In game-day experiences, Sounders FC tops them all
Sounders fans get last chance to cheer for team in playoff opener.
Seattle Times staff reporter
L.A. Galaxy @ Sounders FC, 5 p.m., ESPN2
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Bruce Arena doesn't need any history lessons on soccer support in the Pacific Northwest.
As a former goalkeeper for the Tacoma Tides of the American Soccer League, the Los Angeles Galaxy head coach experienced firsthand the area's unique embrace of the game in the 1970s.
"I don't think there's a finer city for the sport in this country than Seattle," Arena said.
Sounders FC's supportive crowd has one last chance Sunday to cheer on its team at Qwest Field this season. The significance of the final home game of the year — a 5 p.m. first-round playoff match against the top-seeded Galaxy — isn't lost on the players.
"We truly want to make this a memorable night for the fans," said goalkeeper Kasey Keller.
The Major League Soccer playoff schedule keeps the Sounders on the road even if they win this first-round series.
It's been a season to remember for Seattle's fans, but visiting Los Angeles also is familiar with strong crowds. Most of the Galaxy's home games also are sold out, but it has come through a different approach.
According to Arena, the challenge of finding a foothold in the community is much harder in the biggest cities.
"In New York and L.A., there's obviously a lot of competition for the sports dollar," Arena said. "I don't need to tell you, but we have the Lakers. Seattle lost their NBA team. I just think they're different settings."
To counter that competition, MLS teams in larger markets often look to attract high-level stars to draw interest. Perhaps the league's most three recognizable names — L.A.'s David Beckham and Landon Donovan, and New York's Thierry Henry — play in the country's two biggest cities.
"There certainly is an element of glitz and flash when you get a guy like David Beckham — and Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle and some of their quality — coming into the stadium," Sounders FC general manager Adrian Hanauer said on the team's website. "I would imagine there may be some people that were on the fence, and now that Beckham is coming they're going to be sure that they're in the stadium."
For Seattle's fans, the chance to watch internationally known stars is a rare event. For the L.A. crowd, it's a weekly opportunity. But the semi-reliance on celebrity players has an adverse affect as well.
Some outsiders have noticed a clear difference in the fan bases between the two markets — particularly that Sounders FC's support is more authentic.
"You really do feel like you're in Europe with a great European-style atmosphere," Grant Wahl, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and best-selling author of "The Beckham Experiment," said of games in Seattle.
"The Galaxy may sell out, but it's not the same. There are a few soccer fans and, it seems, a lot of 13-year-old girls screaming at Beckham. In Seattle, they're cheering for their whole team. Being around the Beckham phenomenon, I could tell the fans weren't there for the Galaxy."
Peter Kenyon, a former chief executive of English powerhouse Chelsea, noticed the same thing during a 2009 international friendly at Qwest Field.
"When I agreed with (Sounders FC majority owner) Joe Roth to take Chelsea Football Club to Seattle, he promised a unique soccer experience and that's what the Sounders delivered," Kenyon said in an e-mail. "On the day, the stadium, the team, and most importantly, the fans, gave us a game-day experience none of us will forget. Not only were the fans passionate about their team wearing their colors before and many hours after the game around the town, but they also turned out to fill the stadium to capacity.
"What became obvious was their knowledge, not just of the Sounders but of soccer itself. Our experience of our time in Seattle with the Sounders demonstrated to us what can be done and how far soccer has come in America. It was a day in our minds where Seattle became like any other major European city on game day."
And this is the last game-day experience of the season in Seattle.
• Arena and Seattle's Sigi Schmid have never met in the playoffs, either collegiately or professionally, despite more than 60 years combined coaching experience. Each expressed mutual respect for the other throughout the week and said the first postseason matchup will be "fun."
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