THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

With a familiar name and ambitious backers, Mike Woitalla finds the MLS’s latest team are already winning over the locals

The city known for Boeing, Starbucks, Microsoft and grunge rock is giving Major League Soccer a welcome boost as it copes with David Beckham’s jilt and a tanking economy. And if the Seattle Sounders ring familiar, it’s because they’re the reincarnation of a North American Soccer League (NASL) team that popularized the sport in the Pacific Northwest.

Bobby Moore played the last pro matches of his career for the original Sounders, and it was against Seattle that Pele made his final competitive appearance. Named after Puget Sound – the waterway that weaves through the metropolitan area of 4 million people – the Sounders lasted a decade (1974-1983) in the NASL.

Bobby Moore played the last pro matches of his career for the original Sounders, and it was against Seattle that Pele made his final competitive appearance. Named after Puget Sound – the waterway that weaves through the metropolitan area of 4 million people – the Sounders lasted a decade (1974-1983) in the NASL.

For much of their lifespan the Sounders averaged crowds of more than 20,000, fielding mainly Brits and a few Americans. “We didn’t want a multinational team,” said former Derby star Alan Hinton, who managed the Sounders for three seasons. “We just wanted lads who had good character.”

Among the lads who felt comfortable in the Londonesque climate of Seattle was Geoff Hurst, who scored eight goals for the Sounders in 1976, the same year Harry Redknapp arrived to finish his playing days and launch his managerial career as assistant to the Sounders’ Scottish manager Jimmy Gabriel. Under Gabriel, the Sounders reached the 1977 NASL final, which they lost to Pele’s New York Cosmos.

Hinton replaced Gabriel in 1980 and the Sounders returned to the final in 1982, again losing to the Cosmos. But attendance in the giant Kingdome plummeted to an average of 12,539 and the team was sold to a group headed by former gridiron pro Bruce Anderson. Anderson famously announced his aversion to the team’s Brit-centric approach – “Lad is something I call my dog and pitch is something I get on my hands when I put up the Christmas tree” – and fired Hinton. But the Sounders missed the playoffs in 1983, averaged only 8,181 fans, and folded, missing the league’s final season of 1984. The team had, however, created a soccer culture in the area.

“The original Sounders were a really important part of my childhood,” says Adrian Hanauer, the 42-year-old minority owner and general manager of the MLS’s Sounders. “The buzz that existed in the city and going to the games with my family, that really got me.” Hanauer, whose family financed a second version of the Sounders that played in the second level A League from 1996 until 2008, is part of a heavyweight ownership consortium that spent $30 million to buy into the 14-year-old MLS and turn it into a 15-team league in 2009. Also a major shareholder of Cambridge United, Hanauer’s wealth originated with his family’s bedding company and expanded with early-stage investments in tech companies such as Quantive (sold to Microsoft for $6 billion).

The majority owner is Hollywood film mogul Joe Roth whose Revolution Studios’ has produced nearly 50 movies, including Christmas with the Kranks and Oscar-winning Black Hawk Down. There’s also Paul Allen, who co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates, was ranked the 12th richest man in the USA last year, and owns the gridiron team Seattle Seahawks.

Another owner is comedian, actor and game show host Drew Carey, who invested on the condition that club has a marching band and a supporters’ association whose members will vote on in the general manager’s election every four years. “If you don’t think the hot dogs taste good when you go to the stadium, you can just vote him out,” says Carey. “No other fans in the United States will have the chance to do what Seattle soccer fans will be able to do.”

And fans the Sounders will have. Residents of a city that failed to support an NBA basketball team bought 21,000 season tickets (baseball’s Seattle Mariners sell 14,000 season tickets). Only the Los Angeles Galaxy and Toronto FC averaged more than 20,000 fans last year when the leaguewide average was 16,460. The Sounders also signed sponsorship deals with Microsoft and Xbox 360 worth $20 million.

But MLS’s salary cap, less than $3 million, limits the club’s ability to acquire the kind of talent most likely to reward their fans’ enthusiasm. Before they hired German-born Californian Sigi Schmid, who’s won two MLS titles, the Sounders made their marquee player signings. They brought home Washington state product, the 39-year-old Kasey Keller and dubiously used the ‘designated player’ option, which allows one player’s salary not to count against the cap, on injury-plagued Freddie Ljungberg.

But if anyone knows how to build a successful team within MLS’s limitations, it’s Schmid, who like all involved will be well aware that the original Sounders faded after a glorious start. “I think if we can convince another 10,000 or 15,000 to come to our games [in addition to the season-ticket holders],” Schmid says, “we’re not only going to be a success story for soccer in the U.S. I think we’ll establish some benchmarks for any sport."

From WSC 266 April 2009

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