The name “Sounders” has been synonymous with soccer in the Puget Sound region for 35 years – but not always the same kind of soccer.
The name originated with Seattle’s 1974 entry in the North American Soccer League, which then represented the highest level of the sport on this continent.
But that team died in 1983. And when the name was resurrected more than a decade later, the team wearing the Sounders’ crest was playing at a considerably lower level of the soccer world.
Now a new team, playing at a higher level, is taking on the traditional name. And when Seattle Sounders FC makes its debut Thursday against the New York Red Bulls, it once again will be competing at the highest level of professional soccer in the United States: Major League Soccer.
“The name ‘Sounders’ means soccer in Seattle,” said Adrian Hanauer, who owned the now-defunct USL Division I team and is general manager and minority owner of the MLS team. “I think that there’s a nice connection to the nostalgia and the history. But we can all also look to the present and the future. It’s not all about the history, but there is a nice connection to it. You’ve got 35 years of connection to that history – a lot of very successful teams, championships, popular players.”
Despite those benefits, MLS and some of the Seattle front office had concerns. Yes, for some fans, the name stirred memories of John Best and Jimmy Gabriel and a sold-out Kingdome. But for a newer generation, the name meant minor league soccer.
That is not the desired perception of Major League Soccer – which didn’t choose those first two words in the league name by accident.
“The vision of our owners has helped build a viable professional soccer league in a country where many doubted it could be done,” MLS president Mark Abbott said. “Whether it is players such as Cuauhtémoc Blanco, David Beckham and Landon Donovan, soccer stadiums built for MLS teams or blue chip sponsors such as Xbox, adidas and Anheuser-Busch, MLS is now broadly respected in the U.S. and throughout the world.”
There are no David Beckhams in USL. And no multimillion-dollar jersey sponsorships. So MLS urged the Seattle club to ditch the Sounders name to avoid confusion. Names representing a clear break – Seattle Alliance, Seattle Republic and Seattle FC – were offered instead.
“That’s what we were hearing from people: ‘This is a chance for a new beginning,’ ” said Tod Leiweke, CEO of Vulcan Sports, which helps run the Sounders and Seahawks.
“Certainly one of those voices came from the league, (which) said ‘We think you and Seattle have a chance to start something at a place that is unparalleled in soccer in the United States.’ ”
But to reach that potential, the organization decided that its fans’ opinions had to count for something. And those fans wanted “Sounders” to survive.
So, that left it to Seattle Sounders FC to demonstrate the differences from its immediate predecessors:
• The Sounders will play at an top-quality stadium: Qwest Field.
The USL Sounders played there too, until last season. But they used only one side of the lower bowl, leaving vast acres of energy-sapping empty seats outnumbering the fans. Sounders FC will use the entire lower bowl – 27,700 seats. The upper deck will be covered with a tarp displaying soccer images and advertising. That is expected to create a more intimate venue, although that’s only a theory until Thursday when a sellout crowd will watch the Sounders’ inaugural game.
Beyond that, the stadium has installed banners and other details that indicate these Sounders are treated as closer to the equals of their co-tenant Seattle Seahawks than the USL Sounders ever were.
And that is symbolically demonstrated by the promise to keep football yard lines, numbers and logos off the pitch.
• Every Sounders game will be televised live, either as part of the league’s national package or locally on Channel 5 or KONG 6/16. Longtime Sonics broadcaster Kevin Calabro has been hired as the voice of the Sounders.
• The previous Sounders had jersey sponsors, but nothing close to the $20 million package Sounders FC worked out with Microsoft and Xbox 360.
But for all of those side dishes, the main course will be the soccer itself. And again, these Sounders work at a different level of the game.
Part of that is quantifiable. More than 20 USL Sounders were invited to try out for the MLS team. Now, as the final roster takes shape, five remain in camp and only three are under contract: goaltender Chris Eylander, former Division One MVP forward Sebastien Le Toux and veteran defender Taylor Graham.
When asked the difference between the leagues, Sounder after Sounder cited speed.
“That’s probably the biggest thing,” said Zach Scott, a former USL Sounder still competing for an MLS roster spot. “And it’s not even the speed of the players that you’re playing against. It’s more the speed of thought. Everything comes down to just thinking quicker: thinking quicker and then executing as well. That’s where you get to this level.”
Second-round SuperDraft pick Evan Brown, who played at the highest level of collegiate soccer at Wake Forest, has noticed the change.
“It’s definitely quicker, the ball moves a lot faster,” he said. “The intensity, coming from Wake Forest, I’m kind of used to it. It’s kind of higher than what I’m used to … just getting my feet under me and being able to keep up with the speed of the game and the quickness of the ball.”
MLS games also feature players with national and sometimes international name recognition.
The Sounders signed former U.S. national team goaltender Kasey Keller, and used a special designated player exemption to sign former Arsenal midfielder Freddie Ljungberg.
