Forty five years ago, the Sounders came to town playing a sport for immigrants with star players from foreign countries. On Sunday, the Sounders will host their first MLS Cup in a game played by millions of Americans and with U.S. stars developed through our youth soccer programs.
At the MLS Cup, we will celebrate not only the Sounders’ success, but also our community’s embrace of immigrants and their passion for soccer, and the joy it has returned to all of us.
A post-World War II wave of immigrants came to our state from all parts of the globe to work in aerospace, fishing or timber, and many wanted to grow the game so their kids could play. My dad was one of those, a refugee from Eastern Europe who moved here in the mid-1960s.
By the time the original Sounders arrived in 1974, youth soccer had been established by volunteers, including many still carrying thick accents and wanting to contribute something from “the old country” to their new homes. Soccer brought cheer to a region struggling with high unemployment and billboards that read: “Will the last person to leave Seattle please turn out the lights.”
With the classy Englishman John Best as the coach, the Sounders were an instant hit, filling Memorial Stadium. For my dad and other volunteers, Sounders mania meant a 30% jump in kids wanting to play, and a scramble to find more coaches, referees and fields.
New fields were dedicated all over the region, including at Marymoor Park, by King County Executive John Spellman, a future governor. When fields were carved out of a cow patch now called 60 Acres in Redmond, parents brought their lawn mowers to knock down the grass.
A growing sport meant new opportunities to develop talent. My dad worked with Walt Schmetzer Sr. — an immigrant from Germany — to set rules for new elite teams like Lake City Hawks, which included among its players Sounders Coach Brian Schmetzer.
Before the Sounders, European teams played exhibition matches, and pickup games often broke out on the side that became a teeming mass of young players chasing the ball. But Sounders games were different. They were sacred ground, a place for my dad and other soccer pioneers to honor the “immigrant’s game” and share it with new converts.
When he was my coach, I didn’t understand my dad’s passion for creating a broader soccer community. But years later, he told me that playing soccer in the World War II refugee camps was a source of joy and community for children who had neither. They often played with a ball made of rags.
The soccer community may also have saved his life. When conflict broke out between refugees and the residents of a German island at the end of the war, someone tossed out a soccer ball as a reminder of the bond they formed playing together.
My dad always reminded us that soccer is a game, and that it should be played for fun. And as a youth coach myself for many years, I saw so many players, parents and fans find that joy.
After the first Sounders folded, youth soccer continued to grow, as the children of the soccer pioneers themselves became parents and coaches. Sounders and U.S. Men’s National team star Jordan Morris got his start with local clubs.
Many former players from local youth clubs — like team owner and former GM Adrian Hanauer — will be at the packed stadium Sunday for the MLS Cup. Longtime residents and newcomers from all over the globe will come together just as those soccer pioneers dreamed, a community united by the game and full of hope for the future.
You will hear the pride in our community and joy of soccer in the echoing voices of the crowd Sunday when the supporters groups chant S-E-A-T-T-L-E, and the fans respond S-O-U-N-D-E-R-S.
A previous version of this Op-Ed incorrectly identified Adrian Hanauer as the team’s general manager. He is owner of Seattle Sounders FC and previously served as GM.