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MLS: Sounders-Timbers not as progressive as some hope

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SEATTLE – Since the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers inaugurated Major League Soccer’s Cascadia Cup rivalry on Saturday night, fans and journalists alike have been proclaiming that the game was revolutionary for soccer in the United States. However, it may have just illuminated yet again why soccer is not the biggest sport here.

The organizations and their supporter groups traded jibes on Twitter, Facebook and in person all week leading up to the game. The build-up was reminiscent of the Super Bowl (in the Northwest, anyways).

The atmosphere lived up to the hype. Images of the giant banners unveiled by the Emerald City Supporters made the rounds on the internet while the game was still being played. Members of the Timbers Army who managed to get in on the measly 500-ticket away allocation stomped and raved in thenortheast corner of Qwest Field all night long.

This prompted Steve Kelley to write a column in The Seattle Times titled, “This is how soccer should feel in America.” Kelley lauded the extravagant atmosphere and commented that “it was a celebration of what the game slowly is becoming in this country.”

Not to say that the atmosphere was not impressive, not to say that having a rivalry the magnitude of the Portland-Seattle-Vancouver triangle will not be good for soccer in America and not to take away from the storied saga of Sounders-Timbers hatred dating back to the old NASL days. However, soccer fans in America might want to hold off on proclamations of revolution for now.

The reaction to this gameshould be another reminder of why soccer is not the most popular sport in America. Average American sports fans crave extravagance and spectacle. Thevast majority of soccer games are not like that, though.

Washington’s other professional soccer team, the Kitsap Pumas, only drew 352 fans earlier that day – and it was sunny during the Pumas’ game, not pouring rain. This pales in comparison to the 1,000-plus the club averaged two seasons ago in its first season as a franchise, when the novelty had not yet worn off. (Disclaimer: I trained with them all that season.)

Conversely, attendances rose 15 percent in the Blue Square Premier League in England between 2008/09 and 2009/10, which is four steps below the Premier League. Average attendance grew from 1,800 to just over 2,000 during that time. And that happened in England, where clubs of all levels are so geographically close that fans routinely travel to their favorite club’s away games.

Lower-level attendances are on the rise in England because true soccer fans are able to enjoy the kick-and-chase slugfests played out in bumpy mud pits as well as elegant passing displays played out in the palaces of the beautiful game. The spectacle is not the attraction – the soccer is.

Most people talking about the Cascadia Cup opener on Saturday light up when they talk about the crowd and the hype. In turning to the game itself, they display far less enthusiasm. Kelley dedicated only the last four paragraphs to the game in a 700-word column.

The game itself was fairly entertaining, even though players had trouble dealing with the conditions. If the majority of enthusiasm around the game were centered on Alvaro Fernandez’s solid performance or anything else that actually happened on the field, my sentiments would be different.

However, as it stands, the first installment of the Cascadia Cup is only another symptom of American distortion of soccer. The atmosphere should only be a bonus, not the substance of the entire experience. When Americans learn how to appreciate both, we will have truly made it.

Liviu Bird is a journalism student at and plays goalkeeper for Seattle Pacific University. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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Comments (10)

  1. soccer newbies may have enjoyed the hype more than the game. You seem to discount the 1000′s of kids and double that amount of parents who devote countless hours to soccer. Practice, and games there is more soccer out there than just professional teams. I follow the game pretty closely in Portland and I’ve never heard of the Kitsap Pumas. I’m surprised to hear a player dis any sort of fanfare for american soccer. You sound more like Jim Rome and by castigating fans for not loving the game enough you don’t do the game any justice.

  2. Okay, I’m befuddled. Of course the focus was on the crowd. There have been plenty of “great” games played over the years in MLS. This game was never about what was going on on the field. It was about the kind of fan spectacle two rivals could bring to bear in this game. They both succeeded on all counts. Your comments show how little you really understood what this was all about.

    Even worse, to condemn a game that was played in a literal monsoon in a swimming pool (were you even there?!?) in as intense a rivalry as this one…… a tie was nearly inevitable, given those conditions. Brighten up sunshine, this was an important step for MLS…. but only one single step. No one is claiming anything else….. except you.

  3. I strongly disagree here. The hype of the game will bring more people to experience the game. These two cities are portraying the spirit of soccer, the way we want it to be across the board (all MLS teams) in the MLS. People are not paying money just to be in the stadium. They are there to support their team – a rivalry that existed since the NASL. By downplaying this, you yourself are hindering the MLS from growing. This game had a 3.0 Nielsen’s Rating in Seattle and a 2.2 rating in Portland, which is the highest market ESPN has ever had in those cities. The ‘Kitsap Pumas’ and Blue Square League were completely irrelevant and I do not see how that even fit into this argument.