Teams visiting Qwest Field this season will bring in star-power names such as Landon Donovan of Los Angeles, Juan Pablo Angel of New York, Cuauhtémoc Blanco of Chicago, Frankie Hejduk of Colorado and Dwayne DeRosario of Houston. However, L.A.’s Beckham is likely to miss the game at Qwest Field.
“While we have many talented new international players coming into MLS in 2009 such as (Sounders) Freddie Ljungberg and Fredy Montero, MLS remains a league built on American players,” Abbott said. “I grew up watching the Minnesota Kicks in the NASL and my heroes were international stars such as Ace Ntsoelengoe and Alan Merrick. Now, many of the best players in MLS – top scorers like Landon Donovan and Taylor Twellman – are American. We’ve also seen many significant U.S. national team players return to MLS in the last year after playing in Europe, including 2006 World Cup team members Brian McBride, Josh Wolff, Eddie Lewis, Kasey Keller and Bobby Convey.”
With the inaugural game four days away, it may be that concern about fan confusion between the old Sounders and these new Sounders was unfounded. The USL Sounders averaged fewer than 5,000 fans. The MLS Sounders already have sold more than 20,000 season tickets.
The legacy not only lives on, it is flourishing.
Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808
MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER 2009 PREVIEW
LAST YEAR: 13-10-7 (second place), lost to Columbus Crew in Eastern Conference final.
WHAT’S AHEAD: Chicago will have a full season of Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Brian McBride working together up front. In his second year, Marco Pappa also should create some sparks. Jon Busch returns in goal for the second straight year, joined by returning defenders, who posted 10 shutouts during the 2008 campaign. Brown returns as the lone Fire original. Fighting back after a season riddled with injuries, the veteran defender will lead the team on and off the field. A handful of rookies, including Baggio Husidic could contribute early.
LAST YEAR: 12-11-7 (second place), lost to Real Salt Lake in first round of playoffs.
WHAT’S AHEAD: After overcoming a barrage of injuries in 2008, Chivas USA begins the season with eight key players either injured or recovering from offseason surgery. Chivas USA also faces an unsettled situation in goal. But Sacha Kljestan’s playmaking directs a potentially strong offense, while Jesse Marsch and Paulo Nagamura form a potent defensive duo in the midfield. Ante Jazic, a Canadian international acquired from Los Angeles, enables Jonathan Bornstein to move from left back to the midfield.
LAST YEAR: 11-14-5 (fourth place).
WHAT’S AHEAD: Gary Smith got the coaching job in the offseason, after he took over in 2008 on an interim basis. The team also re-signed captain Pablo Mastroeni, who’s become the face of the franchise. Colorado traded away talented but unproductive midfielder Christian Gomez to D.C. United for Ivan Guerrero. Christian Gomez, the 2006 MLS MVP, scored just three goals last season for the Rapids. The team is hoping Omar Cummings, who scored a career-high six goals in 2008, can step up to take some of the pressure off Conor Casey.
LAST YEAR: 17-7-6 (first place), MLS Cup champions
WHAT’S AHEAD: The sting of losing coach Sigi Schmid was soothed when the Crew named former player and Schmid assistant Robert Warzycha, a fan favorite, to the job. Columbus also retains the services of Guillermo Barros Schelotto, whose new contract makes him the sixth-highest paid player in the league. MLS defender of the year Chad Marshall is returning to Columbus after considering a move to Europe. Up-and-comers Robbie Rogers, Adam Moffat and Emmanuel Ekpo are back, along with long-time Crew sparkplug and U.S. national team regular Frankie Hejduk.
LAST YEAR: 11-15-4 (sixth place), missed playoffs.
WHAT’S AHEAD: 2006 league MVP Christian Gomez is back in his playmaking role after one year in Colorado. Gomez, now 34, needs to rekindle his magic with forwards Luciano Emilio and Jaime Moreno to create plenty of goals – because United’s back end has plenty of question marks. Midseason signing Louis Crayton had four shutouts in 12 games and appears to be the answer in goal, but defensemen Greg Janicki, Marc Burch and Dejan Jakovic need to develop some chemistry on a team that allowed a conference-worst 51 goals in 2008.
LAST YEAR: 8-10-12 (fifth place), missed playoffs.
WHAT’S AHEAD: Now entering his first full season as coach, Schellas Hyndman has two new playmakers: David Ferreira and Dave van den Bergh. Ferreira, a Colombian national team veteran who played in Brazil, is an attacking midfielder. Van den Bergh, an outside midfielder, had seven goals and five assists last season, helping lead New York to the league title game. Their presence should benefit Kenny Cooper, who remains the team’s best goal scorer. Steve Purdy’s defense job will be tougher with right defender Marcelo Saragosa injured and out for six weeks.
LAST YEAR: 13-5-12 (first place in Western Conference, second place overall), lost to New York in semifinals.
