The Throw-In: Seattle has set bar impossibly high for expansion
SEATTLE — Finally, the 2010 season is here. And it’s kicking off in exactly the same place last season began 12 months ago, and the same place it wrapped up last November: on the FieldTurf of Qwest Field. That’s no accident. Seattle Sounders FC have become, from the First Kick of 2009, the gold standard for expansion clubs. Whether that’s a fair set of expectations or not, it’s hard to argue with the fantastic show the Emerald City has put on as a top-drawer soccer town. No one predicted the scene here last March: a sell-out crowd of more than 32,000 fans, clad in green jerseys, holding scarves over their heads and singing for nearly the entire game. The noise level was deafening, and so was the soccer on the field. Sigi Schmid’s men systematically dismantled the New York Red Bulls 3-0. That was just the beginning. Seattle went on to shatter the all-time single-season attendance mark as Sounders fans filled Qwest game after game. And that carried all the way through to MLS Cup 2009, when a crowd of more than 46,000 saw Real Salt Lake win an improbable championship. The way Seattle has embraced MLS is almost unparalleled in the league's 15-year history. The Sounders are on sports-talk radio all the time here. They get top billing in the sports section of The Seattle Times. Billboards of Freddie Ljungberg are a common sight. People actually talk about the team in bars. What is it that made Seattle such a slam-dunk soccer market? Maybe it’s roots entrenched in the soccer history here in the Pacific Northwest. Maybe it’s the experienced management, backed by the knowhow of the NFL’s Seahawks. Maybe it’s the fact that Seattle’s NBA team picked up and left town at precisely the perfect moment, leaving a sporting vacuum MLS happily filled. In truth, it’s probably a combination of all of the above. But the end product is something magical that, as MLS commissioner Don Garber himself admitted to me last spring, “exceeded what I thought an expansion team could deliver.” In fact, only one other club -- Toronto FC -- enjoyed a similar smash debut three years ago, setting similar attendance marks in its glittering new stadium. That’s not to say other relatively newer clubs aren’t doing things right. But the league has held up Seattle and Toronto as glittering jewels in its steadily growing crown. That becomes a daunting challenge for any new franchise. Enter the Philadelphia Union, who get their baptism by fire in the hellish inferno that is Qwest Field and the blazing-fast tempo of the team that occupies it. Peter Nowak’s squad won’t just be up against one of the best teams in the league; it’ll be up against the weight of expectations, of knowing that if you’re an MLS expansion team, this is how you make it big. Is it fair to be held to those standards? Probably not. But it’s a pretty compelling advertisement. “Their market, city, team and organization have done a great job,” Union CEO and operating partner Nick Sakiewicz told me over the phone earlier this week, “but Philadelphia is not Seattle. I’ve been in this business long enough to know you can’t compare markets.” That’s a fair point: The Union are not the Sounders. They don’t have the same financial resources, they don’t have the flashy, recognizable owners like Paul Allen and Drew Carey and they don’t have a sexy roster of big names. But they do have a staff of smart soccer people, a new stadium on the way and, just like Seattle, a profound connection with the fan culture that helped get them off the ground. That’s why a sizeable contingent of traveling Philly fans will be in attendance on Thursday to see their club’s first game and will stay along for the ride at every major step the Union take. What they’ll see Thursday will be uplifting (their own team finally taking the field). It’ll be inspiring (a lesson in how a new team can sweep up a city). And it’ll be a reality check (a likely mismatch on the pitch). “For us, it’s actually a great way to start,” said Sakiewicz. “We get a game under our belt without the pressure of own home market and home fans. In Philly, the pressure to win is pretty intense. For us, going there and airing things out in Seattle is actually less pressure for us than opening at home.” There’s every reason to expect Philadelphia will be another great addition to MLS. But the benchmark is still set. The demand for Sounders matches was so great, the club made nearly 10,000 additional season tickets available, and many are picking the team to win MLS Cup in just its second year. That game, perhaps thankfully, won’t be at Qwest Field again. But if reports are to be believed, it’ll be in Toronto, that other paradigm of expansion success. For now, let’s focus on getting this season started this weekend. Seattle is, once again, the epicenter of the league. Representatives from next year’s expansion groups in Portland and Vancouver are here (and Joey Saputo and his family likely will be glued to their TVs back in Montreal). After Philly, they’re on the clock. Seattle has raised the bar. This is the standard. This is the hundreds of thousands behind the greatest success story in MLS history saying, “We dare you to top this.”
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. "The Throw-In" appears every Thursday.