Forty years ago Saturday, Seattle shattered the attendance record for a soccer game in North America.
Seattle — at least, a more isolated, less developed and less sure of itself version of Seattle — always had a thing for famous visitors.
Charles Lindbergh’s stop on his 1927 continental tour inspired parades, natives flooding into the streets to catch a glimpse of his passing airplane and a front-page newspaper story confidently calling him the most-acclaimed man to ever visit the city.
Yet cult of personality and the preseason visit of the greatest player in the world only partially explained how, 40 years ago Saturday, Seattle shattered the attendance record for a soccer game in North America.
Sounders @ Houston, 1 p.m., ESPN
On April 9, 1976, Pele’s New York Cosmos defeated the Seattle Sounders 3-1 in front of 58,128 at the first-ever sporting event held in the Kingdome. The Brazilian legend scored the go-ahead goal in the third minute and the winner in the 87th.
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And in a potential foreshadowing of the coverage of Seattle’s first few seasons in MLS, the event was treated more as a novelty than anything else. Kingdome sports opener, read the headline of the Seattle Times preview story, 58,000 — and soccer to boot.
“I just came to see the building,” said spectator Diane Carlson in Hy Zimmerman’s game column.
“I never saw a soccer game before. I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m having a good time watching others. I can’t wait to see baseball and football in the dome.”
The crowd was the largest to watch a soccer game in the U.S. since 46,000 packed into New York’s Polo Grounds for Hakoah Vienna’s 1926 American tour. And Pele, having long since burnished his credentials with the great Brazilian national teams of the late ’60s and early ’70s, certainly had drawing power. The Wednesday before the Kingdome match, 21,705 turned out to watch his Cosmos play in Honolulu.
Pele’s opening goal against the Sounders was fortuitous.
“There was no particular magic about the Black Pearl’s first goal,” said the Seattle Times game story, describing a free kick that bounced clumsily off the Sounders defensive wall and past wrong-footed goalkeeper Tony Chursky.
His second was better, a line drive that sped past Chursky and extinguished any hopes raised by Jimmy Gabriel’s goal for Seattle midway through the second half.
Though Pele exists most centrally in local consciousness for his rock-star arrival and the Kingdome curtain-raiser, he actually played against the Sounders in the final competitive match of his career a few years later at Civic Stadium in Portland.
Keys to Sunday’s match at Houston
1. Contain Andrew Wenger
You might remember Wenger as the Philadelphia Union winger who gave DeAndre Yedlin fits throughout the 2014 U.S. Open Cup final. An offseason trade to Houston has sparked a strong start to 2016: two goals and two assists in four matches.
2. Keep the ball moving in the final third
The Sounders have looked competent in possession, all the way up until when they near opposing penalty boxes. Offensive chemistry is still lacking, and if Clint Dempsey again gets the start in central midfield, connecting passes with teammates in dangerous areas will be vital.
3. Weather the storm
Houston, somewhat bafflingly given how staid it was in 2015, ranks in the top five in the league in both shots and shots on goal. Dynamo games have produced 19 total goals, more than any other MLS team through four games.
His Cosmos got the best of Seattle in Soccer Bowl ’77, Giorgio Chinaglia netting the game-winner in the 78th minute and sending Pele into a retirement of global ambassadorship and Subway sandwich commercials a winner.
The Sounders-Cosmos attendance figure was all the more impressive given that the Sonics were hosting the defending champion Golden State Warriors at Seattle Center Coliseum across town that same day. Yet to focus on only that particular number is to underrate just how formative the Kingdome opener was to soccer’s development in Seattle.
To a certain generation of local soccer fans, it was a touchstone called upon when describing how they fell for the sport.
Future Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer was in the crowd that day, and even if most of the curious had turned out mostly to catch a first glimpse at the gleaming new dome, it’s not difficult to draw a zig-zagging line between Pele’s visit and the 40,000-plus that regularly pack CenturyLink Field for MLS games.
“Within a decade, soccer will be the No. 1 sport in this country,” Zimmerman wrote, breathlessly and furthering the theory that time is a flat circle.
The NASL would actually fold within the decade, and MLS would happily take pulling level in popularity with MLB or the NBA, let alone the NFL juggernaut.
In the moment, though, it’s hard to judge the columnist for getting sucked in by the hype of Pele’s visit, for looking into the gracefully arching new dome and imagining a bright future.
And, granted, it took far long than a decade, but it might be even more remarkable and emblematic of the times that nearly 40,000 turned up to watch a Didier Drogba-less Montreal Impact play an April MLS match at CenturyLink last weekend.