WHAT’S AHEAD: Stuart Holden, who had three goals and four assists in 27 games in 2008, steps into the role as Houston’s main scoring threat. Brian Ching is back for a fourth season in Houston after scoring a team-record 13 goals with five assists in 2008. Julius James will be pressed into a starting role immediately while Eddie Robinson recovers from offseason knee surgery. Houston allowed the fewest goals of any team in the 2008 season (32). Goalkeeper Pat Onstad returns for seventh season.
KANSAS CITY WIZARDS
LAST YEAR: 11-10-9 (fourth place), lost to Columbus in first round.
WHAT’S AHEAD: The Wizards return almost every key player from a team that reached the playoffs last year by going 5-1-1 over the final two months. Kansas City has one of the best defenses in the league, anchored by team captain Jimmy Conrad, but needs to find a way to score more goals. The Wizards were 12th in the league with 37 goals and had a league-worst 409-minute scoreless streak mid-season. Forward Adam Cristman, the 2007 MLS rookie of the year, should help after being picked up in a trade with New England.
LOS ANGELES GALAXY
LAST YEAR: 9-14, failed to make playoffs for second consecutive season.
WHAT’S AHEAD: Forward Landon Donovan will have to take on more of a leadership role with 2008 captain David Beckham gone until July. Los Angeles failed to make the playoffs for the second consecutive season even though the team had the MLS scoring leader in Donovan (20). Acquiring Mike Magee from the New York Red Bulls could spruce up the midfield to help Donovan, who joined the team 12 days before the opener. Los Angeles has a new face in goal in Jamaican national team member Donovan Ricketts.
NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION
LAST YEAR: 12-11-7 (third place).
WHAT’S AHEAD: A healthy return this year of the team’s top two scorers,Taylor Twellman and Steve Ralston, could improve New England’s chances of returning to the MLS Cup championship game. The Revolution lost defender Michael Parkhurst, the league’s 2005 rookie of the year, when he signed with FC Nordsjaelland of SAS Ligaen in Denmark’s first division. He was named MLS defender of the year in 2007. But they still have strong goalkeeper Matt Reis, who returns for a sixth season as the starter.
NEW YORK RED BULLS
LAST YEAR: 10-11-9 (fifth place), lost to Columbus in MLS Cup.
WHAT’S AHEAD: New York shook things up in the offseason after their first MLS title run in 2008, looking to get a little younger and faster. Forwards Juan Pablo Angel and Dane Richards are a dynamic scoring tandem, but the X-factor this season might be midfielder Jorge Rojas’ ability to set them up. It remains to be seen if Mike Petke can stabilize a defense that lost Chris Leitch and Jeff Parke.
REAL SALT LAKE
LAST YEAR: 10-10-10 (third place), lost to Red Bulls in conference final.
WHAT’S AHEAD: The top three goal scorers are back, including midfielder Javier Morales, who had six goals and 15 assists last season. Coach Jason Kreis hopes the stability translates into the club’s first winning season. Real was .500 last year in almost every category – 10 wins, 10 losses, 10 ties, 40 goals scored, 40 goals allowed. Real needed a goal in the 90th minute of the final regular season game to reach the playoffs, then advanced by beating Chivas USA in the opening round. It will be the first full season at Rio Tinto Stadium, which opened in October.
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
LAST YEAR: 8-13-9 (seventh place).
WHAT’S AHEAD: After their expansion season ended with a last-place finish despite a late-season surge, the Quakes hope they’re ready to break through with a potentially dynamite midfield combination of Darren Huckerby, the English star who energized San Jose last season, and Bobby Convey, the U.S. national teamer who will quarterback the offense. Forward Cam Weaver’s arrival gives the Quakes a physical presence up front after they struggled to score goals last season. San Jose still lacks the overall cohesion and experience of MLS’ best clubs.
SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC
LAST YEAR: N/A. Newest MLS expansion franchise.
WHAT’S AHEAD: They have brought in some of the best: MLS Cup winning coach Sigi Schmid, Swedish midfielder Freddie Ljungberg and former U.S. national team goalkeeper Kasey Keller. Seattle shouldn’t have any problems generating offense with Ljungberg, Nate Jaqua and young Colombian standout Fredy Montero pushing the action forward. The problem could be at the backline with a defense that’s inexperienced, outside of Tyrone Marshall. Although Keller says he still has something left after nearly two decades in Europe, he’s near the end of his career at 39.
LAST YEAR: 9-13-8 (seventh place).
WHAT’S AHEAD: Toronto acquired Toronto-born midfielder and two-time MLS Cup MVP Dwayne De Rosario in a December trade with Houston. Toronto also moved to bolster its strike force, second to last in the league in 2008 with 34 goals, by signing Argentinian striker Pablo Vitti on loan from Independiente. General manager Mo Johnston used his three first-round picks in the MLS SuperDraft to grab midfielder Sam Cronin, striker O’Brian White and goalkeeper Stefan Frei.
The Associated Press