In August 2010 three Maidenhead United fans were banned from attending home games, by a kangaroo court, for crimes they didn't commit.
These men promptly encountered a jobsworth security blockade, and so escaped to the non-league underground.
Today, still stigmatised by the MUFC Ltd hierarchy, they survive as supporters of fancy.
If you enjoy a train away day - and if you can find them - then maybe you can share a drink with ... the K-team!

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Away Day Diary: Seattle Sounders 0-1 San Jose Earthquakes (31/03/12)

My belated realisation that professional baseball teams play their preseason games in warm climes such as Arizona and Florida, rather than at their own stadiums, was offset somewhat by the fact that Seattle Sounders were at home whilst the family and I were in the city for my Mum's 60th birthday.

After an impromptu drive into - or at least towards - the Mt Rainier National Park (views of the 14,411 ft volcano completely obscured by the rain clouds) the sun immediately came out upon our (indirect) return to Seattle, and we were able to catch the Light Link rail for the short and inexpensive journey to the stadium.

The congenial bartender at our hotel had reckoned that we might struggle to get tickets. I privately scoffed at this as I knew that the centrally-located CenturyLink Field capacity was close to 70K, although I didn't realise that it was often limited - to less than 40K - for 'soccer' games. As it transpired, we were able to purchase tickets for $30 each (the cheaper end of the scale) and enjoy the carnival atmosphere - complete with brass band - before kick-off.

The Sounders 'ultras' - the Emerald City Supporters (ECS) - marched past us, singing songs (in what sounded like a mock English accent?!) and holding scarves aloft. I found it all a bit too choreographed for my liking, but it was an interesting sight and they did make quite a racket, both outside and then inside the ground.

I had done my research on the stadium prior to our departure for the States and so was aware of the following:

Re the latter point, I can confirm that the crowd at CenturyLink Field is loud - notoriously loud, I would say - during Sounders games as well!

I had my doubts that an open air venue could generate much in the way of an intimate atmosphere, but any such concerns were well and truly quashed. And while I doubt that, here in the UK, we would spend £550m (or thereabouts) on a stadium that doesn't have a retractable roof (let alone one that doesn't offer cover for all of the seats!), the views of Downtown Seattle - and of the Puget Sound - were incredible and more than compensated for being open to the elements as it started to drizzle towards the end of the game.

Indeed, we were to have a pre dinner drink the following night in the bar of the Hilton Hotel - which is located on the 29th floor of that particular building - and the views from the stadium were, IMO, just as good. In conclusion, CenturyLink Field is THE best stadium I have visited; yes, better than the Emirates, better than the new Wembley, better than the Allianz Arena ... even better than the Mem and York Road ;-)

The quality of the stadium meant that the football soccer had much to live up to. It failed, big time. The game was bad, very bad. Reading subsequent reports it transpires that the Sounders were missing players through injury but, still, this was quite possibly the worst, most boring game that I've had the misfortune to witness (live, in person) for quite some time ... and this includes Maidenhead United games! (OK, that last bit is obviously an exaggeration.)

San Jose scored an early(ish) penalty, softly awarded (I'm still not sure what for) by the (slightly overweight-looking) referee and converted by top scorer Chris Wondolowski (otherwise anonymous). The away side barely threatened thereafter but looked, overall, the better and more organised team. They certainly had the two best players on show, IMO, in combative, Diego Forlan-lookalike striker Steven Lenhart and speedy winger Marvin Chavez. The Sounders huffed and puffed but, aside from one outstanding save near the end, the Earthquakes keeper had little to do.

