By John Boyle Herald Columnist
The Seattle Sounders have spent the past four and a half years redefining what soccer can be in America.
They’ve continually raised the bar on how big of crowds a Major League Soccer team can draw, they’ve become one of the few teams in the league that has mainstream sports relevance in their city, and they’ve kept the momentum going with on-field success.
Yet somehow, even by the lofty standards this franchise has created, tonight will take things to another level once again. For the first time in their history, the Sounders have sold out CenturyLink Field. All of it. Well in advance of the game. They’re even adding temporary bleachers, something the Seahawks only do occasionally do for big games.
Any rivalry game with Portland is huge, and a Sunday night game on ESPN2 would certainly create a little buzz, but when you add to that the fact that U.S. national team captain Clint Dempsey, one of the most significant and expensive signings in MLS history, is making his home debut for the Sounders, it’s the recipe for one of those, “I was there when” type of nights in Seattle sports.
“Anytime we meet these guys it’s a big game, but yeah, it adds a little something extra when it’s Clint’s first game, selling out the whole stadium,” said midfielder Brad Evans, who has been with the team since its 2009 inaugural season. “And there’s never been this kind of battle with the standings as close as they are right now, so it put a little bit of extra emphasis on this game.”
Dempsey, who spent the last six years of his career in the English Premier League with Fulham and Tottenham, is sure to play in MLS games in front of small, not-so-passionate crowds that feel like a bit of a letdown compared to those he played in one of the world’s top leagues (we’re looking at you, Chivas USA). This sure as hell won’t be one of them. The energy in and around the stadium, the intensity on the field, that will be close to anything Dempsey saw in Europe.
“It’s huge here,” Dempsey said. “It’s one of the top crowds in the world. … I’m excited about playing here and hopefully we can do something special.”
As Evans pointed out, this game isn’t just big because of the rivalry or the atmosphere or Dempsey’s debut. For the first time since the Timbers came into the league in 2011, the Sounders are looking up at Portland in the standings in the latter part of a season. The Timbers have been one of the league’s surprise teams under first-year coach Caleb Porter, and currently sit third in the Western Conference standings, though their points-per-game average is actually tops in the West. The Sounders, meanwhile, are in seventh, but with two or more games in hand on every team in West, Seattle is still in good position to make the playoffs with a points-per-game average than ranks third in the West to Portland and Salt Lake.
“It’s going to be extra special because of the crowd and everything, but also because Portland’s a very, very good team right now, and they’re a team that’s ahead of us in the standings,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. “We haven’t been in that position, so for us, the game and the result are very important Sunday.”
If history tells us anything, the Sounders have a great chance at getting that desired result tonight. Seattle has hosted five games in front of crowds in excess of 50,000, including this year’s 3-2 win over Vancouver, and the Sounders won all five by a combined margin of 14-3. If the Sounders can keep that trend alive, it will turn what is sure to be a wonderful celebration of the sport into an important victory for their playoff hopes.
And although the Sounders would prefer to beat up on their rivals at every opportunity, it’s a good thing for the rivalry and the league as a whole if the Timbers start matching Seattle’s on-field success. Like the Sounders, Portland has a large, passionate and knowledgeable fanbase. Unlike Seattle, however, the Timbers didn’t start off with immediate success. Their fans haven’t waivered, not yet anyway, but as Toronto FC could tell you, even the most passionate fanbases can start to shrink if the losses keep piling up.
Anyone with a vested interest in Major League Soccer’s growth knows that franchises like Portland are key to the league’s long-term success. So, as much as they love to beat them, the Sounders don’t mind seeing their neighbors to south climb in the standings.
“It’s fantastic,” Schmid said. “Can you imagine what things would be like if us, Vancouver, and Portland all made the playoffs and ended up playing each other? That would be immense.”
A Portland-Seattle playoff series would indeed be immense. For now, however, we’ll just have to “settle” for 67,000 fans and the home debut of one of America’s best players.
“I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like when the whole stadium is completely packed and they’re behind us,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey won’t have to try imagining it for much longer, because tonight the Sounders will once again raise the bar they have so many times reset at new heights.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.