    • 1st. BOOM ROASTED
      2nd. Washington is a horrible market for all sports teams
      3rd. Boom freakin roasted.

  4. Hah. Weclome back to Soccerlens Liviu. I agree with your perspective and you’ll know that soccer’s place in the US has been much debated in these pages.

    Eventually you have to place things in context – the US is heads and shoulders ahead of other nations in mastering the art of promoting sports, and soccer is uniquely strong at the grassroots but in at the defining socio-cultural stage – i.e. high school – it becomes marginalisd.

    Some people say the sport needs more time, I think it needs more groundbreaking moments. The 2022 World Cup would have helped, but with that not happening, there needs to be more done than just pre-season tours and buying up the Premier League.

  5. It’s good to be back. Just to respond to some individual “concerns”:

    Grant: I’m not debating that soccer in the U.S. is strong at the grassroots level (as Ahmed said), but if it is not as strong at the professional level, that is all moot.

    Robin: I think you actually misunderstand the point of soccer; the point is the game, not the fans. And for the record, yes, I was at the game, and I know how hard it is to play in the rain. I’ve played college soccer in Seattle for the last three years.

    • In another world, a different time, you’re right, it’s all about the game. But this isn’t that world or time. The entire emphasis on the game in this country is about growth. Unfortunately, in the US, all sports are a spectacle and entertainment and a sizable portion of attendance is relegated to those who come simply because it is an event. This was an event. It’s already believed that the market for actual soccer fans has been somewhat saturated (Adrian’s main reason for NOT opening more seats at Qwest). Once you get them there….. yup, you gotta sell the game. But right now, the problem is just getting them there. Getting those grassroots fans is less about good soccer (since they believe they don’t like the game anyway), but about youth soccer, about a pro league that can offer an attractive professional option. It’s about perception. In this country, the shiny bauble definitely gets the attention.

      I don’t doubt you know the game (and sincerely hope you didn’t glean that from my post)….. I’m doubting the fact that you understand the business. That’s where we disagree. Business first…. soccer second. I know that’s hard to grasp…. particularly for those of us who have a tendency to romanticize the game and believe it should simply sell itself (that would be me, too, btw). But that’s reality in this time and place.

  6. please use the space bar

    “thenortheast”
    “gameshould”
    “Thevast”

    and so on.

    Thanks

  7. Lets review the main talking points of the game and see why people are focusing on the atmosphere rather than the play:

    -Both teams are midpack and it was a draw (boring)

    -Its too early in the season to have huge consequences for the playoff race (boring)

    -They’re pretty much of equal quality at this point in the season and have similar weaknesses (boring)

    -Seattle’s attack isn’t as dynamic without Zakuani (already beaten to death in the media)

    -OMG WTF DID YOU SEE THAT HUGE TIFO DISPLAY?! THAT’S AWESOME AND UNLIKE ANYTHING I’VE EVER SEEN IN AMERICAN SPORTS AND WILL BE A SOURCE OF AWE ON EVERY SPORTS SHOW IN THE COUNTRY, BE A TALKING POINT AT EVERY WORK WATER COOLER, AND TOPPING IT WILL BE THE NEW GOAL OF EVERY SUPPORTER IN THE ENTIRE WORLD!

    I hope that clears up any confusion you may have over why the soccer took a back seat to the atmosphere. I used capital letters to make sure you got it.

  8. Having been at the game myself, the atmosphere was amazing and unfortunately the game didn’t live up to the standard set by the crowd.

    But who cares? That there were 37+000 people at an MLS game between two of the smaller markets (if indeed two of the more vocal/larger supporter groups) baying at decisions, bating the goalkeepers and generally being very loud – helped of course by Qwest Field’s audiodynamics – is a great thing for US Soccer.

    An aspect of the game which shouldn’t be disregarded (and Liviu mentioned this) is how deep the rivalry is between NW cities and MLS should be very excited about the prospect of Seattle/Van and Seattle/Portland “derbies”.

    Football in this country is much healthier than it was 20 years ago and the MLS’s development standards (ie. insisting that clubs have a youth academy of a certain standard etc) have been key in improving that and growing the grass roots.

    It takes time to fully understand/build up a football “palate” – and soccer is SO different to other sports in the US (in the way it’s played, administrated, timed, officiated etc) that it takes time for a culture which has grown up with “Official’s time outs” and “TV Time Outs” etc to grow accustomed to a sport which isn’t as easily tailored to TV as those you’ve grown up surrounded by (baseball, basketball, NFL).

    While I agree that being able to appreciate teh game just for what it is would be a major step forward, being able to muster a crowd so passionate like that should be an object for compliment.