Sometime shortly before kickoff of Sunday’s MLS Cup final, the sold-out crowd will turn toward the south end of CenturyLink Field, where the most raucous sections of the stadium will unfurl a massive display.
Made of painted, flame-resistant fabric, its dimensions will span hundreds of feet. The display may cover two full sections of stands. It may cover seven sections. Pulleys will likely be needed to unroll it.
What will it look like? What will it say? That’s a closely guarded secret.
“That’s the one thing that’s absolutely out of the question,” said Tom Biro, co-president of the largest Sounders fan group, Emerald City Supporters, when pressed for details.
The huge banners, or tifo, that volunteer fan groups design, stitch and paint before big games are a labor of love. They’re also an expression of a dedication, organization and intensity that few other fan bases can match. Seahawks fans may outnumber Sounders fans, and they’re certainly louder, but even the most elaborate tailgates can’t compete with the months of planning, 37,000 square feet of fabric and 70 gallons of paint needed to create a legendary six-piece Sounders tifo in 2013.
That display, featuring four torch-bearing Sounders “horsemen,” urged the team to “Build a bonfire” of the rival Portland Timbers.
A 2017 “cathedral” display featured 7,500 black cards to better frame the image of seven players, printed against stained-glass backgrounds and the phrase “Our love for you only the gods can understand.”
This year’s Portland match featured a massive four-part display with 1.2 miles of stitching that read “Ambition doesn’t grow on trees.” (Anti-Timber puns are a theme.)
And while the pre-match secrecy serves a purpose — tifo creators say they want their work to surprise players and fans, and they definitely don’t want rivals to know what’s coming — it also helps build the camaraderie and culture that’s become a part of the Sounders gameday experience.
“The titillation of it, those things create fandom, too,” said Stephanie Steiner, vice president of the Sounders Alliance Council, which represents season-ticket holders. “You want your fans to be surprised by something beautiful and amazing, you want everybody in the stadium to be wowed.”
Like a lot of Sounders traditions, tifo, from the Italian word for fan, tifoso, is borrowed from European soccer culture. Scarves, long the accoutrements of choice for European soccer fans, come with Sounders season-ticket packages, and fans hoist them skyward before every match in a choreographed “scarves up” display. Fan groups in end-zone seats sing, chant and wave flags throughout the match, and most in the lower bowl stand throughout.
For a club that, in its current iteration, is barely a decade old, the Sounders have rapidly developed a remarkable number of rituals and traditions that, supporters say, help fuel their passion and dedication. Until the 2017 launch of Atlanta United, the Sounders led MLS in attendance every year of their existence.
And a lot of it didn’t happen by accident.
“Whereas the original clubs catered to a suburban crowd,” former Seattle Times reporter Matt Pentz writes in his book on the history of the club, “The Sound and The Glory,” “Seattle played in the heart of its city. It catered to and worked with its most dedicated fans, cultivating a supporters’ culture that was at the time rare in MLS.”
But, if the framework for some of these traditions is borrowed, they’ve still developed organically.
Right around the 12th minute of every match, Sounders fans sing the chorus of “Roll On, Columbia,” Woody Guthrie’s New Deal paean to the river and the Bonneville Power Authority. The timing is to honor another Colombian, South American striker Fredy Montero, who scored the club’s first goal in the 12th minute of their first game.
“People look at others and learn and try to build on those experiences,” Biro said.
At a match a few years ago in Honduras, he said, they noticed the home fans had banners representing the city’s different neighborhoods, something he thought they could borrow in Seattle.
“They do a great job of incorporating the culture of Seattle into their club, into their ethos,” said Colin Johnson, 35, a season-ticket holder who’s been going to games since the inaugural 2009 MLS season. The matches, he said, are like a college football game, but “less drunken.”
“The energy is overwhelming, but in a good way,” said Sarah Strand, 29, a special-ed teacher in Edmonds who goes to most home games with her husband. “Everyone’s friendly, you don’t have anybody around you that is obscene or obnoxious.”
Sounders fans praise the players for being unusually accessible — goalkeeper Stefan Frei plays video games with fans online, other players pour beers at fan events.
On Wednesday night about 100 fans showed up at a University District car dealership to snap pictures, get autographs and chat with former Sounders Brad Evans and Chad Marshall. Price of admission: A few canned goods for the local food bank.
Marshall, who played in MLS for 16 years, said that the knowledge of Sounders fans is “beyond anything I’ve seen around the league.”
Sara McNally brought her 4-year-old son to see Evans and Marshall, to recreate a picture with them that she took when he was an infant. When she started going to games in 2010, she’d never watched soccer and had no idea what was going on.
“It’s just the atmosphere and the energy,” said McNally, 32, who goes to every home game with her family. “Soccer, for me, was so easy to fall in love with.”
“They’re our boys, they’re our hometown boys,” she said. “The supporter culture is just an overflowing of love and passion; there are people who give so many hours of their own time, of their personal lives, to support the boys, and we see the effect that has on the team.”
In 2017 she went to Boeing Field in the middle of the night to meet the team’s plane and console “the boys” when they came home after losing the MLS Cup final.
Sunday’s final is something of a grudge match between the Sounders and Toronto FC, after they faced off in back-to-back finals in Toronto in 2016 and 2017. The Sounders won in 2016.
“We’ve been to Toronto twice, and the people of Toronto have been really, really gracious,” Steiner, who traveled to both matches, said. “So it’s time to reciprocate and be very gracious to them — when they go home very, very sad.”