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MLS: Sounders Mania - Back To The Northwest
by Ridge Mahoney, February 27th, 2009 4:09PM
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TAGS:  mls


In picking Seattle to be its 15th team, MLS hopes to repeat its fabulous luck with a 13th team in Toronto. Both are major international cities with diverse populations, a downtown stadium well serviced by public transport, strong ownership groups steeped in professional sports and robust season-ticket sales.

A big stadium of synthetic turf likely to be marred by football lines once the NFL season starts. Rainy weather at times. That's about it.

Totting up the drawbacks to Seattle joining MLS takes a mighty effort. Except for a yawning capacity at Qwest Field (70,000 for Seahawks games) and that fake grass, the checklist of desirables seems complete.

A powerful ownership group with a strong local foundation. Resources, means and the ambition to stamp the team's identity in the community. A market pining for professional soccer. A successful, experienced head coach backed by a solid organization.

There's no shortage of endorsers to this proclamation, and they extend beyond the principals in the Seattle endeavor to MLS commissioner Don Garber and president Mark Abbott, who oversees the MLS Expansion Committee along with league savior Phil Anschutz.

Just ask goalie Kasey Keller, a local product and U.S. international who is back home after a 17-year career with seven teams in England, Spain and Germany, a background that deepens his appreciation for the presence of Vulcan Sports and Entertainment, headed by Microsoft co-founder - and billionaire - Paul Allen and run by CEO Tod Leiweke, who is also CEO of the Seattle Seahawks as well as the MLS fledgling. Vulcan backs the team, along with entertainment mogul and lead investor Joe Roth, and minority investors Adrian Hanauer and Drew Carey. A Vulcan subsidiary, First and Goal, manages Qwest Field with Leiweke as its president.

The organizations, titles and duties overlap - there are about 15 to 20 disparate employees on the Sounders staff, and many more Vulcan, First and Goal and Seahawks people sharing jobs - yet the critical mass is unmistakable.

"You basically step into an established professional organization that has an NBA team [Portland Trailblazers] and NFL team and a wealth of experience and depth in the community," says Keller. "They're already established, and I think that's a huge, huge benefit to this club.

"The professionalism of Vulcan with Tod Leiweke and Paul Allen's group has added an element to this franchise which doesn't exist at the other franchises. It's not like your banging heads with some baseball and NFL guys who don't have any interest in soccer whatsoever. We started the preseason at Virginia Mason, the Seahawks training facility, and felt great about it. Everybody was extremely happy to have us there."

A month prior the opener, Seattle had hit 20,000 season tickets sold. Those are real, and really impressive, numbers. Roth, a movie and TV producer with dozens of major productions on his resume who played soccer as a youth, is used to launching big and somewhat risky projects.

"The big challenge for me is singular, to prove that there's a city in the United States where soccer can be seen as a major sport and not just a niche sport, and there's no way to do that unless you do it," says Roth, a Los Angeles resident who was swayed in part by conversations with Anschutz Entertainment Group president Tim Leiweke, Tod's brother.

"When we kick out the first ball Seattle will be the only city where soccer is the No. 2 sport. We'll have 21,000 or 22,000 season tickets sold and only the Seahawks have sold more season tickets. There's an audience there to be entertained and it's our job, on and off the field, to entertain them."

Vulcan is the support group. Roth is the major money man. Carey is the superstar fan and has divvied up his shares amongst a members' group fashioned on the Barcelona model.

"Drew's a loose cannon," says Roth, himself a Hollywood figure but nowhere near the magnitude of a rambunctious comedian, game-show host, producer and soccer whacko. "He's a devoted fan and he's passionate. It was his idea to adapt some of these Barcelona ideas. He's put his faith into it and I respect him for it."

Supplying extensive soccer expertise and deep community ties is Hanauer, Seattle native and general manager who first invested in the Sounders - the USL-1 version - as more of a patron of the arts than a shrewd businessman. His family fortune backed the USL-1 version of the Sounders and he spearheaded the effort to sign Sigi Schmid as head coach. A previous attempt to enter MLS, in 2005, fell short of MLS standards due to financial limitations, but once Roth pledged some of his millions to the cause a year and a half ago, Seattle cleared that final hurdle.

