Low-graphic news index |
Sunday, July 15, 2012 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.
Sounders are international, with players from four continents, 14 countries
By Joshua Mayers
Seattle Times staff reporter
On a cool and cloudy March evening in Seattle, the Sounders are about to kick off another Major League Soccer season bursting with promise.
As players and coaches gather near the bench for one last pregame huddle, a vibrant banner is unfurled in the Emerald City Supporters' section behind the south goal at a buzzing CenturyLink Field.
The colorful flags of a dozen nations are artistically displayed, and there's a message below a series of silhouetted figures:
E Pluribus Sounders
The Latin phrase translates to, "Out of many, Sounders." It's an ode to the distinct international flavor of the home team.
Coach Sigi Schmid is one of the admirers of the display — "Our fans never cease to amaze me," he said after the season-opening win against Toronto FC — and the display's celebration of diversity has it right.
The world's game has brought the world to Seattle.
On the Sounders' roster, 30 players from 14 countries and four continents combine to form one team. And those totals don't include international representation of the coaching and support staff or several players who have come and gone since the start of training camp.
"That's the beautiful thing about soccer," said technical director Chris Henderson. "You can go anywhere in the world, and if you're talking soccer, you'll have something in common."
Nearly 70 countries are represented in MLS, and the Sounders are among the most multicultural groups in the league. More than half of the team's players were born outside the United States or list a foreign city as their hometown.
All brought to Seattle by the game.
"If you can juggle a soccer ball, you'll get accepted almost everywhere," said Schmid, whose team plays on the road against the New York Red Bulls at 1 p.m. Sunday. "It's a common language even if you can't speak the language. It's what draws all these guys together."
From South America to Scandinavia, Henderson has spanned much of the globe pursuing the next Sounders star.
A talent pool without borders has its advantages, and the challenge of finding a perfect fit among limitless opportunities "is pretty fun," said Henderson, an Everett native.
And the disadvantages? Well, there is far more than just MLS competition when it comes to international scouting. Many of the teams the Sounders compete against in their unending player pursuit have deeper pockets, more extensive scouting networks and no salary caps.
Sometimes top-flight teams from the English Premier League or German Bundesliga will "take a player out from under you," Henderson said.
Such challenges have forced the Sounders to take an outside-the-box approach. The team has laid roots in untapped areas of the world, such as East Africa (Seattle has a partnership with Tanzanian club African Lyon) and the Caribbean (the Sounders held their first international combine in Trinidad over the offseason), in hopes of future payouts.
America will always have an allure, as well.
"The opportunity to play in the United States is something that's unique and interesting to many players," said Schmid. "For us, our soccer is getting better and better, and people want to be part of that."
The Sounders have tapped into that broad appeal, and not just in aging internationals looking to end their careers on an American vacation. And different areas of the world will produce different types of players.
For example, many of the Sounders' top offensive-minded players, like Colombian forward Fredy Montero and Argentine midfielder Mauro Rosales, come from South America, where the soccer culture puts an emphasis on skill and technical ability.
"To have them all come in and mix them together, and mix these different styles of play, it's pretty exciting," said Henderson. "It must be exciting to the coaches to try and mold it all together and make it work."
Happy players make productive players, according to general manager and part owner Adrian Hanauer. He expressed that belief in the offseason when the team transferred Erik Friberg back to Sweden on the player's wishes. The versatile midfielder was starting a family and wanted to be closer to home.
From a soccer perspective, the Sounders were looking forward to Friberg's return, but as Hanauer explained, "Life is more important than soccer."
To that aim, the team makes it a priority to ease the transition to Seattle for its international signings. That could mean helping a new player get to know the city, find a place to live or other relocation-related assistance.
Austrian goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, who signed in December after playing for Skoda Xanthi in Greece, said the Sounders were instrumental in making him feel at home.
"They helped me with almost every question," Gspurning said. "It's really a great organization, much better than in Greece. They wanted to help with everything."
Help on the field, however, is interpreted differently from player to player, and managing the disparity of cultural backgrounds is one of the biggest challenges for the coaching staff.
"Everybody's country is a little bit different," said Schmid, "so some respond a little bit better to an arm around the shoulder and some respond a little bit better to maybe a little bit more gruff motivation. For some people sharing is important. For some people they're not going to be demanding or outgoing, because that's not the way their culture is per se, and others are going to be more demanding and outgoing.
"So you have to blend all that together. And as long as you keep a good mix, I think it all works out."
One doesn't have to look hard to find entry into international culture around the Sounders.
Uruguayan midfielder Alvaro Fernandez is often seen sipping mate, an infused tea common in South America, from a traditional calabash gourd after practices and games.
African-born teammates Steve Zakuani (Republic of Congo) and Michael Tetteh (Ghana) have shared laughs over Twitter regarding their favorite French-language comedies they watched growing up.
Several accents are detectable during a typical post-practice media session.
"It's good that we have so many cultures and everybody is bringing something in," said Gspurning. "The characters are important, not so much the countries, and the characters here are great."
It's not uncommon to see a group of Spanish speakers congregating, but the Sounders insist that there aren't cliques within the locker room. Several bilingual players have served as a bridge between teammates when communication becomes an issue.
"At some point the language barrier goes away because they're all part of a team," said assistant coach Brian Schmetzer. "They're all part of the Seattle Sounders, and that takes precedence over what language you speak. We have such a good team spirit, team unity, culminating from years of developing that."
Diversity has prevented division.
"And it's allowed us to be successful on the field," Schmid said.
Wins and trophies, of course, require no translation at all.
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @joshuamayers
Team by team The Sounders aren't the only Major League Soccer club with players from around the world. Below is a look at the number of countries represented on each MLS team, not counting the United States: Team Countries Vancouver 14 Seattle 13 Montreal 12 Portland 12 Kansas City 12 Chicago 11 Real Salt Lake 11 New York 10 Toronto 10 Philadelphia 9 Chivas USA 8 FC Dallas 8 Houston 8 New England 8 Colorado 7 Columbus 7 D.C. United 7 San Jose 7 Los Angeles 4 Source: Team websites
Leading the way Major League Soccer has a higher percentage of foreign-born players than the other major men's pro sports. Players Foreign-born Countries MLS 487 184 (38%) 57 MLB 1,029 272 (26%) 18 NHL 764 193 (25%) 19 NBA 434 87 (20%) 40 NFL 2,050 67 (3%) 27 Survey was done before 2011 MLS season.
Source: Elias Sports Bureau
Copyright © The Seattle Times Company
Low-graphic news index
Graphic-enabled home page