Seattle: A fine place for a final

Not for the first time in the past few years I've had to shake my head at how much things have changed with pro soccer in America.

Dozens of examples could be cited, but here's a biggie: in 1982, San Diego was set to host the NASL championship game, the ingeniously named Soccer Bowl, and when the hometown Sockers were eliminated in the playoffs, the team's phone lines lit up with fans requesting, or in some cases, demanding, refunds for tickets they'd already bought.

On the one hand they couldn't be blamed, since they were Sockers fans, not necessarily soccer or NASL fans. But their fickleness or provincialism, call it what you will, clearly demonstrated how fragile and tenuous was the pro game in this country at that time.

The mood in Seattle this week is just the opposite; the Sounders may be out, and it's not expected that thousands of Real Salt Lake fans will head west to take in the final. Yet instead of hoping for a crowd close to the nearly 36,000 fans who took every available seat for the playoff game against Houston, the club put nearly 6,000 additional tickets up for sale.

Its season-ticket members (22,000) automatically received a ticket to the final, and presumably many of the 8,000 fans on a waiting list got first crack at MLS Cup tickets. The presence of David Beckham, who hadn't yet returned from his AC Milan loan when the Galaxy traveled to the Northwest during the regular season, is surely driving sales as well. Had the Sounders reached the final, club management would have opened up the entire stadium, which can accommodate approximately 68,000 for soccer. (Beckham may be a good draw, but he ain't a Sounder!)

Other NASL cities hosted finals to varying degrees of success in the days of the NASL, which used two-game and best-of-three finals, as well as single games in both formats of a hosting team and a pre-designated site, a la the NFL with its Super Bowl. San Jose, Portland, San Diego, Washington D.C., to name a few, all hosted championship games sans a hometown participant.

MLS has chosen its site months in advance from day one, and even some of its smaller soccer-specific facilities haven't been full for the title game. If the format were changed to that of the higher-seeded finalist hosting the game, would the powerful draw of a home team supersede the short time frame during which to sell tickets and arrange all the ancillary events that accompany the event?

Setting aside the practical side of this idea, even for teams in their own stadiums, how many of them could pull this off? Not many, given the low-ball budgets and manpower limitations by which many teams operate.

Arranging to paint the Space Needle with the all the needed MLS symbols, including logos of the competing teams, in a few days is a spectacular coup. (Good weather helped.) The absence of the Sounders doesn't seem to be a distraction or a drawback to the season finale. As the city has shown by its attendance at international friendlies and other non-MLS events - the Gold Cup matches played there being a notable exception - in its first season of league participation Seattle has proved to be solid on soccer.

A deserved competitive advantage and passionate atmosphere of fans roaring on the home team would make for great theater, yet having the higher-seeded finalist hosting the event would force a re-think by league management.

Teams bid to host MLS Cup, and pay the freight whether their team makes it or not. I'd like to think most teams could generate a good crowd on short notice, possibly having already incorporated a seat at the final in a pre-sold playoff "strip" of tickets. But problems abound, and only by locking in a time slot regardless of time zone of the hosting team could MLS get maximum broadcast exposure, and it would have to cut back on the festivities and activities simply for lack of time to plan and prepare.

There's already been a scaling-down. The annual MLS Gala, a black-tie event of pompous yet enjoyable proportions, has been replaced by a much more low-key event, and the party circuit will be shorter. Like the teams and the league, sponsors have tightened their belts, and privately, some of them admit they'd prefer a leaner slate of events even in more prosperous times.

MLS may not be ready to have all or most of its teams host the championship game, even in their own facilities. Weather in some cities could be a deterrent, though the thousands of empty spaces at Columbus Crew Stadium for the 2001 Galaxy-Quakes final can be attributed to the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, which also shortened the regular season. The weather that day was cold but dry, the mood somber.

It's been raining this week in Seattle, but those folks live in rain, anyway. Forecasts cite rain throughout the weekend, and while that might dampen the March to the Match, it won't deter the band or the fans who regularly make the trek. (My debut came in June and it really rocked). A wet FieldTurf surface might actually play much like a wet grass field, assuming the field isn't so inundated as to force players to slog through standing water.

No one is forecasting a repeat of the incredible 1996 final, played - and survived - as a savage nor'easter lashed the since-demolished Foxboro Stadium with howling winds and stinging rain. For that game, about 42,000 tickets were sold or distributed, and more than 34,000 fans braved the elements. Could the Revs do that as hosts on a week's notice these days? I doubt it.

If Sunday's crowd doesn't come close to that first number, I'll be surprised.


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