In Seattle, the MLS Cup is bigger than Beckham
Organizers expect close to 40,000 fans to attend the title match

By Steven Goff
Sunday, November 22, 2009

SEATTLE -- David Beckham's presence in the MLS Cup is the reason several thousand additional tickets were made available for Sunday evening's match at Qwest Field and for the heightened international awareness about the championship game between his Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake.

But for all the unprecedented glamour the English superstar has brought to the league's 14th grand finale, Beckham, for one of the few times in his starry career, has been eclipsed -- by a city.

It's as if MLS relocated its annual shindig to a European capital: A downtown stadium accessible by rail and surrounded by soccer-friendly pubs. Logos and soccer-ball patches garnishing the city's iconic structure, the Space Needle. Banners hang from street lamps. A pregame supporters' march, a tradition during the Seattle Sounders' inaugural season this year.

And when game time arrives, the clubs will be greeted by a sophisticated audience that smashed league attendance records and created an ambiance unmatched in American pro soccer.

"You are going to have true soccer fans, people who know the game," said Clint Mathis, Real's veteran midfielder who played overseas and starred in a World Cup. "It's not like going -- with no disrespect -- to a Kansas City game. With these people, it's like playing in Europe. This is what football is all about in the rest of the world."

Historically, the MLS Cup has been a tempered affair staged in shiny but sterile stadiums in suburban outposts such as Foxborough, Mass., Carson, Calif., and Frisco, Tex. Until this year, Washington had been the urban exception (three times). But for all of RFK Stadium's grubby charm and the D.C. area's soccer tradition, visitors never had the sense that the city fully embraced the event.

Seattle has given it a bear hug -- "something that we have never had before, and is a real indication as to what this sport can be in this country," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said.

Soccer has strong roots here, dating back to the North American Soccer League, but the sport's popularity soared the Sounders moved up from second division to MLS this year. Average home attendance was 30,897, nearly double the league average and the highest single-season figure in MLS history.

The original plan was to cap attendance at 24,400 at Qwest, a 67,000-seat NFL stadium, but tickets sold so briskly, the club opened additional sections to increase capacity to 27,700. By midseason, the figure rose to 32,400, and for the playoffs, 36,000. When Beckham and the Galaxy advanced to the championship game, another 6,000 seats were put on sale. Organizers say they expect between 40,000 and 42,000 on Sunday.

"It's a breath of fresh air that they've come into the league the way they have," said Beckham, in his third season with the Galaxy after starring for Manchester United and Real Madrid. "You can see and you can feel the effects that this Seattle team has had on the city."

The numbers tell only part of the story. Almost immediately, the Sounders became an integral part of the local sports culture, which lost the NBA's SuperSonics to Oklahoma City, doesn't have an NHL franchise, has not celebrated a Super Bowl or World Series title and offers just one NCAA Division I program. The Sounders drew mainstream attention thanks in large part to comedian and soccer junkie Drew Carey, a team investor whose entertainment instincts prompted him to form a 52-member marching band called the Sound Wave.

"That team was just plain relevant," Garber said of the Sounders, who, after finishing with the fourth-best record in the regular season, lost to Houston in the Western Conference semifinals. "People cared about it, from the governor to the mayor to the man on the street to those people who love the game. We need more relevance for our teams, and we now have a great case study.

"That was an important lesson to our clubs, particularly some of the clubs that have been around for a while and are struggling in their markets," such as Colorado, New England and Dallas.

MLS has also created geographical rivals in Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C., which will field expansion teams in 2011.

"They're not only an excitable crowd, they're a knowledgeable crowd," Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan said. "This is, in my opinion, a perfect place to have a game like this. You can already picture what the atmosphere is going to be like."

Amid that pulsating scene, Donovan will attempt to cap a remarkable year for himself and the Galaxy. He was instrumental in the U.S. national team qualifying for the 2010 World Cup and advancing to the Confederations Cup final, and after guiding the Galaxy to the playoffs for the first time in four years, was named MLS's most valuable player.

Another crucial element to Los Angeles's success was the reconciliation between Donovan and Beckham after the American star spoke critically in Grant Wahl's book, "The Beckham Experiment." Beckham didn't return to the Galaxy from a loan with AC Milan until July, and when some Los Angeles supporters accused him of putting his interests ahead of the team's, the club's promising season threatened to unravel.

"His performances quieted his detractors," Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena said. "I never thought David couldn't handle it. He's been through an awful lot in his career and faced a lot of adversity. He was well prepared for any kind of issues, and let's face it, he's done a wonderful job with it."

While the Galaxy offers Beckham, Donovan and several players with international experience, Real has taken pride in its largely unknown nucleus. The fifth-year club had a losing record in the regular season and barely qualified for postseason before upsetting Columbus and Chicago in the playoffs.

"We came here to win, we think we can win," said midfielder Kyle Beckerman, a native of Crofton. "We don't really care who we are playing, who is on the team."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company