"As for Maidenhead, the conga (which was amusing) aside, quite a strange bunch really – some the oddest chants I've ever heard at a football match" ~ localboy86, Amber Planet forum, 26th April 2015

Tuesday 17 April 2012

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

I belatedly realised that professional baseball teams play their preseason games in warmer climes, such as Arizona and Florida, rather than at their stadiums. That was offset somewhat by the fact that Seattle Sounders were at home whilst the family and I was 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 obscured by the rain clouds), the sun immediately came out upon our (indirect) return to Seattle. We caught the Light Link rail for the short and inexpensive journey to the stadium.

The convivial 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 would 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 intriguing sight, and they did make quite a racket, both outside and inside the ground.

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

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

I had doubts that an open-air venue could generate much in the way of an intimate atmosphere. These got quashed. And while I doubt that 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 the Puget Sound - were incredible. They more than compensated for being open to the elements as a drizzle started 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 on the 29th floor of that particular building. 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 poor. Reading subsequent reports, it transpires that the Sounders were missing players through injury. Still, this was quite possibly the worst, most boring game 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 after that but looked like the better 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 came up with these names?!) match we saw on TV the following night was much better entertainment. And not just because a lumberjack behind the goal took a chainsaw to a giant log every time the Timbers scored! My initial judgement regarding the league standard was backed up later in the trip when I caught some of the Montreal Impact vs Toronto FC game on TV. Reggie Lambe - 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, pogoing, 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 that would've 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 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 attended the final match of last season (Washington native Kasey Keller's last game for the club). 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!

However, will 38K people still be watching the Sounders play in years to come? Will attendance 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. 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 encourage 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 famous faces currently playing in the MLS, I'm not sure 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 the 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. That got me thinking: if you were a highly-regarded, all-round athlete at an American high school, what sport would you pursue? In all likelihood, 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 laws of the games seemingly exist to create such moments. A home run with bases loaded. A game-tying touchdown on 4th and goal. 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 ... resulting in an easy clearance 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 were a lower-league player in the UK, I'd get 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?

No contest.

Meanwhile, this loud (and rather nasally-sounding) 'call and repeat' chant will stick in my head for quite some time!

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

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