"This has been my passion for a long time," says Hanauer, 42, who is reminded occasionally by his mother of determined efforts to dribble a ball at age 2 _.  "I pushed my family pretty hard three years ago to pay attention to MLS, when not very many people saw that the trajectory was definitely headed in the right direction and clearly from a franchise price standpoint, it was a good time to get involved.

"For whatever reason, I just felt the momentum and I guess it had gotten to the point where I believed the league was here to stay and was going to be successful. It's hard for me to put my finger on the exact timelines. The adidas contract, the TV contracts were starting to be signed, there were more rumors about different ownership groups, some of the franchises were investing in facilities.

"There was enough money in the game clearly that the league was either going to be incredibly successful or go down swinging. I just believed it was on its way."

GET SIGI. As the MLS regular season wound down and Columbus drove inexorably toward the Supporters' Shield trophy with the league's best record, a very poorly kept secret arose that Sigi  Schmid had been approached by Seattle management to take over its expansion enterprise.

Logistics and timing drew tauter as Columbus advanced in the playoffs and MLS outlined the expansion timeline. Three days after MLS Cup 2008 would be held the expansion draft; months before, the Seattle group had sought permission from the Crew to speak with Schmid and been flatly refused. But even after winning the title and with his contract about to expire, Schmid still wasn't free and clear.

Columbus had filed charges of tampering, which MLS dismissed. Seattle eventually paid a $25,000 penalty to buy out a non-compete clause in Schmid's contract that barred him from coaching a rival MLS team in 2009, and the new Sounders had a two-time MLS Cup-winning coach with family connections - his brother Roland lives in the area - and other links to Seattle, where he won his first college title with UCLA in 1985. One of his former Bruin assistants, Dean Wurzberger, is the head coach at the University of Washington.

"Dean said it best," said Schmid. "We came up here to play at SPU [Seattle Pacific University], I think it was in '86, and I said, 'This is an area where I could live someday.' When he heard Seattle was talking to me and I came up for the visit, he said, 'I'm going to hold you to that.'

"There's definitely a buzz in the city, a real positive energy. It seems like everybody remembers the NASL Sounders and can't wait to have an MLS team to see. The people have maintained a connection to the sport through all the games that are on television and now they can go see games live.

"You go places and people say, 'Oh, yeah, the Sounders,' or 'Yeah, I've already got my tickets.' Now we have to do our part, to step on the field and be competitive from the get-go, and get to the playoffs as quickly as possible."

THE OTHER LEIWEKE. About three decades ago, two brothers were marketing indoor soccer, which seemed on the upswing as the NASL and the outdoor game slid in the other direction.

In 1981, Tod and Terry Leiweke were joined at the Kansas City Comets by younger brother Tim, and the sibling triumverate generated numerous feature and business articles before they all went their separate and incredibly successful ways as sports executives. Tod is looking forward to mano-a-mano duels with Tim, which last occurred six years ago when the NHL's Minnesota Wild of which he was president hit the ice to take on the AEG-owned Los Angeles Kings.

"That will be fun," says Tod Leiweke, who left the Wild to take over the Seahawks. "It's always good to take on your brother."

Having worked for a variety of pro teams and other sports enterprises, he sees the timing for pro soccer in America and specifically in soccer as nearly perfect.

"I'm absolutely convinced soccer is on an upward ascension here in the United States, and the fun part is, no one knows where this is going to end. I believe it will continue to rise and is headed for some really great things."

There are still many things that can go wrong, but as the calendar winds down to a March 19 opener against MLS Cup 2008 finalist New York to be showcased nationally on ESPN2, all systems look right.

Ask former U.S. midfielder and speed merchant Chris Henderson, a local kid who played for the U.S. U-20 and national teams, UCLA and five MLS teams, good and bad. His eyes have seen the glory of winning an MLS title (Kansas City in 2000), and his psyche has been seared by the despair of a former employer folding (Miami, the following year).

