McGrath: Region had lots of soccer history before Sounders FC
JOHN MCGRATH; THE NEWS TRIBUNE
Before the Seattle Sounders went from major league to minor league and then back to major league, before Qwest Field replaced the Kingdome, before an indoor soccer attendance record was set in the Tacoma Dome, the sport otherwise known as “The Beautiful Game” took roots in the Puget Sound muck.
“Frequently in the game yesterday,” the Tacoma Daily News reported on Jan. 17, 1910, “the Rangers and Tacoma players tangled up and mixed it with their hands when the playing became brisk. The Rangers goalkeeper became so irritated when the Tacoma players worked the ball close up to the goal that he picked up hands of mud and threw it at the players.”
Although there were a few minor injuries that day – a broken nose, a head cut – the players survived the mudslinging. So did soccer, which Thursday night, 99 years after two teams with no apparent love for each other tangled up and mixed it with their hands, will have its latest reincarnation as a major-league sport in Seattle.
Thanks to an influx of kick-balling Europeans who relocated to Western Washington in the 19th century, and the absence of a big-league franchise until the NBA’s SuperSonics were born in 1967, soccer’s foothold in the Puget Sound region is deeper than its rocky history of failed franchises and bankrupt leagues might indicate.
Here, in chronological order, are 10 events that helped soccer’s rise from a club-sport curiosity to the galvanizing force behind a Sounders season-ticket base of 22,000.
• May 12, 1974: The original Sounders, of the North American Soccer League, celebrate their home debut at Memorial Stadium with a 4-0 victory over the Denver Dynamos. Among the announced crowd of 12,132 are 920 season-ticket holders.
“I think soccer is ready to take off here,” Sounders spokesman Hal Childs muses after the game. “There are 22,000 kids playing soccer in the area. It may be awhile before we break even, but we are encouraged.”
As the team is about to leave the field, the Sounders gather at midfield and wave to their fans, a tradition that subsequently evolves into a victory lap.
• April 9, 1976: The Kingdome opens for an exhibition between the Sounders and New York Cosmos. A crowd of 58,218 watches Seattle score on Jimmy Gabriel’s header, and though the Cosmos prevail, 3-1, few are disappointed: Two of the visitors’ goals are scored by Pelé.
• April 30, 1977: Trailing the Portland Timbers, 2-0, the Sounders’ Gabriel, who has replaced John Best as head coach, decides it’s time to call for a substitution. Which is no big deal, except the substitute coach Jimmy Gabriel has in mind turns out to be, well, Jimmy Gabriel. The Sounders rally for a victory that proves to both symbolic and pivotal.
• Aug. 25, 1977: Before a near-sellout crowd at the Kingdome, the Sounders, behind Jocky Scott’s goal, beat Los Angeles for the right to advance to the league’s championship game – Soccer Bowl ’77 – in Portland. One last-minute Seattle shot hits the post, another shot is good but called back, and the Sounders drop a 2-1 heartbreaker to the Cosmos for the NASL title.
Almost remembered as much as the score is the fact it’s Pelé’s final game in the NASL. He gives his jersey to the Seattle kid who hounded him: Rookie of the year defender Jimmy McAlister. Some will come to see the gesture as a symbolic passing of the torch.
“I’ve read some of that stuff, too, and it’s nonsense,” McAlister, who lives in Federal Way, said Tuesday. “The truth is, the only reason Pelé gave me his jersey is because I asked for it during the game. Davey Gillett wanted it, too, but I guess I was just quicker-witted.
“I used to let my son wear it when he was playing in the backyard, then I found out how much it was worth, and I put it in a safe-deposit box. I’ve gotten offers from memorabilia dealers over the years, but that’s something I cherish so much, I’d never think of selling it.”
• Dec. 2, 1978: In the school’s fourth trip to the NCAA Division II finals under U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame coach Cliff McCrath, Seattle Pacific beats Alabama A&M, 1-0, in the third overtime. McCrath’s Falcons will go on to win national championships in 1983, 1885, 1986 and 1993. Although McCrath retires two decades later with 597 career victories – second-most in NCAA history – he regards the Falcons’ first title as his career highlight.
• Sept. 8, 1982: After a grueling, gutsy, 4-3 overtime playoff loss in Game 2 of the series against Fort Lauderdale on the road, the Sounders have another chance two days later in Seattle to earn their second trip to the NASL Soccer Bowl.
“It was 100 degrees down there in Florida – I lost 10 pounds,” former Sounders left fullback Jeff Stock, who starred at Stadium High School, recalled Tuesday. “We got back to Seattle, nobody on either team had anything left. But we had the home fans, and the adrenaline took over, and we won, 1-0.”
The NASL championship would find the Sounders again facing the Cosmos, albeit without such internationally acclaimed stars as Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer. Giorgio Chinaglia scored the game’s only goal for New York.
“Alan Hinton, our coach, came up to a couple of us before that game and said, ‘Get used to it – you’ll play in four or five of these things before you retire,’” Stock said. “Then (midfielder) Alan Hudson told me, ‘Just have fun, because you never know if you’ll have another chance at a championship.’ It was frustrating to lose, but I gave it all I had, and just had fun. ‘Huddy’ was right. I never got another chance at a championship.”
• June 20, 1987: The largest crowd yet for an indoor soccer game – 21,728 – packs the Tacoma Dome to watch the Stars drop a 4-3 overtime thriller to Dallas in Game 7 of the Major Indoor Soccer League championship series.
The defeat foreshadows a tailspin for the Stars, who finish below .500 during each of the final five years of their existence. (The Stars go out of business, with the rest of the league, in 1992.)
“For a few years, the atmosphere at Stars games was as electric as I’ve ever seen for a sporting event around here,” said McAlister, who played in Tacoma between 1983-86. “The Weyerhaeusers were wonderful owners, community people who wanted to do something positive for the public. They weren’t in it to make any money – and the fans of Tacoma respected them for that.”
• Sept. 24, 1994: In their regular-season finale, Hinton’s reconfigured Sounders – now competing in the American Professional Soccer League – draw 11,874 fans against Vancouver.
“It was kind of a downsized operation, 10 years after the NASL folded,” Sounders media director and Seattle soccer historian Frank McDonald said. “But when Alan finally got things rolling again, there was enough interest by the end of the season to start hoping that major-league soccer would return to Seattle.”
• July 4, 1999: Shoreline’s Michelle Akers, a graduate of Shorecrest High School, scores the clinching goal for Team USA in its Women’s World Cup semifinal against Brazil. The Hall of Famer and 1996 Olympic gold medalist retires as the second-leading point producer in U.S. national team history, with 105 goals and 37 assists.
• March 15, 2003: Tickets go on sale for the July 22 “friendly” between Celtic and Manchester United at Qwest Field. The game is sold out in three hours.
“When that happened,” McDonald said, “it became pretty obvious there was an appetite in Seattle for the game at the highest level.
“You realized that there was an audience around here, and it was starving.”
Four months later, Man U cruises to a 4-0 victory, but the exhibition-game score is irrelevant. The winners are the fans. They understand it’s merely a matter of time before big-league soccer returns to Seattle.
John McGrath: 253-597-8742; ext. 6154