As FC Dallas fight for their life in an empty Pizza Hut Park and DC United swim frantically upstream in their search for a new stadium, one Major League Soccer franchise has taken the league by storm this season, seemingly demonstrating exactly what the perfect US football club should look like. And it’s doing this all in the very early part of its first season in the USA’s flagship league.
Microsoft co-founder and Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen and comedian Drew Carey have thrown their support behind Seattle Sounders FC, Major League Soccer’s 2009 expansion franchise. They are joined in the directors’ box by existing Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer and majority owner Joe Roth, and the Sounders FC regime appears – from the outside – to be going about things the right way.
And it’s that “right way” which ends up under the microscope so often when UK football supporters critique American football (the round ball flavoured version). So many fans glance across the Atlantic and dismiss Major League Soccer because of empty grounds, substandard football and “American” atmosphere. We criticise the league because it’s artificial, and its clubs are created out of thin air. But there is a market for football in the States, and while we have been able to watch our league grow up organically from William McGregor’s brainchild in Victorian England, our American cousins don’t have the same luxury.
Simply put, there aren’t many other ways of creating a league from scratch, and I think MLS is really beginning to head in the right direction. Sounders FC could play a big part in that progression.
Sounders Nation: the right city at the right time
Hitting the ground running could be hugely important for a new club joining an established league – especially in such a crowded sports market. Seattle did that emphatically, winning their first three matches to nil and marketing the club superbly well from the very beginning. As a result, the Sounders sell out Qwest Field and had sold over 20,000 season tickets by the time the season began. That’s no mean feat.
But why does it seem to be working? Firstly, there’s an argument for Seattle just being “right” for soccer. Although this is clearly difficult to qualify, the Sounders name is one which has a considerable history and, excitingly, a long-running rivalry with the Portland Timbers – a rivalry which will be renewed when Portland bursts onto the Major League Soccer scene in the 2011 expansion.
Clearly there are rivalries in other sports, including the sports which dominate the US market. But there’s something so tribal and base about a football rivalry that takes a little more emotional investment. In other words, Seattle has football fans. It’s the right city.
Sounders FC was also launched into a favourable market. After a drawn out legal battle, Seattle’s NBA franchise, the Supersonics, relocated to Oklahoma City to become Oklahoma City Thunder in 2008, leaving the football club behind only Allen’s Seahawks in the battle for Seattle’s affections. Obviously not a franchise to rest on its laurels, Seattle has treated the fans with total respect. It’s often forgotten by football clubs that we don’t have to fork out our cash to keep them afloat.
Major League Marketing
As we all know, as long as the eleven men on the pitch are successful, it’s the little touches that create a contented fan base. Last May, Carey announced that members of the Sounders FC Alliance – the club’s members association – would be given the ability to vote out the general manager. Every four years, the Sounders GM will be subject to this vote, beginning with Hanauer in 2012. It may not sound much, but I can think of a few other Major League Soccer franchises where the fans would quite fancy giving the GM the boot.
At the other end of the marketing spectrum, Sounders FC dished out a bunch of scarves as part of Scarf Seattle, a campaign which encouraged fans to drape rave green and blue scarves all over the city in the days leading up to First Kick 2009. Without going into too much depth, the rest of the marketing mix was sharply managed too. But with an ownership line-up of this calibre, what does one expect? Even the Space Needle was drenched in green and blue light.
If you’re preparing to kick off a new football club in the States in 2008, few coaching candidates stand out like Sigi Schmid, and the Sounders got their man. With Schmid coming right off the back of his Supporters Shield and MLS Cup wins with Columbus Crew, Seattle moved in and offered him a presumably very tidy sum. His move was controversial, with Crew suggesting the involvement of foul play. His fantastic start in charge of the Sounders, along with his success at Los Angeles Galaxy and Columbus, explains exactly why such a tug of war surrounded Schmid’s dealings with Seattle.
For supporters hailing from Europe, where firepower sits with the richer clubs and their spending continues unabated, the concept of parity is sometimes difficult to grasp. American sports fans are more familiar with draft systems and salary caps, and they know the importance of coaching. That Sounders FC snared a man who has under his belt two MLS Cups, three Supporters Shields, a US Open Cup and a CONCACAF Champions Cup is something of a coup.
If anybody was surprised at Seattle’s blistering start in Major League Soccer, perhaps they shouldn’t have been.
How to build a squad from scratch
An unusual challenge facing Schmid was the opportunity to construct his team almost out of thin air. Around 20 members of the now-defunct USL-1 Seattle Sounders were invited to try out for the MLS expansion side, and a handful succeeded. One, goalkeeper Chris Eylander, will replace the Sounders’ suspended stopper this weekend. On top of this, the new Sounders coach displayed plenty of nous in his squad building.
A quick look down the Sounders roster draws one’s eye to a few outstanding names. Legendary goalkeeper Kasey Keller, is Seattle’s captain. The 38-year-old left for Europe in 1992 and took in England, Spain and Germany before returning to the States to skipper the Sounders. Keller is a popular player, has vast experience of very different football cultures and is definitely a captain worth looking up to. He is joined by former Arsenal star, Olof Mellberg’s best mate and West Ham doctor-botherer Freddie Ljungberg, Seattle’s designated player. A bit-part beginning for the Swede has been impressive nonetheless, and he scored his first MLS goal against Toronto earlier this month.
If Ljungberg’s acquisition was astute, the signing of Colombian youngster Fredy Montero on loan from Deportivo Cali was a stroke of genius. Despite one or two off-field concerns (Montero was cleared this week of sexual assault allegations relating to supposed stalking), Montero’s form has been spellbinding. He’s firmly among the goals, including one special strike in particular, and his performances have won him plaudits from all over the States. Going about their business perhaps a little more quietly are draft pick Steve Zakuani and former Houston Dynamo forward Nate Jaqua.
Between them, Zakuani, Jaqua, Montero and Ljungberg make the Sounders a thrilling prospect on the field. With all that marketing might behind it, an exciting and dynamic football team could just help turn Seattle Sounders FC into a force to be reckoned with.
You can read more from Chris Nee at twofootedtackle.