SEATTLE — After arriving in Seattle with the U.S. national team Saturday, Clint Dempsey, the team’s captain took a walk from the team’s downtown hotel to find dinner.
While out and about, Dempsey, who plays professionally for Tottenham Hotspur, one of the top team’s in the English Premier League, momentarily forgot where he was when around town he noticed televisions tuned into a soccer game.
“I almost felt like I was in another country the other day when the Seattle Sounders game was on,” Dempsey said. “I was walking to get dinner, and as you walk past a bar, the TV is on and everyone was watching soccer, so for me that was awesome. I’m happy to play here and look forward to the game and feeling what that atmosphere will be like.”
A couple of miles south, U.S. forward Terrence Boyd, who grew up in Germany and plays professionally in Austria, was one of the 53,679 on hand to see the Sounders beat the Whitecaps in a 3-2 thriller, and he too was caught off guard by what he witnessed.
“I’d heard there are many, many soccer fans, but I didn’t expect that much,” Boyd said. “This is a great commercial for the MLS what’s happening here right now. I mean, 50K is even a big deal in the (German) Bundesliga.”
This is why the U.S. will host Panama in a World Cup qualifier at CenturyLink Field tonight. Why after having not played a game of this significance in Seattle since 1976, the national team is back here despite the fact that the Northwest is a pain to get to for the European-based players on the roster, and yes, despite the much-talked about temporary grass that was installed over the normal FieldTurf playing surface.
Soccer is massive in this part of the country, and U.S. Soccer has seen the ever-growing attendance numbers in Seattle, as well as the success of the Portland Timbers, and decided it needed in on what was happening here, even if it meant a few inconveniences.
“That is one of the big reasons why we are here, because the atmosphere is always tremendous here in Seattle,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said during halftime of Saturday’s Sounders game. “The support from the fans for their team is outstanding. It’s one of the hotbeds (for soccer) in the United States, and we want to enjoy that. We want to show them a good game; we want to win this game badly. We are all looking forward to it. It’s not very often we can come to the Northwest with all of the European guys, because it’s always challenging during a normal season for the Europeans to go all the way to the West Coast because of the nine-hour time difference. Now there is an opportunity, we kind of wanted it badly, and we are looking forward to it.”
Tonight’s game might not quite feature the same atmosphere as Saturday’s game. While more than 50,000 were on hand for that game, ticket sales for the U.S-Panama game were at 36,000 as of Monday. That reflects the reality that that tickets for the World Cup qualifier are significantly more expensive than Sounders tickets, and also the fact that the game is on a week night with a Mariners game going on at the same time (because of the Mariners game, capacity has been artificially capped at 42,000 to limit the number of fans in the area). But don’t fall for it if anyone tells you a crowd of 36,000 is disappointing. For starters, that number compares very favorable to other World Cup qualifiers in this country against any country other than Mexico. And if anything, a club team outdrawing the national team for a World Cup qualifier is just another sign that this area appreciates soccer more than anywhere else in the country. Throughout the world, it is routine for club teams to outdraw national teams unless a rival country is involved.
Whatever the final number ends up being tonight, Puget Sound-area fans are certain to show the U.S. team what players have been hearing from Brad Evans and Eddie Johnson, the two Sounders on the current U.S. roster.
“I’m good friends with Eddie Johnson, and he always tells me what it’s like playing here and playing in front of the fans, just how it’s an atmosphere that’s comparable to what it is in Europe,” said Dempsey, who began his career in MLS before going to England. “It’s great to see, because I remember when I first started out in MLS, things weren’t like that. So it’s great to see that the game is building and that there are markets like this where people have so much passion for the game.”
So no, a Seattle game doesn’t make for an easy travel schedule, and the field, according to midfielder Michael Bradley, “Is far from ideal,” but after four-plus seasons of setting attendance records and redefining what soccer can be in America, fans in this region made U.S. Soccer award them a game.
“Anybody who’s been paying attention to MLS sees what a special thing they have going here in Seattle,” Bradley said. “Whether you’ve been to a game here or you’re just watching the highlights on the MLS website, you see right away how passionate the people here are, how much their team means to them, so we hope when we step on the field tomorrow they can support us in the same way.
Bradley isn’t a fan of the field, and wasn’t afraid to say so, but he also conceded, “Seattle certainly deserves a game, but the field unfortunately leaves a lot to be desired.”
The field might leave something to be desired. The atmosphere, however, will not.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.