Sounders Women expands its fan base

TUKWILA — The big story about the Sounders Women this season was the on-again, off-again presence of U.S. National Team stars Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Stephanie Cox, Sydney Leroux and Megan Rapinoe.

An even better story, however, is what happened after the big-name players left.

As expected, the big names we will soon see on TV in the Summer Olympics helped draw sellout crowds to Starfire Stadium. Local soccer fans got a chance to see some of the world’s best players, who ended up scrambling to find teams after Women’s Professional Soccer, the top league of women’s soccer in the country, folded in the offseason.

Less expected, however, was that the Sounders Women played to sellout or near-sellout crowds even without the national team stars. That was a pleasant surprise for the W-league team which historically has drawn crowds in the hundreds.

The team’s largest crowd last season was around 1,000. According to team attendance figures, the smallest crowd of this year was 3,500, and that was on a day when Sounders FC was playing a home game at CenturyLink Field. Most of the home games — again, with or without the national team players present — have sold out the 4,500-seat Startfire Stadium.

“Even without the national team players, we’ve gotten huge support from the fan base,” said defender Annie Sittauer, an Everett High graduate who plays for the University of Washington. “Regardless of if they’re here or not, it’s been the coolest experience. Obviously when they come in, you’re surrounded by the best players in the world, so you get a little star struck, but nothing has compared to this experience.”

Sittauer is one of two players from Snohomish County on the team along with Brooke Gilbert, a Glacier Peak grad who just finished her freshman year at the University of Texas. They are the type of athlete often found on W-League rosters: college players trying to stay sharp in the offseason and former college players who want to keep playing, not for money or attention, but simply for the love of the game.

So, when Sittauer tried out for the Sounders Women, she had no idea that a couple months later she would be teammates with some of the world’ top players.

“My first game, Hope was in goal, and she yelled, ‘Annie, move to the right,’” Sittauer said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, she knows my name.’ But once you’re on the field and start playing, you don’t really think about it until after the fact.”

Sittauer has been a regular in the lineup all season, and Gilbert, also a defender, has seen her playing time increase as the season has gone on. For them and everyone else on the team, this year has been a unique experience, and one that has made everyone a better player.

“It’s a dream come true, definitely,” Gilbert said. “You’re used to watching these players on TV, watching them in the World Cup. Playing with them, learning from them, it’s been a lot of fun. It’s kind of hard, because the roster is constantly changing — one day you’re in, one day you’re out, and you just have to be able to deal with that and be ready when you get your chance. But it’s great.

“We’re training every day at probably the highest level of women’s soccer that there is. You can’t get away with much. Your bad habits are exposed.”

The addition of the national team players unquestionably brought a lot of attention to the Sounders Women. But in this soccer-crazed corner of the country, fans have continued to support the team even on the days when the roster was comprised players who are only household names in their own households.

“It’s been awesome,” Gilbert said. “I thought, ‘Oh, the national team players aren’t here this week, our crowd won’t be that big.’ But we’re still selling out games. It’s unbelievable. … These have definitely been the biggest crowds that I’ve played in front of. It’s a whole community behind us. It’s really nice.”

The Sounders women played their final home game Friday night, and even though the national team players are away for Olympic duties, Starfire Stadium was once again packed. Thirty minutes prior to kickoff, the bleachers already were nearly full, and just like when Sounders FC plays here for U.S. Open Cup games, it was a lively game-day environment complete with banners, singing fans and, yes, a beer garden in one corner of the field.

“Without a doubt, the big names got fans to come,” said Sounders Women coach Michelle French, a former U.S. National Team player who was an All-American at Kennedy High School in Burien.

“With Annie, with Veronica Perez, with Kate Deines, the fans are coming back to watch those player. It’s gone hand-in-hand as far as the success. We’ve helped the National Team players prepare for the Olympics and be successful, and they’ve helped this team. It’s been a good match.”

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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