If your idea of a perfect winter holiday is to while away the hours watching live top-class soccer, you best not live near Seattle.
Among native Puget Sounders, perhaps only octogenarians can speak of such an experience in their lifetime. As we take a view to scores of frigid, rain-swept Premier League matches pressed into a cramped calendar, we can only surmise that long ago someone came to their senses and simply said, No more.
Who knows, someday MLS may conform to the FIFA time table. But a look back at the last century or so illustrates why playing through the winter is problematic in Cascadia and downright impossible in the majority of MLS markets. New Year’s Day 2018 forecasts 12 of those cities mired in sub-freezing temperatures. Montreal’s high is predicted to reach minus-6 degrees F.
But enough about MLS. This is more a story of the hardened souls (masochists, some might say) in Seattle’s long-ago past who truly played for the love of the game and the sense of community it fosters, and did so in some of the most trying of circumstances. This is a tale of how and why our forefathers once tread the less-than-firma terra during the short, bleak and, yes, festive days of winter.
Wanted: Someone to supervise 300 kids 24/7 during summer, take 22 rowdy college boys cross-country to win a soccer championship in the fall, marry a couple on Saturday, christen a newborn on Sunday, keynote a corporate speech to hundreds first thing Monday and pull votes for a stadium initiative on Tuesday. Ten fingers not necessary. Sense of humor a must.
Unless your name happens to be Charles Clifford McCrath, there’s no need to apply.
On Saturday, Feb. 11, a true treasure of Seattle and soccer, Cliff McCrath, will be inducted into Seattle Pacific University’s Falcon Legends Hall of Fame. McCrath knows the drill. After all, it’s his 10th such enshrinement around the country.
Unlike the others, however, this will be celebrated on his turf, where since arriving 47 years ago he grew to be an outsized figure capable of accomplishing amazing feats for a sport that, at times, struggled to take hold.
When Seattle Pacific soccer alumni of a certain age inevitably gather, there’s no shortage of stories.
From tales of seemingly endless cross-country road trips to innumerable narratives regarding their leader, Uncle Nubby, there is plenty of fodder. And while hundreds of alums experienced final fours and dozens contributed to the Falcons’ five championships, there’s a certain reverence for those who did it first.
By winning the 1978 NCAA Division II championship, SPU set in motion a Puget Sound tidal surge that would extend for more than 15 years and, some would argue, unceasingly to this date.
Upon returning home from Miami in early December of ‘78, Falcons coach Cliff McCrath, a.k.a. Nubby, took fast action on two counts. The first remains the most sensational and storied publicity stunt in our soccer community’s long and distinguished history. The second was to affirm the source of bounty McCrath molded into champions.
It was plain to see that Seattle Pacific was the beneficiary of leadership and coaching throughout Washington youth soccer, so he immediately drafted a letter to the statewide association.
“Eight of the starters came from the area,” McCrath notes. “Effectively, this national championship belonged to them; it was dedicated to them because these were their players.”
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.
A Formidable Foe
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.
Generally speaking, most longtime, web-footed residents of Puget Sound know the difference between autumn and winter: right, the rain is colder.
Other climate truths are that snow in the lowlands is uncommon. Still more exceptional are significant accumulations. And rarest phenomena of all are big, pre-Thanksgiving snowstorms followed by a week of sub-freezing temperatures.
Thirty years ago, Washington was bit by just such a perfect storm, plus one more for good measure. And for two local colleges due to host late-round postseason matches, it brought about once-in-a-lifetime experiences for all who took part.
In 1985, Mike Jennings was in his second year as head coach of the University of Puget Sound women’s soccer program. His peers also elected him president of their NAIA coaches association and his Tacoma school was the approved host of the fledgling women’s semifinals and final.