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Cliff McCrath, the longtime men’s soccer coach at Seattle Pacific University, says you can always identify a true soccer lifer by how he meets his end.

“At the age of 99, when he’s walking toward the waiting chariot at the end of the street, if a ball comes bouncing across the street, he’s going to throw away his cane and get one last kick in before he heads off to the big field in the sky,” McCrath said.

“Then he’ll go with a smile on his face.”

As long as there was a game to be had, the soccer fanatic was content.

But for the generation of elite players who competed in the dark ages between the dissolution of the North American Soccer League in 1984 and the birth of Major League Soccer in 1996, those weren’t easy to find.

The players who helped set the stage for the home 1994 World Cup and the subsequent creation of MLS came of age in semiprofessional and indoor leagues, in front of empty stadiums and on AstroTurf fields.

They came of age on teams like F.C. Seattle.

IN THE SPRING of 1971, McCrath kept his message to the gathered soccer administrators brief.

McCrath was coming off an 0-7-3 inaugural season at SPU. He had called a meeting of college and club figureheads on the University of Washington campus.

He didn’t mince words: “Soccer in the Northwest is a joke.”

The Northwest was a soccer backwater within a soccer backwater — a region with only a few thousand youth players in a country at the very nadir of its 40-year World Cup drought.

The arrival of the Seattle Sounders of the North American Soccer League in 1974 changed the dynamic almost overnight.

The mania peaked on April 9, 1976, when 58,218 fans watched Pele and the New York Cosmos open the Kingdome with a 3-1 victory over the Sounders. Youth soccer participation exploded, filling fields throughout the state.

Then the Sounders went bust after the 1983 season, followed by the rest of the NASL after the ’84 season.

There were plenty of young converts, but no professional league.

THE AMBITIONS OF F.C. Seattle exceeded its reach from its birth in the mid-1970s.

The humble men’s city league team was named both to distinguish itself from the all-ethnic squads of the era, the Greeks and the Danes, and to drum up interest for matches against bigger clubs up and down the West Coast.

“We were just a bunch of old farts,” said McCrath, who helped found the team.

The death throes of the NASL and the interest of local entrepreneur Bud Greer created an opportunity for something more, in the 1985 formation of the Western Soccer Alliance Challenge.

“He (Greer) kept the spirit breathing until it could grow again,” said Dave Gillett, an original Sounder who took on a management role with the new club.

His players made a couple hundred bucks per home game, went to day jobs ranging from teachers to police officers during the day, and trained at night.

Compared with the heyday of the original Sounders, when temporary bleachers had to be added to home games at Memorial Stadium, crowds were modest.

“Seriously, you would walk out at Memorial Stadium and you knew the fans by name: ‘Hey, Stu, how’s it going?’ ” said Pete Fewing, a midfielder who played in more matches for the club than any player.

The management rewarded such sacrifices with friendlies against bigger international clubs.

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” played over the Memorial Stadium loudspeakers when F.C. Seattle welcomed Scotland’s Dundee F.C. in the mid-1980s. Brian Schmetzer scored twice in an upset of Santos, Pele’s original Brazilian team. And a 1987 tour of the British Isles featured a series of matches against historic English clubs like Queens Park Rangers and Portsmouth.

The competitive highlight came a year later, when renamed F.C. Seattle Storm defeated the San Jose Earthquakes at Memorial Stadium in the championship match of the Western Soccer Alliance.

SPU product Bobby Bruch — a lifer who spent airport layovers dribbling a ball around the concourse — scored twice in the opening 10 minutes as Seattle romped to a 5-0 victory.

“It was all over in the first (few) minutes,” coach Tommy Jenkins said. “Bang, bang — game, set and match.”

ONCE THE NASL folded, the money went inside to the Major Indoor Soccer League.

“It’s hard for people to believe now, but the Tacoma Stars were outdrawing the Seattle Sonics,” said Peter Hattrup, who played for both the Stars and F.C. Seattle.

(In 1986-87, the Stars averaged 10,384 fans, compared to 8,683 for the Sonics.)

Players had to chose between making upward of six figures indoors or making due in the regional outdoor leagues, which remained the proving ground for the national team.

The bulk of the 1990 United States men’s national team cut its teeth in the Western Soccer Alliance and the East Coast version, the American Soccer League.

Paul Caligiuri, whose goal against Trinidad and Tobago in 1989 ended the four-decade World Cup drought, had been named the 1986 WSA most valuable player. Marcelo Balboa, who suited up for the San Diego Nomads, won the award in 1988, as did Portland Timbers goalkeeper Kasey Keller a year later.

“It cut out all the guys that didn’t have the deep passion for the game,” Hattrup said.

“I think all of us were in love with the game enough that we wanted it to go on.”

IF THE ORIGINAL Sounders planted the seeds, the next generation cultivated them — both on the field and off it.

“We were the pioneers,” said Chris Henderson, who debuted for F.C. Seattle while still in high school in Everett and is now the sporting director for the MLS Sounders.

Schmetzer is also working for the Sounders as the top assistant coach. Fewing is the coach at Seattle University, which reached the second round of the NCAA tournament last fall.

Former F.C. Seattle defender Wade Webber is a director of coaching for the Washington Premier youth club. Former forward Chance Fry is the director of operations at Eastside F.C., the program that produced Jordan Morris, a Mercer Island native who just earned his first call-up to the U.S. national team.

They’ve helped turned a former soccer backwater into one of the country’s most fertile breeding grounds.

Morris is following in the footsteps of fellow Sounders academy product DeAndre Yedlin, an O’Dea graduate who turned a surprise national-team roster spot into a standout World Cup in Brazil and a transfer to Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League.

The CenturyLink Field crowd occasionally erupts in chants of area-code-specific chants of “253” in reference to attacker Lamar Neagle’s Tacoma roots.

The result will be on full display Oct. 10, when the Sounders celebrate their 40th anniversary during the match against Vancouver in front of what promises to be another packed house.

What is likely to be glossed over is the period between the club’s first run and its reincarnation in the USL First Division in 1997.

“Nobody came around as visionaries and said, ‘We have to set a foundation for our grandchildren,’ ” said McCrath. “It was more impulsive.

“We just said, ‘Where are we playing next?’ ”

Thanks in part to their efforts, the current generation of young American players never has to ask.

Matt Pentz: 206-464-8994 or