Henderson is Seattle's technical director and is keeping tabs on upgrades and renovations at Starfire, a training facility located 10 minutes away from Qwest Field. He can't say how much is being spent on the buildings - one of the offices that is being dubbed "Sigi's Wing" - but with the resources of Microsoft and jersey sponsor XBOX, of which Keller is a zealous devotee, so far, Hanauer hasn't said no to anything.

More than a dozen fields, including a plush grass training surface and a full-sized, to-the-inch replica of the Qwest carpet, are tucked next to a locker room and a lounge filled with plasma TVs, game stations, and other diversions.

"Adrian's committed to make it a first-class facility," says Henderson. "Compared to anywhere else in MLS, it's fantastic. We want them to have everything here so they don't really want to leave. We want to create a professional culture, where players come in every day ready to work and compete for positions. If you don't follow through with that, the players will know it in a second. They'll realize what they're there for."

'It could only be Sounders'

They never won the league title, though they made the playoffs in six of their 10 seasons, so a lasting tradition and fond memories of the NASL Seattle Sounders must have meant more than trophies.

"The original Sounders were a really important part of my childhood," says general manager Adrian Hanauer, whose family backed the USL-1 Sounders for much of the past decade prior to the arrival of MLS. "I went to all those games at Memorial Stadium, and went to the parties after the game and got the autographs, and went to the camps and got to see the players.  The buzz that existed in the city and going to the games with my family, that really got me."

The buzz is back, fueled in part by excitement generated more than two decades ago. Much of Seattle's population shared the experience of following the NASL Sounders, which usually featured a core of British players sprinkled with Americans and Europeans.  

England's 1966 World Cup final hero Geoff Hurst, current Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp and English international midfielder Alan Hudson were among those who wore the Sounders colors. Englishman Alan Hinton set an NASL record with 30 assists playing for Vancouver in 1978 and took over the Seattle coaching reins in 1980. He still lives in the area.

Yet, then as now, the local community was well-represented: U.S. international strikers Chance Fry and Mark Peterson and midfielder Brian Schmetzer head a list of Seattle products to play pro near home.

"My first contract with the Seattle Sounders in 1980 was for $750 a month," says Schmetzer, who signed as a 17-year-old right out of Nathan Hale High School. "But I remember going to games at Memorial when they started in 1974. They would pack it with 12,000 or 13,000, so they put some temporary bleachers behind one of the goals, and they'd have 15,000 or 16,000.

"I joined the team in June of 1980 and that was the year they went 25-7, they had just a fantastic team with Alan Hudson and a lot of really good players. It was great."

In its decade (1974-1983) of operation, Seattle first played at Memorial Stadium, tucked near the base of the famous Space Needle, before moving into the massive Kingdome, where it averaged more than 20,000 in cumulative attendance from 1976 to 1981. It reached the championship game twice and lost both times to the Cosmos, in 1977 and 1982.

Says former U.S. international Chris Henderson, who grew up in nearby Everett and is the MLS team's technical director,  "We didn't miss a home game for the Sounders, whether it was at Memorial or when they moved into the Kingdome. We couldn't believe it when the team folded."

A year after playing in its second championship game, Sounders management pulled the plug. Average attendances had plummeted sharply, from 18,229 in 1981 to 12,539 in 1982 to an all-time low of 8,181 in 1983, the team's last season.

"I was in shock, I had just gotten married," says Schmetzer, who moved to Tulsa to play the final NASL season in 1984. "When the league went the following year, I had no idea what I was going to do."

Hinton coached a revived version of the Sounders starting in 1994, two years before the advent of MLS. The Sounders won American Professional Soccer League titles in 1995 and 1996.

Schmetzer, who won USL titles as the Sounders head coach in 2005 and 2007 and has been retained as an assistant to head coach Sigi Schmid, has trouble believing Hanauer and majority owner Joe Roth had doubts about the MLS team's nickname. There's far too much history to ignore.

"It could only be Sounders," says Schmetzer. "Of course."

(This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)   

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