Fans of soccer in the Puget Sound area see themselves as stewards of an underappreciated sport, a priestly caste set apart to worship the world’s most beautiful game on behalf of Americans who never will.
Their scarves-up, rave-green zeal for the Seattle Sounders may never catch fire like the public’s passion for the Seahawks, Mariners and even the dearly departed SuperSonics. Soccer’s low scores, tie games and arcane rules have always been a convenient scapegoat.
But make no mistake: The Sounders’ improbable run to their first Major League Soccer title on Saturday, followed by a raucous rally and parade that drew thousands to downtown Seattle on Tuesday, couldn’t have come at a better time.
We’re thinking specifically of Tacoma here. The celebration arrived in the wake of the communal mourning for Reginald “Jake” Gutierrez, the slain police officer who was given a solemn street procession and memorial service at the Tacoma Dome Friday.
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Sports championships have the magical power to lift a region out of the darkness, transporting people of all creeds, classes and political ideologies into a place of ethereal, high-fiving unity. It was true when the Seahawks steamrolled the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII three years ago, and it was true when the Sonics handily defeated the Washington Bullets for the NBA championship in 1979.
If anything, there was even more magic in the air last weekend when the Sounders escaped with a stunning win over Toronto FC in a hostile stadium on a chilly Canadian night after 120-plus minutes of scoreless play.
The only thing that kept it from going the other way was a leaping fingertip save by MVP goalkeeper Stefan Frei in overtime. What finally sealed it was a penalty kick by defender Roman Torres, the fifth PK netted by the Sounders after Toronto could manage only four.
Not bad for a team drifting near the bottom of MLS standings in July, a longshot to make the playoffs. Remember the “refuse to lose” Mariners in 1995? They are kindred comeback kids with these Sounders — or would have been, if that M’s team had made it to the World Series and won it in seven games, extra innings.
While the team’s name says Seattle, part of what makes the MLS Cup so sweet is the Sounders’ connection to the South Sound. Local fans are known to pile into a bus at Doyle’s Public House after a few cold ones and drive north for home games. The team’s Under-23 development program is based in Pierce County. And Sounders of bygone eras have made an impact here, including former player and USL League coach of the year Neil Megson, who now coaches youth soccer in the Gig Harbor area.
To say the Sounders and their faithful have paid their dues is an understatement. The disappointments run much deeper than the team’s annual early playoff exits since joining MLS in 2009. The original franchise, founded in 1974, broke hearts when it folded a decade later.
That first iteration of the Sounders played in the first-ever sporting event at the Kingdome, a match against the New York Cosmos and global superstar Pele. That was April 25, 1976 — more than three months before the Seahawks took the same field for the first time in franchise history.
A soccer team and fan base built around staying strong for “the Full 90” minutes has endured a full 40 years. For the Sounders and their high priests of American futbol, that’s plenty long enough to wait to celebrate on the biggest stage.