The average attendance for Sounders league matches at Qwest Field (as of July 25) is 30,204. People. In one place. For comparison's sake: a rock show at the Paramount (2,807), a concert at KeyArena (16,641), a festival at the Gorge (25,000). Picture Sasquatch! Now add SIFF opening night at the Paramount. Now go ahead and add David Byrne at the Paramount also. Now put them all downtown and let them fight for parking or try to find a bike rack. That's what happens at nearly every single match of a sport that people have always said could never catch on in America.
The Sounders' average attendance is nearly double the estimated Major Soccer League average of 15,599. Attendance greater than 30,000 has been announced at the last several recent Sounders home matches, against teams like San Jose (average attendance: 10,657), D.C. (14,003), Houston (15,632), and Chicago (12,838). These crowd figures place Seattle at number one in Major League Soccer—which the Sounders only joined this year—comfortably ahead of the other 14 teams. Number two is Toronto at 20,277. Dallas is last with 9,464.
The average Sounders attendance is less than half the number of people who go see the average Seahawks game (67,995 last year) in the same stadium. But it's just about equal to the number of people who go see the Mariners (28,761 last year, 32,992 in 2007). And lest it be forgotten that there used to be a professional men's basketball team in this town, Sounders attendance is greater than the combined averages of the last two years of Sonics supporters—though the comparison might not be fair, since everyone knew the Sonics were leaving town and many decided to cut their losses (ambiguity intentional). The Storm, despite being the best sports ticket in town before the Sounders' emergence, drew an average of only 8,265 last year.
Why should Seattle, of all places, have so raging a boner for so anti-American a pastime?
Well, the easy answer is in the question. But to go slightly deeper, let us consider the anti-soccer faction. It's easy to find middlebrows and neocons grinding axes about the sport on blog after loudmouth blog. Franklin Foer's otherwise somewhat-impenetrable book How Soccer Explains the World offers a dedicated list of prominent footie opponents, including USA Today's Tom Weir, who once wrote that "hating soccer is more American than apple pie, driving a pickup, or spending Saturday afternoons channel surfing." The late senator and 1996 vice-presidential candidate (and retired pro "real" football player) Jack Kemp derided soccer as "socialist" on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Radio sports loudmouth Jim Rome has long made his antipathy for soccer a point of pride ("I will hand [my son] ice skates and a shimmering sequined blouse before I hand him a soccer ball. Soccer is not a sport, does not need to be on TV..."). Fractionally less-hysterical language comes from Allen Barra of the Wall Street Journal: "Yes, okay, soccer is the most 'popular' sport in the world... So what? Maybe other countries can't afford football, basketball, and baseball leagues; maybe if they could afford these other sports, they'd enjoy them even more." I did say fractionally.
You may detect a recurring tone in these objections. Soccer is not simply unenjoyable, it's a threat to our way of life (however bovine that way of life may be), our government, our economy, our manhood. You'd think they were talking about electric cars. But no less a liberal pinup than Keith Olbermann is a notorious mocker of the sport and its worldwide appeal; his dismissive asides began when he was an ESPN anchor and continue on his MSNBC broadcasts. And in a hilarious report occasioned by Team USA's upset victory over Spain, Stephen Colbert declared soccer "the sport for fourth graders that foreign people take seriously." Fair enough.
The truth is, complaints against soccer may not be fundamentally aesthetic, but psychological. It issues from the unalterable human tendency to interpret other people's preference for things other than your favorites as a judgment against you—you like soccer, so you must be saying that football is for assholes. In which case, soccer is for assholes, asshole. The details are just filler. Why else would anyone care? People make fun of the sport the way people make fun of Canada—it's the easiest target imaginable. Until you go to Canada, that is.
British author Nick Hornby's memoir Fever Pitch is a book-length struggle to define the psychology of loving soccer. "When there is some kind of triumph," he writes, "the pleasure does not radiate from the players outwards until it reaches the likes of us at the back of the terraces in a pale and diminished form; our fun is not a watery version of the team's fun... The joy we feel on occasions like this is not a celebration of others' good fortune, but a celebration of our own; and when there is a disastrous defeat, the sorrow that engulfs us is, in effect, self-pity... I am part of the club, just as the club is part of me."
Did someone say crushing defeat? Several weekends ago, the Sounders got properly trounced in an exhibition match against the English Premier League powerhouse Chelsea FC (average home attendance: 41,588). The 2–0 final score doesn't begin to communicate the degree to which Chelsea effortlessly dominated Seattle from the first touch to the last whistle. But Chelsea's effortless dominance failed to deter the Sounders crowd from throwing its collective heart and lungs behind the men in the Xbox jerseys. (Speaking of which, the ultimate sign of the Sounders' popularity might be the fact that every week tens of thousands of Seattleites dress themselves in an ad for Microsoft, of all things, to show their support.)
