MLS announces expansion in Seattle

In a press conference that kicked off with highlights of the MLS 2007 season to the accompaniment of cool salsa music, Seattle's new MLS team was formally announced to the world.

It's been a dream for over 10 years, since the vote in 1997 that brought Seahawks Stadium (now Qwest Field) to Seattle.

"There were a lot of dreams, a dream of keeping the NFL here, a dream of playing a championship game here, dreams that have come through. And there was another dream: that of playing in [America's] premier soccer league," said Tod Leiweke of the Seahawks, representing owner Paul Allen.

Today those dreams came true. Not only will this be an expansion team, it will be a unique expansion team. Unique in how it will make fans a part of the organization, unique in how it will build community and unique in how it will be marketed and managed.

"My notion of this team is that we will turn it over to the community while we run it," majority owner Joe Roth said. "In Barcelona, they have a supporters club where they can vote in and out the general manager every four years. This model really bonds the community of fans and the team together."

The idea originally came from another owner: comedian and actor Drew Carey.

"I met Drew at a game in Los Angeles. He's passionate about soccer, and he wanted to meet with me. He said 'I'll come in [to the ownership group] if we have a marching band and follow the Barcelona concept,' so I took him up on it," Roth said. "I did tell him that 'I'll take you in if you paint your face and play the trumpet with the band,' so we might be seeing that on opening day."

Roth expressed a desire to grow the community of soccer fans.

"All around the country we have kids who play soccer, but drop out when they get older," Roth said. He added that he aims to build the team closer to the Seattle community. "We can grow our own Michael Jordans ... like Jozy Altidore and they'll become role models. Seattle is primed to become the home city of soccer in America. It will be the first city to properly connect the youth leagues with pro sports."

MLS Commissioner Don Garber described Seattle as the "gateway to the East," with Roth adding, "We can bring in teams from China, Korea and Japan, and I hope that we'll be able to bring in the same caliber of player as [Japanese player] Ichiro [Suzuki] with the Seattle Mariners."

Roth also aims to bring a Hollywood approach to marketing and managing the team. "In 35 years in entertainment I've learned a lot about promotion, marketing and TV coverage," he said. "And soccer is very similar to movies in that you have to encourage people to come out of their house and buy a ticket."

The first part of that will be in how 67,000-capacity Qwest Field will be downsized. "The lower bowl has 24,500 seats," Roth said, "we'll be using them, and the upper part won't be boring. It will be entertaining."

The general manager for the new Seattle team will be Adrian Hanauer, a minority owner of the new team and current owner of the USL Seattle Sounders.

"My vision for this team is to be an international brand, and we are working on a mission and a set of values for the organization that will be reflected on the field," Hanauer said.

The Sounders won the USL First Division championship in 2007, and Hanauer said they will be around to defend their title.

"There has been a lot of speculation about the Sounders and what they'll do in 2008. They'll be back, and they will play their final season in Seattle in 2008," Hanauer said. "The MLS Competition Committee will allow us to protect some of the players, which will help us to move to MLS with a few of those key players."

With the announcement, MLS Commissioner Don Garber has been able to realize one of the first tasks that was given to him.

"One of the first calls I got as commissioner was from Seattle, and from the communications officer of the Seahawks. It was my first day on the job, and he told me 'Welcome to the sport! Did you know that your predecessor committed to bring a team to Seattle?," Garber said. "Well I didn't, but it's been many years of hard work to get the right ownership group together and now we have it.

"It's a very exciting time for the league, the sport and the city. We've had a great year in 2007, with many successes, new multi-year TV deals; record attendance -- over three million for the first time; a new team in Toronto that sold out every game and more," said Garber. "This announcement caps a great year for us." The team's name has not yet been decided. Fans are welcome to make suggestions at MLSInSeattle.com.

Laurence Moroney is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.