In its third season, Sounders FC has mixed results on the field, but fans remain committed to making trips to Qwest Field more than just a night out. They are active participants and dedicated to the community.
Go find the dude with a Mohawk and hang with him.
That’s the order that began my Saturday night. It ended with me nearly succumbing to the temptation to join a line dance with three drunken people grooving to a man playing bucket drums.
In other words, it was a typical day in Soccer Town USA.
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Three seasons into Seattle’s Major League Soccer experience, Sounders FC matches are still part rock concert, part UFC event and part family barbecue (you know, the random one that your crazy uncle and his friends crash). It means the soccer hysteria around here is more than a fad. The paint on this novelty is chipping, and 36,000 people are still showing up at Qwest Field, and you can no longer brush the phenomenon off solely as a fleeting abnormality.
It’s evolving without declining, and the addition of Portland and Vancouver to the MLS has been energizing. And it’s not like Sounders FC fans need to hit the Red Bull to have a good time.
For the first time since 2009, I went on an adventure to seek the vibe of this soccer community. I wanted to see how it had changed and whether there were any signs of decay. And to be perfectly honest, as the typical meat-and-potatoes American sports journalist, I needed a kick in the shin to start covering the sport with more vigor.
So, the journey had to begin with a trek to find the dude with a Mohawk. He has a real name, Keith Hodo, and he’s the co-president of the Emerald City Supporters, the Sounders’ largest independent fan organization. Before Saturday’s first MLS matchup with the rival Vancouver Whitecaps, the ECS hosted a block party at Fuel, a bar just off Pioneer Square.
The party was packed, and the fans were friendly. They laughed, sang and drank with merry until a fan wearing a Whitecaps shirt tried to join them. A few members of the ECS politely told the man, “This isn’t the day.” He walked away without incident.
The Seattle-Vancouver rivalry is much more polite than Seattle-Portland. Before the Timbers and Sounders played at Qwest on May 14, there were concerns about violence and hatred turning ugly. Everything turned out fine, and the match ended in a 1-1 draw. Though Seattle-Vancouver is no less competitive, the vibe is different.
“I mean, one of the Whitecaps’ most well-known supporters is on TV all the time with a ‘Sesame Street’ puppet,” Hodo said. “He calls himself Evil Bert. How can you hate that? My little brother had a Bert doll.”
On this Saturday night, Sounders fans were concerned more about their club than the opponent. Seattle is off to a so-so 5-4-7 start. Star midfielder Steve Zakuani is out for the season after suffering a horrific broken leg. Designated player Blaise Nkufo had a falling out with the team and left before the season opener. The team is squandering too many opportunities at home and searching for consistency while management ponders its options to bring in a designated player who could improve this roster.
A meandering team poses an interesting challenge for these fans: Can they keep the enthusiasm and spirit regardless of results? Sounders fans follow a European model of behavior. They’re not merely spectators; they’re participants. Most of the crowd stands the entire match. They prefer chants, usually led by the ECS, over white noise.
The ECS needed 44 fans to carry its display for the Vancouver match into Qwest Field. It wasn’t as dramatic as the “Decade of Dominance” tifo that received so much publicity, but this one was impressive, too, and it read: “What is best in life? To crush your enemy, see them driven before you and hear the lamentation of their supporters.”
But the Vancouver game ended with another draw, a 2-2 final score against a rookie franchise that has a 1-6-8 record this season. The excitement was much greater than the result. Three goals after the 80-minute mark? An unreal game-tying kick by Vancouver’s Eric Hassli? It was an incredible finish. But the fans desperately wanted a victory and three points. How long will they continue to settle?
“At the end of the day, we’re human,” Hodo said. “We’re going to feel the emotions, and frustration is one of them. Right now, we’re going through a tough period with the club just not producing results, but we don’t want our passion to slip. So we’re getting back to reminding people of why they love the club and why they support it. We don’t want to have lapses in support, even if that would be understandable.”
It’s a fresh way of thinking. For these fans, soccer isn’t just about entertainment; it’s truly about community. All pro sports teams try to create that sense, but with Sounders fans, it’s more natural. They play on soccer teams together. Groups such as the Gorilla FC and ECS aren’t just boosters. They’re real social clubs. And within families, generations are uniting because of their soccer passion.
Scott Cairns, who won three championships at Seattle Pacific in the 1980s, attends the matches with his wife, kids, parents and his brother’s family. His brother, Mark Cairns, played at Washington. That whole family has 14 tickets. Matches are like a mini-reunion.
“We’re out in fantasyland here with 36,000 people,” Scott said. “It’s a date night for us.”
For now, fantasy is reality. The experience and the soccer make for an extraordinary evening. One can’t live without the other. That is the essence of this phenomenon.
As I left the stadium Saturday night, a dad play-fought with his giggling son, and clusters of fans retreated to their cars or favorite bars, and those drunken three danced around the bucket drummer. Everyone was having fun in their own way, bopping to their own music, dancing to their own rhythm.
In America’s best soccer town, entertainment is inclusive.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer