It was, quite simply a hot-blooded soccer paradise on Sunday, with the teeming mass of humanity packed into CenturyLink Field intent on showing Clint Dempsey that his instincts were right.
That the soccer passion here was indeed tangible. That the emotion was palpable. That there was no better place to practice his craft than a football stadium in Seattle an on overcast August evening.
Afterward, Dempsey called it a “dream come true,” and said that the energy emanating from the building throughout the Sounders’ 1-0 victory over the Portland Timbers was comparable to any derby he’s experienced overseas.
“It’s up there,’’ he said. “It’s physical. It’s reckless challenges. It’s getting frustrated. It’s battling through it. It’s showing character. That’s what you have to have in these types of games. Being able to push yourself to the limit but not too far.”
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That has been a hallmark, actually, of the Sounders-Timbers rivalry: Enmity that doesn’t spill over to hooliganism. Good, clean hatred, if that’s possible, and so far in this long-standing series, through numerous leagues and incarnations, it mostly has been.
“What’s nice about it, there’s that little bit of animosity, but not to the point it spills over to violence, like so many derby games in Europe I’ve been in,’’ said Kasey Keller, the former Sounders goalie. “I know there’s an odd faction that maybe would like it to rival the European stuff, but I’m glad it’s not gotten there.”
On a magical night of raucous welcome, the well-established Sounders’ mania was ramped up and writ large to properly commemorate the home debut of Dempsey.
So large, in fact, that the mural-like tifo that was unveiled just before the opening kick managed to envelop the entire lower south end of the stands. The slogan emblazoned on the mammoth banner was “Build A Bonfire,” a command which fortunately was not taken literally by the raucous fans.
Not that I saw, anyway, though there was plenty of rave green-colored smoke bombs let loose during the three-block “March to the Match” – a gigantic swarm chanting and singing their way down Occidental.
“Everyone is coming out of the woodwork for this game,’’ Greg Mockos, co-president of the Emerald City Supporters, had said on Saturday. “These cities compete on so many levels. It’s not just a soccer match; it’s a city match, us versus them, Seattle versus Portland, Washington vs. Oregon.”
The Seattle soccer community, of course, had long ago established its bona fides, and the Seattle-Portland rivalry is entering its fifth decade of contentiousness.
But rarely over the years had Portland come to town with the upper hand in the standings, as was the case Sunday; and never had there been an adrenaline escalator quite like one Clinton Drew Dempsey.
Dempsey’s Seattle debut gave this match its extra bounce, and the crowd of 67,385 was a statement all by itself: the largest soccer assemblage ever in Seattle, the second-largest in MLS history for a stand-alone game, and the third-largest anywhere in the world this weekend.
“It was fantastic when you walked out there as the teams marched out for the anthem, and I saw everything full,’’ Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. “I still pinch myself every time I see that. It’s unbelievable.”
They tried to will Dempsey to a goal, and he did everything in his power to provide one, including a flying bicycle kick at one point in the second half. But it was Eddie Johnson who headed in a free kick from Mauro Rosales in the 60th minute to provide the only score in a much-needed Sounders victory.
Even without a goal, however, Dempsey’s transcendent skills were readily apparent, his deft ball handling on full display.
Alexi Lalas, who was intimately involved in the Los Angeles Galaxy’s efforts to land David Beckham during his stint as the Galaxy general manager, was duly amazed by the sleight of hand it took for Seattle to come away with a prize like Dempsey.
“I have a lot of respect for their ability to pull it off, the guile and the willingness to be bold, and to risk,’’ said Lalas, in town as part of the ESPN broadcast crew.
The risk aspect is, perhaps, an underappreciated aspect to this Seattle coup. Because with such a monumental acquisition, now comes the pressure to turn Dempsey’s presence into victories, and titles.
But the sports world is rife with examples of big-ticket additions that don’t match the hype, for whatever reason. Sometimes it’s overinflated expectations; sometimes the disproportionate focus on one player can alienate teammates; and some players don’t have the mental strength to handle a savior’s tag.
As Lalas said, “They have to win. Getting Dempsey is tremendous, but they have to couple it with winning and trophies. He adds a tremendous amount of energy and positive message, but also a tremendous amount of pressure.’’
Lalas also added pointedly, “Big price tags have a way of creating problems.”
The instant response to Dempsey, actually, was just what he expected: Loud and passionate. Music to his ears.
“It’s awesome to play here,’’ he said.
Which is exactly the conclusion that the throng wanted to reinforce in Dempsey’s mind.