Walking into Qwest Field—surrounded on all sides by people wearing green-and-blue Xbox shirts and scarves, and bouncing on their tiptoes in eagerness to find their seats despite the fact that everybody in the stadium stands for the entire match, cheering loudly, chatting convivially—the scene is captivating. The game-day crowds blabber loudly and often knowledgeably about the sport, with the classic stadium dilemma in full effect: one know-it-all guy incessantly shouting instructions to the players ("Get off the pitch! You're not hurt!"), coach, and refs while others commiserate a few rows down by making fun of his analysis. Is it the allure of highly paid foreign players on the marquee? Possibly, but as dazzling as they often are, Freddie Ljungberg, Fredy Montero, Osvaldo Alonso, and their confreres ain't David Beckham in terms of star power. Is it novelty? Is it trend hopping? Is it that athletic men running in shorts for 90 minutes is empirically super hot? Is it that the game itself is thrilling in ways you wouldn't imagine? Maybe. Or maybe it's just that there's finally a local men's pro sports team that you can feel genuinely good about cheering for, since they haven't yet had an opportunity to demonstrate the telltale trait of Seattle sports teams: choking in the home stretch.
But also... I mean, of COURSE Seattle would be into soccer. It's almost too perfect. It's the hybrid car with the Obama bumper sticker of pro sports, a distillation of exactly what people from Des Moines to Des Moines think is so noxious about Seattleites with their fleece jackets and their recumbent bikes and their lattes and their solar-powered condos and their adopted minority babies and their gay-marriage advocacy and... Despite having no political affiliation or even reverberation, soccer fits comfortably into any generic anti-liberal screed you'd care to level. And yet, is it not awesome? Go to a game, you'll see: Soccer is awesome. Fact. The negative energy sent by the Romes and Olbermanns of the world is like a dare; let them judge our motives, our attitudes, our pretensions—we'll be over here enjoying the match. They are free to hate the player, but they should stop hating the game.
This city has had plenty of time to warm up to its more conventional sports, and it basically has, at least when those teams are winning. But can it ever be what journalists call a "sports town"? The conflict between mass culture and cool culture rages more conspicuously in Seattle proper than in any other comparable city in America. Not to say it's hard to be into sports here. This is America, after all. Rather, it's easier to reject sports here without feeling like a complete outcast. Some places, you talk about football or nothing, baseball or nothing. Seattle truly is not like that, and on purpose—though you can always find those conversations if you want them. The middle ground, in which a casual interest in sports is incorporated into an otherwise sports-free lifestyle, may be a little harder to navigate. (Maybe not, though. Plenty of indie rockers go to Ms games, after all.) Yet soccer stands astride the Manichean split between the sports culture that dominates everything in American life and the let's call it "other" culture that Seattle has spent the last several decades exemplifying. Despite its Euro patina, it is also unmistakably virile, unmistakably sports. What a soccer game doesn't look like, maybe feel like is more accurate, is a football game. It doesn't feel lived in and predetermined and institutional. It feels new. Sports, yes. But new.
As many a hater has pointed out, American TV has a difficult time with soccer's pace and scope. The mistake, of course, is blaming the sport—futbol is the only thing worth looking at on most European networks. For commentators obsessed with imposing a narrative on every second of every play—and using lengthy built-in pauses to bloviate analysis, regurgitate stats, and sell beer—soccer is an organic downer. The clock only stops twice in a match, the game requires a widescreen perspective, and the tempo is deceptively languid considering how much sprinting is being done. The drama that arises is necessarily sudden and fleeting. Whereas football and basketball rely on manipulation of time, stretching 12- and 15-minute periods out endlessly by slicing them into infinitesimal subsections, and baseball is unbound by any temporal imperative, soccer time is immutably progressive—long enough to seem like a full meal, but finite and unforgiving. Low scores also confound soccer's critics, who don't appreciate the explosive payoff of making each goal precious and difficult to achieve (see also: the word "goal") or the purity of one goal = one point.
Maybe purity is the allure. The game is incredibly simple: 11 players try to move a ball down a field without using their hands, while 11 other players try to do the same in the opposite direction. Take away the jersey logos and Jumbotrons, and what you're watching isn't substantially different from what you'd have seen 2,000 years ago. You can't say that about any of the big three American sports, all of which are governed by arcane logic and systems that only make sense if you don't question them.
