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Originally published November 4, 2009 at 4:42 PM | Page modified November 4, 2009 at 11:48 PM

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Success story: Sounders FC has been winner on and off the field in first season

Record crowds have watched team win U.S. Open Cup and advance to playoffs.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Sunday

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Ask Adrian Hanauer about all of the success his Major League Soccer team has had both on and off the field in its inaugural season, and he answers the question with his own questions.

"How do we work hard enough to maintain it and build off of it? And how do we avoid becoming complacent? How do we keep the appropriate level of paranoia within the organization?" Hanauer asked. "Those are the things that hit me, but also a high level of gratification and satisfaction with how the team has been embraced by the community."

Spoken like a person with a major stake in a sports franchise, in this case Seattle Sounders FC. And Hanauer has a lot invested, both as minority owner and as the club's general manager.

Sounders FC has been wildly popular with fans in its first season, setting MLS attendance records, selling merchandise like no other team in the league and establishing Seattle as a major soccer city.

On the field, of course, the club has also been a winner. Sounders FC captured the U.S. Open Cup earlier this season and plays at Houston in the second leg of a first-round playoff series Sunday against the Dynamo.

Not that the players are happy just to reach the postseason. They want more.

"It's the first time these guys have really played together, and we're going against the Houstons and the New Englands of the world and those guys have 100, 150 games between them and we've got 10, 15," said midfielder Pete Vagenas. "In that sense it's a bit of an achievement. At the same time, we're not satisfied nor celebratory just about making the playoffs."

Hanauer's comments indicate Sounders FC's desire to continue to be a force not just in Seattle and the Northwest sports scene, but in the world. It's a vision that began years ago when Hanauer was trying to find investors to bring MLS to Seattle.

His dream was realized with help from Hollywood studio executive Joe Roth and the Seahawks and their owner, Paul Allen. But even the numbers and the public response to the team in its first season were more than anyone expected.

The Sounders have 22,000 season-ticket holders and set a record for MLS average attendance, and for attendance at a conference semifinal game. Fan-driven social networking Web sites and a membership association helped achieve part of the vision for the franchise — a sports democracy. And a community connection was built based on high visibility and access to players and staff.

The league was impressed enough to award its championship game, the MLS Cup, to Seattle. The game will be played at Qwest Field on Nov. 22.

Roth said he had no expectations because he'd never owned a team, and any he had were based on what he'd seen from other MLS clubs.

Roth credits the Seattle area for not treating Sounders FC soccer like a niche sport.

"It's fantastic. It honestly couldn't be better," he said. "The city has responded. There is a city where soccer can work in America."

Roth added that TV exposure and the Sonics leaving town played a role, but that Sounders FC games turned out to be social gatherings and the area soccer community truly feels that Sounders FC is its team.

Coach Sigi Schmid appreciates the relationship between team and fans.

"The buzz in the city and the excitement is just superb," he said. "People are walking around and you can feel it. I was standing on a corner crossing the street the other day and somebody says, 'Hey, good luck, Coach, in the playoffs.' It's just great to know that people are aware of what's going on."

José Miguel Romero: 206-464-2409 or jromero@seattletimes.com

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