It is difficult (and possibly unfair) to compare, but I would estimate that the teams were of mid-table League One standard (with perhaps the best MLS teams able to compete in the Championship?). The Portland Timbers (managed by John Spencer and with Kris Boyd upfront) vs Real Salt Lake (who comes up with these names?!) match that we saw on TV the following night was much better entertainment, although this possibly had more to do with the fact that a lumberjack behind the goal took a chainsaw to a giant log every time the Timbers scored! My initial judgement re the league standard was backed up, later in the trip, when I caught some of the Montreal Impact vs Toronto FC game on TV and Reggie Lambe - who was completely ineffectual for an ultimately-relegated Bristol Rovers side last season - assisted for the latter's consolation and was arguably their outstanding player.

Enough of the negatives, though, and back to the crowd. As aforementioned, they made some NOISE! Although heavily orchestrated - like in Germany - the flag/ scarf-waving, pogo'ing, clapping and chanting seemed genuinely impassioned. They need a bit of work on a few nuances; spontaneous renditions of "Dodgy keeper", "The referee's a w@nker", "Is that all you take away?" (at the understandably small travelling contingent from California) or the circus theme ditty - when a player cocked up (although this would, perhaps, have been overused in this game!) - wouldn't have gone amiss, for example. I happily volunteer my services as Chant Consultant :-)

^^^ Spot the away fans

As for the attendance, 38,458 was mightily impressive. I know that the Sounders are a storied and well-supported franchise, but I didn't appreciate to what extent; 64,140 apparently attended the final match of last season (Washington-native Kasey Keller's last game for the club) and their programme (which was free; packed full of decent content) illustrated that their average attendance would put them in the top five in Italy and Spain, and just below Chelsea in England. What can't speak, can't lie an' all that!

Will 38K people still be watching the Sounders play in years to come, though? Will attendances dwindle as the (relative) novelty of professional soccer (back) in the city wears off? It was a discussion I had, post match, with my Dad and brother over a Manny's Pale Ale (or five) in one of First Avenue's many top-notch watering holes.

I do hope so ... well, I suppose if the quality of the football had anything to do with it, no one would watch Bristol Rovers or Maidenhead United!

At least the League seems to be putting an emphasis on nurturing local talent this time, rather than relying heavily on imported, ageing superstars as they did in the late 70s/ early 80s with the likes of Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, George Best and Kenny Hibbitt (ex Sounders). While David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and Rafael Márquez might be among the most recognisable faces currently playing in the MLS, I'm not sure that they are typical. Several of the Sounders players appeared to be Young Americans (*Bowie reference*), while Pennsylvania-native Andrew Wenger - 1st pick of the 2012 MLS Super Draft, no less – was the match-winner for Montreal in their aforementioned game with Toronto.

Soccer certainly has much work to do, though, IMO. The number of females in attendance at the Sounders game was notable. And while this is no bad thing, I wonder whether the image exists in the States that soccer is a 'girls' game? Several of the players on show at CenturyLink Field were small in stature - and there were very few robust tackles - and this got me thinking: if you are a highly-regarded, all-round athlete at an American high school, what sport are you going to pursue? In all likelihood, the established sports such as football (despite concerns over concussions) and basketball will continue to dominate.

Furthermore, US sports in my experience are all about big moments. Big moments that are often contrived; the rules of the games seemingly exist, as they do, to specifically create these moments. A home-run with bases loaded, a game-tying touchdown on 4th and goal in the 4th quarter, a timeout in a basketball game with just seconds left in overtime and a single point differential. The crowd at CenturyLink Field would get themselves wound up (encouraged by the 'Capo' and big screens) when the Sounders won a corner ... only for the ball to be easily cleared for a throw-in. Too often the atmosphere would build ... only for nothing to happen. That's a criticism of football itself, I suppose (or at least those trying to play it!), than it is of the fans.

Regardless, if I was a lower league player in the UK, then I'd be getting my agent to sort out a Stateside trial ASAP. Playing professional football/ soccer (whatever you want to call it) in Southend-on-Sea or Seattle?

Absolutely no contest.

This  loud (and rather nasally-sounding) 'call and repeat' chant, meanwhile, will be stuck in my head for quite some time!

Match 'highlights' here. Further GMOSC reading, re Seattle, here.

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