TUKWILA — At their Starfire Sports practice site, Sounders players fill the air with conversations in Spanish, English, French and sometimes Korean. As the most popular sport in the world with an estimated four billion fans globally, a blend of languages should be expected.
But how the languages and varied cultures attached to them mix to form a team currently third in the MLS Western Conference standings is fascinating.
“Soccer is always a universal language,” said Sounders midfielder Gustav Svensson, who’s Swedish. “I’ve played in China, Turkey, in Ukraine where pretty much no one can speak English but you learn how to talk even if you can’t speak to each other. You learn how to read each other’s movements.”
Mute the sound around the practice field — the freight train passing by to the north, the drone filming training overhead and the laughter from children playing on an adjacent field to the south — and the language of soccer is revealed.
The metronome to the Sounders’ linguistic beat is Chris Henderson. The club’s vice president and sporting director has traveled to more than 170 countries since being hired in 2008. In just the past three years, he’s filled eight black books front-to-back with scouting notes about players.
A three-part sports docuseries titled “Nonstop Scouting” to debut Monday on YouTube depicts how Henderson is on the front line of forming a multicultural team. It’s a role he’s been groomed for since age 5, when he began playing soccer in Everett and blossomed into the state of Washington’s greatest midfielder with a bounty of championships won at Cascade High, UCLA and in MLS along with being a member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic team.
“When I’m interviewing a player, it’s really important to be face to face,” said Henderson, who typically has a bilingual host or agent from the city with him as he bops from practices to games across a region within a weekend’s time. “Because you can read things, even if it’s a different language, you can read their face and the way they express themselves and understand them in a different way than if it’s just on Skype or on the phone. But there have been some challenges, for sure.”
Once FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) was formed in 1904 in Paris, officiating hand signals and the showing of red or yellow cards were designed to overcome language barriers. Also necessary when trying to communicate on a rectangular field that’s 120 yards long between corner posts and 75 yards wide.
FIFA recognizes French, English, Spanish and German as its official languages. But despite Mandarin Chinese being the most spoken language in the world, according to multiple tracking sites, English is the primary language used to communicate for soccer players and referees.
Overall, the Sounders have players from 14 different countries, including the U.S. The farthest — as the crow flies — is either Australian left back Brad Smith or Cameroonian defender Nouhou. The closest is Mercer Island forward Jordan Morris.
“On the field, we do use the language of English,” said Kim Kee-hee through his Korean translator, Byounghwan Kim (no relation). The second-year Sounders defender takes English lessons three times a week provided by the club.
“But it’s very simple — ‘come close,’ ‘I need more space,’ ‘push forward,’” Kim Kee-hee continued of what’s said between Sounders teammates. “It’s intuition that’s definitely in play. We know the next move because we play together and practice together all the time. And I like the Sounders because we are a multinational team, so many players from so many cultures and nationalities, but as a team we are friends and family. We hang out together.”
Kim played in China and Qatar where not only was his native language not spoken but the teams didn’t interact beyond the field. Kim said Qatar was a three-month stint in solitude because even the city was unwelcoming to his culture and language.
Now married with two children, Kim said his family loves the international vibe of the Seattle area. His teammates, especially former defender Chad Marshall, even take the time to learn bits of Korean to communicate. Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer uses Google translate, which can cause funny moments when slang is misinterpreted.
“I’m not a really outgoing person, I wouldn’t teach somebody Korean, but they make me outgoing because they pick something up and speak it to me,” Kim said.
Through filming “Nonstop Scouting” in Japan, Korea and Iceland — countries Henderson called emerging as places with top-tier soccer talent — he learned more about how culture as much as language can affect a player. In Korea, teams and companies are more harmonious because there’s a push for the group, not the individual, to succeed.
“Going forward, I think I will spend a little more time understanding the people and how players think because I think that will add value into our player selection,” Henderson said. “I usually take photos on my phone and take some notes of what it was like in each country I’ve been to. As I get older, I can appreciate countries in different ways.”
“I have the privilege of being able to speak both Spanish and English,” said Sounders defensive midfielder Cristian Roldan, a first-generation Californian. “So, (I’m) bringing the locker room together in that way.”
Still, it’s the language of soccer that works best. In Henderson’s docuseries, he’s shown playing soccer on a rooftop in Japan and recalls playing a beach version of the game in Brazil as a favorite memory while traveling for work.
Each time, the game formed a quick bond and crumbled language barriers — a silent understanding.
“You start talking about soccer and all of a sudden, you’re part of the group,” Henderson said. “For me, it connects the world.”