An attendance of 64,207. That’s the number of fans that attended a recent rivalry match between the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers at Seattle’s behemoth CenturyLink Field, which it shares with the reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. The Sounders have only been an official member of MLS since their inaugural season in 2009, but its soccer and the Sounders’ deep roots in Seattle fill the so-called “Clink” all season long.
If you were to present the facts as merely numbers and aphorisms, the stats and hype surrounding Seattle Sounders FC could easily be mistaken for an NFL team. Attendance is just a small part of what makes the Sounders matchday experience so unique and infectious. Fans appear in downtown Seattle hours before kickoff, and the March to the Match brings hundreds of fans bearing banners, noisemakers, and flares down the streets from Pioneer Square. The famous marching band, Sound Wave, leads the supporters in before performing on the steps to the stadium to get fans excited as they enter.
The Sounders, celebrating the club’s 40th Anniversary, pulled out all the stops for such an important match; USA World Cup stars Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin were set to make their first starts since returning from Brazil, and the Sounders had just wrapped up a tight win against the Timbers in the US Open Cup earlier in the week. The loud, bellicose Timbers Army were out for blood as much as their team — both groups were unafraid to show it. From the moment the Sounders’ celebrity co-owner Drew Carey read off the teamsheet to the packed stadium, the Timbers Army strained to try and overpower the noise of the home supporters. It must be said that this usually works —Timbers Army members travel all over the country for their team’s away matches, where they usually out-sing the typical MLS crowd. But not in Seattle. The little sliver of dark green and red had no chance at overpowering the sea of rave green that never stops singing.
When I looked around at the crowd in the CenturyLink during the match, I was struck with the diversity of the stadium. But this isn’t just the beauty of Sounders fans — it’s the beauty of Seattle itself. CenturyLink’s central location in the city and the relative affordability of tickets mean that the Sounders are open to almost anyone. The biggest boost comes from young people, especially those from the Northwest who have likely played recreational soccer their entire lives. This demographic has the most spending power, and many live close enough that they can get to the stadium without much trouble. But families are just as likely to come to games, especially those with kids playing in one of the hundreds of youth leagues in the area.
Soccer in Seattle has become what baseball used to be, and what football has always attempted to be — a melting pot. But it’s easy to see why so many people, often people who would never agree on anything or cooperate with each other in real life, get swept up in the moment of a Seattle Sounders match. The noise is absolutely incredible, from the national anthem led by the excellent Dr. Stephen Michael Newby, to the traditional slow-building clap preceding kickoff. The noise holds for the full 90 minutes, too. The fans were especially raucous as the opposing team was their biggest rival, but every match I’ve been to has stayed at a sustained fever pitch. When Clint Dempsey, star signing and American World Cup hero, scored upon his return, the noise exploded and poured out over the rim of CenturyLink stadium.
Dempsey, a player that many consider to be one of America’s best ever, cited the crowd and atmosphere as big factors in his decision to come to Seattle over other MLS teams when the league was working on his purchase. The team’s owners made very intentional decisions when bringing the Sounders back to the top of American soccer; things like playing in CenturyLink Field, which is right on the edge of downtown Seattle, are very important to setting the right atmosphere from the get-go. Immediately providing incentives to players is so crucial, and the quality of incoming players like Dempsey to Seattle in recent years shows how much those things mean to professional athletes.
So it’s a cycle, only sometimes vicious, that having the best fans and atmosphere brings in the best players, and having the best players and team bring in even more fans. This season especially, which sees Seattle at a runaway pace for the MLS Supporters’ Shield, has been five years in the making. The healthy rivalry with Portland has roots that run deep, and having both teams at the top makes matches like this that much more entertaining. You can see the passion on supporters all over the stadium — from the club’s most vociferous supporters’ groups, to the grade school kids waving mini-scarves over their heads and singing Clint Dempsey’s name as a ritualistic chant, contributing to the waves of sound that pulse through the monstrous stadium.
The crowd ebbed and flowed with the team, producing sighs like an expelled air balloon when Marco Pappa shot over the bar, and boos as fervid as if they were condemning gladiators to death in the arena when yet another Timbers player fouled one of their beloved Sounders.
To those that say people in America don’t care about soccer, that we should stop supporting our teams in the European manner, I say come to Seattle. Step into the stadium just before kickoff and let the noise wash over you. Let the chants and songs rattle your skull, and fall in love when that ball hits the back of the net and you join in the Emerald City soccer bacchanalia.