Sports fandom is the ultimate pop-culture thing that you don't have to be cool, or smart, or rich, or talented, or good-looking to do. It belongs to everyone. But many feel that in truth, it belongs to everyone else. And it can be a drag when everyone else already knows everything there is to know about something you're attempting to discover. Sounders soccer, Seattle soccer, American soccer is a constant process of real-time, learn-as-you-go discovery. It's available to anyone, yes, but not yet dominated by Everyone. This enables people who otherwise don't feel comfortable saying "we" to say it about groups of 30,000 people. Like this: "We were down one-nil and the refs were really against us, but Fredy scored and then Freddie scored and we won!" We won. Instead of feeling faintly silly, or at least inaccurate—"we" didn't really win anything; "we" just watched them run their asses off for 90 minutes—they simply identify. It's such an obvious transaction to any sports fan. But MLS is not just any sport. It is fledgling, inchoate, hopeful, an underdog, an acquired taste, in beta stage. And Seattle loves a beta stage.
Every Sounders fan knows the team, the league, the whole enterprise could easily fail financially as similar efforts to Americanize soccer have failed so many times in the past. The partisan documentary Once in a Lifetime tells the agonizing story of a so-close-yet-so-far campaign in the late 1970s, led by the well-funded superstar clearinghouse New York Cosmos, who had every opportunity to drive the sport into the American consciousness—including corporate ownership and global superstars like Pelé on board—and even scored a TV contract with ABC, before it all went the way of Studio 54. And so there is some degree of urgency at Sounders matches, a combination of cheering extra loud because every little bit helps and taking it all in now before it goes away. But the dominant energy is ascendant jubilation in the fact that this is really happening. We're really watching pro soccer in America. And we're really a we. Aren't we?
If there was any doubt about the We relation between Sounders supporters and the Sounders themselves, it was answered in the second half of the July 11 match against the Houston Dynamo. Houston was dominant in the first half, scoring early and maintaining commanding pressure throughout. Seattle equalized with a stumbling but effective Fredy Montero goal at the 31-minute mark, then returned from halftime on fire, scoring again almost immediately with a beautifully acrobatic, if semiaccidental bicycle kick (the kind Pelé did in the movie Victory) by Patrick Ianni. With the momentum turned decisively in the home team's favor, the unbridled roar of the assembled mass was loud enough to drown out the brass band and the announcer. The sun was beaming, the sky was clear, tiny pieces of green, blue, and silver Mylar confetti sparkled across the field like little gay shrapnel. This was a good Saturday afternoon. But then one of the essential sports tropes happened: A villain emerged. Houston defender Craig Waibel—bald, six-foot-two, and impressively imposing—became frustrated with the tide having turned against his team, and in the most blatant foul of the match, grabbed Montero by the jersey, swung him around in a full circle, and threw him to the ground. The crowd, already on its feet, went berserk, shouting, "WHAT THE FUCK!?" and "RED CARD! REEEEEEEEEED! THROW HIM OUT! OUUUUUUUUUT! BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"
It was exhilarating to be in the midst of such a thunderclap of intense negative emotion on such a glorious day. But the emotion was honorable and earned: Fredy had been wronged! Our Fredy! And no red card! Not even a yellow! No matter. From that point onward, the Sounders were pure stealth, and the crowd was with them for every step. But the villain was about to raise the stakes, like any good villain must. A few minutes later, as Waibel was about to throw the ball in from the sideline, Freddie Ljungberg got up in his face to flummox him. Waibel, in a gesture equal parts frustration and absurdism, bonked the ball down on Ljungberg's head. Apoplexy. Outrage. The crowd redoubled its ballistic assault, demanding Waibel's bald head on a platter. And again, no penalty. This would not stand. In the grand scheme of athletic assaults (one thinks of Tyson, Iverson, Zidane), a bonk on the head with a soccer ball is small potatoes. But it was an unmistakable sign of disrespect for Ljungberg, the Sounders' most recognizable star and the team's undeniable heart. He may as well have boxed Ljungberg's ears. For the rest of the match, every time Waibel got anywhere near the ball, everyone booed. If he dribbled a few yards: "BOOOOOOOO!" If he was guarding a Sounders forward till they passed: "BOOOOO!" If he just tapped the ball to clear it: "Boo!" When the game was over, he got booed right off the field, unforgiven in defeat for the disgrace of being unsportsmanlike. It visibly rattled him as he trudged to the locker room. (I'm not sure how many people in the crowd knew that he used to play for the Sounders before they became an MLS team.) It was funny and mean and exactly right—an authentic sports experience. And when the game ended, the ecstatic crowd felt like it had been transformed definitively. The Sounders had played a fine match and prevailed against a tough opponent.
But We won.