Many will dream, some will endeavor, but only one can be the first.
While the Sounders may now place a star above their crest, the side that first planted a flag at the summit in the name of Seattle is now about to be celebrated all over again.
On Feb. 11 Seattle Pacific University will induct the team that not only ushered in an era when the Falcons became the Northwest’s most decorated collegiate program but, more importantly, established a beacon, a belief, that teams from Puget Sound could be the best in the nation.
For nearly the first hundred years of soccer’s existence in Washington, it was a wilderness. Try as they might, to the rest of the land teams from these parts were unfashionable wannabes: Competitive within the region, yet not championship material. In 1978, SPU changed all that.
Simply put, in one muggy, arduous afternoon under a scorching Miami sun, a bunch of shaggy-haired boys under the direction of a seven-fingered coach blazed a trail into the future of Seattle area soccer that generations have followed ever since.
Now as then, the opposition is oft-referenced as the Nigerian junior national team. In truth, Alabama A&M’s roster was only about half-Nigerian. But most of them started and the balance were largely Jamaican. The Bulldogs were defending NCAA Division II champion and ranked No. 7 among all divisions nationally. They would retake the mantle in 1979 and two years later, in 1981, AA&M would be Div. I runners-up.
Whereas Alabama A&M was exotic, Cliff McCrath’s Seattle Pacific was your garden-variety gathering of neighborhood lads. Of the 24 players, 20 hailed from Washington high schools, most within a 20-mile radius of the Queen Anne campus. All but two were underclassmen.
The Falcons won their three preceding NCAA tournament games by a cumulative score of 5-1, though their semifinal played the day before the final had been in three overtimes. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs had bulldozed everything in their path, outscoring opponents 15-0.
After his team took a 5-nil beating in the semi, Eastern Illinois coach Schellas Hyndman stated: They’re the best team in the country. They’re a level up from Division II.”
To all objective observers, the championship game was a mismatch.
“That Alabama A&M team was phenomenal,” remarks Bruce Raney, SPU forward, 38 years later. “They were older and stronger and had international experience. We had no reason to be on the field with them.”
And still Seattle Pacific believed.
It Took Belief and a Bus
This was not the first encounter between minnows and sharks. A year earlier SPU had taken the full measure of AA&M in the title game before losing, 2-1, on the same Miami field. The difference, notes Mark Metzger, a missed penalty kick and an own goal.
“Once we got a taste of it and realized how close we came to winning,” recalls Metzger, “there was only one thing on our minds.” They wanted a rematch in ’78.
McCrath wanted his troops to play zonal, shifting side to side. Close down space. Stay on your feet; jump into a tackle and you’re coming to the bench. Admittedly it was out-gunned Seattle Pacific’s least attractive performance of the season. But effective, nonetheless.
“If we can stall them off for an hour, maybe we can frustrate them,” was the plan. “As it turned out, it was only 15 minutes before (Alabama) stopped running and began bitching at one another.”
When A&M managed to find cracks in the initial lines of defense, Jamie Deming and Rick Miller repelled the rest.
A Never-Ending Story
It was a scoreless stalemate for the first half. Then an hour. SPU began to see more of the play. Raney forced a save in the final minutes. Late on, when the Bulldogs got some good looks at goal, Sergio Soriano stood tall.
The game wore on, the steamy conditions served to sap the strength of both combatants and spectators. SPU, however, substituted more freely than its foe, and the mesh jerseys McCrath purchased the night before were breathing far better than the alternative.
It remained 0-0 after one 15-minute overtime period, then another. Finally came an SPU throw from the deep in the right attacking third. It was a set play of sorts.
Eric Benz threw to Jim McKay, like him a resident of Federal Way. McKay flicked the ball farther, toward the near-post where a gangly freshman should be streaking in from the left. Sure enough, the frizzy-haired Raney had made the run. His glancing header squeezed through a small space between the right post and keeper Sylvester Onweuke. Nestling nicely in the net, it was the most unfathomable of deathblows, a golden goal coming 127 minutes, 47 seconds after it all started.
Testament to Character
“It was David and Goliath. Nobody was kidding anybody about which team had the players,” added McCrath. “But we kept them off their rhythm.”
“The game came down to a question of character and courage over skill and ability,” asserted McCrath. “That was the difference.”
What followed were euphoric celebrations on the field, later at dinner and, finally, back in Seattle. It was a glorious achievement, the culmination of a dream uniting with dogged determination, preparation and a belief.
Still, it wasn’t a one-off. It proved to be a seminal moment, one that made believers out of all those who witnessed it, as well as those who would next take the path.