When Seattle Sounders FC hosts the first leg of the Western Conference Championship tonight (10 pm ET, FS1, TSN), their most ardent fans will enter their home stadium the same way they have since 2005 — before the team was even part of MLS.
The March to the Match tradition began when the then-relatively-new Emerald City Supporters (ECS) began a procession from a pub in Pioneer Square, the historic neighborhood nestled between Seattle’s downtown core and the stadium site, to what is now known as CenturyLink Field.
Paul Cox, president of the Alliance Council (an organization serving as a liaison between Sounders season ticket holders and the front office) from 2010 to 2014, remembers the early days. His ECS membership dates back to 2009, and he says the march had very informal origins. As he recalls, “They would basically meet up at a local watering hole, ‘get those drinks in for the lads,’ and then head out to the stadium as a group.”
The USL team that adopted the Sounders moniker was already playing in the new stadium, which opened in 2002, thanks in part to a state referendum where football and soccer fans came together to vote for the public part of a public-private partnership.
According to ECS past president Greg Mockos, making the march a more official gameday function came out of his suggestion in an advisory council meeting, when the Sounders’ front office was preparing for their first MLS home opener in March 2009. And since then, it’s happened “regardless of day, weather, and competition,” with Mockos noting that his favorite marches are the cold, wet ones (including tonight’s, where scarves become functional as well as decorative).
The march has since evolved into its current hybrid form: a club-sponsored rally at Pioneer Square’s Occidental Park (interchangeably called Occidental Square), starting 90 minutes before kickoff, often involving official Sounders FC percussion and brass band Sound Wave. It then culminates with a boisterous, half-mile parade of fans (led by ECS members, some emerging from pubs right before march time) an hour before game time.
According to Seattle soccer historian Frank MacDonald, the tradition’s been helpful in shaping the reputation of Sounders fans. “The march was very much part of establishing traditions early on in the MLS club's existence,” he says. “The vision was to go beyond the march, to make it a rallying point for all fans, the supporters' groups and the band, to really build an excitement and crowd involvement before even entering the stadium.”
He notes that because it requires closing down streets prior to the match, its ongoing success shows cooperation among city officials, local businesses, the Sounders front office, and fans in keeping the tradition ongoing. He also notes that past players and current members of the ownership group (including part-owner and full-time celebrity Drew Carey) have made appearances at the pre-match rallies to help pump up the crowd.
ECS members like Mockos see the march itself as instrumental for unite fans throughout the stadium. “It's a great opportunity for people who typically do not sit with or near the supporters to learn the songs and sing along,’” he says. "It also sets a tone. Once the march starts, the gameday mental clock starts ticking. We all get in game mode after it starts.”
"At it's core, it's simple,” MacDonald notes. “It's about igniting the flame inside you, reminding every individual that we have a role to play in the match, to back our team unconditionally, to celebrate good play, good effort and, yes, goals, but perhaps more importantly, to do whatever we can to lift the team when they need us most."
"By gathering together and marching en masse," he continues, "it's a reaffirmation of what we can all accomplish when pulling together.”
“It's almost like a parade, every game,” Cox says. “But instead of most of the people standing around on the sides watching someone else do it, it's a people's parade and you get to take part in it with a few thousand other crazy fans and supporters.”
And that energy doesn’t just stay with the crowd as they approach the stadium. Cox notes that the March can typically be heard approaching from inside the stadium, and MacDonald sees the marchers’ entrance as a force that activates the entire stadium.
“Just hearing that noise coming down Occidental and seeing the passion of the ECS stokes the fires within,” MacDonald says. “It creates momentum going into the pregame stadium atmosphere, creating a buzz in the CLink before a ball is kicked in anger, and everything then builds off that: a key tackle or interception, that first chance at goal, and on through the match.”
Cox adds that it creates some much-needed social glue. “That feeling of togetherness is something we don't always have in modern society and Seattle is a bit notorious for being a bit chilly socially at times, so this is like the opposite of it,” he says. “It warms my heart every single time. The fan base owes the ECS a huge debt of gratitude for organically creating such a great thing.”