nostalgia was well and good, but this was a new team in a new league and it was best to make a fresh start. At least that was the wisdom coming from league brass.
It’s nice to know that in this fast-paced, plugged-in, caffeinated world in which we live, there’s still a collective that believes in savoring every moment and taking its own sweet time.
That collective is known as Major League Soccer. In takes nearly eight months to complete a regular season. Now comes the 38 drawn-out days of the MLS Cup Playoffs.
MLS Cup is held aloft as the domestic game’s ultimate prize. Purists may say that’s debatable. However, if we want to grow the game, if we want to reel-in everyone even remotely interested in soccer (including the World Cup bandwagon types), we want them watching the MLS Cup Final. Only now, they need to arrange their own wake-up call.
The pace of the MLS playoffs is glacial. Big Island lava moves faster. Not only is it like watching paint dry, it’s like watching it get scraped off and painted again.
Keep in mind this is a Sounders fan writing. Our Rave are very much alive and kicking and out to accomplish the unprecedented Treble. We want folks to join us on this magic bus. Only problem is the driver keeps stripping the gears and lurching forward without releasing the parking brake. It’s the never-ending season.
There must be a better way. There must be a means to infuse some energy into the postseason, to attract new viewers rather than losing even your loyalists. The MLS Cup Playoffs cry out for some momentum.
There are mitigating factors, of course, FIFA dates chief among them. But international interruptions are not the problem. Those breaks occur every year and either the playoffs can conclude beforehand or that pause can provide an interlude prior to the final.
Neither is the preliminary knockout round nor the two-leg format that follows. No, the root cause of this lethargic, late autumn shuffle is leadership’s aversion to playing midweek matches.
Wednesday night was once the staple of North American soccer summer. Once the NASL expanded beyond 20-22 matches, it was necessary to play multiple games each week in order to fit all the fixtures between April and August.
Originally, MLS did likewise. During their inaugural season, the Galaxy played 10 midweek matches. This past regular season, Sounders FC played four. L.A. began the playoffs on September 25 (it was a 32-match schedule), Seattle started the postseason five weeks later, on November 2.
Now, a word about midweek games: Owners, by and large, loathe them. People work until 5 or 6 o’clock, fight traffic to get home, then perhaps again approaching the stadium. Result: Smaller crowds, they say. But as MLS matures, as struggling markets make gains, and when New England finds an urban home as opposed to the hinterlands, maybe it’s time to take another look. Or not.
Perhaps the choice is not so much Wednesday versus Saturday, but Wednesday on warm summer evenings versus Saturdays in October when the kids are now playing and the weather has turned wet and windy. Saturdays in summer might be just as problematic as work nights: How many want to cut short their time at the beach to get back for the game?
Even if we agree to set aside the reluctance to play midweek games during the regular season, there is the issue of a postseason stuck in neutral.
In a perfect world, no futbol fan has time to write stuff like this. But in MLS we …have…lots…of…time…to…write…or worse…drift toward other interests. Like basketball, hockey, college football, NFL football, Thanksgiving football and conference championship football.
When positioned and played out in proper fashion, league playoffs should build to a crescendo. More and more fans pile on. Suddenly MLS starts gaining in stature as the season culminates.
That’s part of the World Cup attraction; there are matches every day at the outset. The entire tournament takes 31 days. Remember those two rest days prior to the quarterfinals and your withdrawal symptoms?
Promotion playoff legs in England are played three days apart.
The players can handle it. There’s no physical reason the playoffs can’t push on with similar pace.
The old NASL put the pedal to the metal, and so did MLS initially.
In 1977 the original Sounders played six playoff games, including Soccer Bowl, in a span of 18 days. That was pre-online ticketing, obviously. Still teams were selling tickets at a rapid clip: 35,000 for Minnesota, 77,000 in New York. The Sounders sold 56,000 on six days notice. Even when Seattle struggled in attendance, in 1982, playoff fever took hold; 29,000 seats sold in two days for the semifinal deciding leg.
MLS played twice weekly playoff games in the first few seasons to mixed results. Over the past 10 years they are spacing matches a week apart. While crowds are generally up. Columbus, with a week to prepare for New England, sold 9,000 tickets. Rising to the occasion, Dallas, on four days notice, pulled over 16,000 for Seattle. It looked good on TV and, furthermore, it’s encouraging for both the club and the league’s long run.
It also sufficient encouragement for MLS to take another look at putting the playoffs back on the fast track.
Gain a few more midweek games during the summer and suddenly the playoffs are starting in early to mid-October. By making Wednesdays part of postseason, it generates excitement and that, in turn generates crowds and ratings. It can capture the attention not only of the qualifying teams’ fans, but those on the fringe.
No more slow-motion postseason. Playoff fever should be contagious. MLS Cup should be a frenzied sprint to the finish.
Of course, the author of that saying assumes the team or league remains viable into the future.
Anyone who’s followed the struggle of professional soccer to gain a lasting foothold in America knows that you can fill a dustbin with all the acronyms–USA, NASL, MISL, ASL to name a few–that would rise and fall in the past 50 years.
And when a league and its members are laid to rest, the personalities adapt and move on. The records, however, remain behind. Never to be matched or overtaken. However, those records, those standards, can still provide a valuable service.
It’s an unimaginable scene playing out at Chivas USA.
Here is MLS, seemingly at the height of its off-field success and soon heading into its 20th season, with franchise fees of $100 million, cities queuing up to join and a huge new TV contract.
Yet the franchise that signaled the start of spring growth following two failures in Florida–that club is bound for the scrap heap come season’s end. And that’s difficult to comprehend, let alone witness.
It’s not easy to watch, this writhing carcass of Chivas USA. Where more than 19,000 once watched the Goats at StubHub Center, only a scattering of diehards remain.
If you’ve followed American soccer beyond, say, 2002, the sight of failing franchises is all too familiar. One NASL offseason saw eight teams erased. And although MLS terms this two-year (minimum) hiatus a re-brand, it really looks and feels like the Goats are going to slaughter. Whatever form the so-called LA2 takes will bear little resemblance to CUSA. The crest and records will join those of the dusty Fusion and Mutiny archives. StubHub will once again become a single-family dwelling. Continue reading Sad, sad story and hopefully a silver lining→