SEATTLE — The U.S. men’s national team visited several cities before and during Copa America Centenario’s group stage and, if good fortune continues, new destinations lie ahead.
This week, though, the Americans landed in not just any U.S. city, but a U.S. soccer city.
On the streets around CenturyLink Field and for blocks and waterways beyond, soccer’s mark is on pubs, coffee houses and oyster bars. It’s woven into the Emerald City’s fabric, the world’s game, Puget Sound-style.
“It begins and ends with Seattle as a unique city,” Bart Wiley, chief operative officer of MLS’s Sounders, said in explaining the sport’s popularity here. “Seattle is different. And people gravitate to things that are different. In that, soccer is different.”
On a weekly basis, the city coalesces around the Sounders, MLS’s runaway attendance leaders since the day they joined the league seven years ago. It extends to international soccer, as well. Copa America, which features South American teams and six invited northern guests, stopped in Seattle as part of a three-week jamboree spanning the country.
Over 48 hours this week, despite high ticket prices scaring off many potential buyers, close to 100,000 spectators will attend two matches: the Group D finale between Lionel Messi’s Argentina and Bolivia on Tuesday and the U.S. quarterfinal against Ecuador on Thursday.
The Americans’ unexpected visit – they were projected to finish second, not first, in Group A, and play in New Jersey on Friday – turned Seattle’s U.S. soccer attention from club to country.
“Seattle is leading that whole development,” U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann said of soccer’s nationwide growth. “Seattle is a place where we know they are going to be 1,000 percent behind us and push us.”
Seattle’s support of the sport would seem to makes it a regular destination for national team friendlies and World Cup qualifiers. Artificial turf, however, has disqualified CenturyLink Field from most consideration.
For Copa America, organizers installed a temporary grass field over turf at several venues, including Seattle. The same expensive move allowed the Americans to play a World Cup qualifier here against Panama three years ago.
For the most part, though, Seattle is more like a European or South American city, where passion for the club trumps the national team. It’s not that local fans aren’t patriotic; they’ve just embraced the team that is ingrained in their lives.
Nonetheless, Seattle’s soccer appetite and geographic isolation promises to create a partisan setting Thursday. In the U.S. group opener in Santa Clara, Calif., Colombian yellow prevailed. Four days later, Costa Rica had a large share of the audience in Chicago.
“It’s the best atmosphere in the country,” said U.S. defender DeAndre Yedlin, a Seattle native who began his pro career with the Sounders before moving to the English Premier League two years ago. “The fans have such a passion for the game and understand the game. They don’t stop cheering you on. It’s unbelievable to play in front of.”
Seattle is not the only hot spot for U.S. soccer fandom. Some 170 miles south, Portland’s fever runs just as deep but in a smaller, perpetually full MLS venue. (Portland also supports its women’s pro team, the NWSL’s Thorns, like no other city.)
Thanks to the rise of their MLS teams, Kansas City and Salt Lake City have joined diverse places, such as Los Angeles, New York and Washington, where interest in the sport extends beyond borders.
Seattle’s soccer foundation was set in the 1970s and ‘80s with the original Sounders in the North American Soccer League. Attendance peaked at 24,000 at the Kingdome.
When the NASL folded after the 1984 season, minor league outfits tried to fill the void. The reincarnated Sounders launched in the lower rungs of the U.S. pro ladder around the same time as MLS (1996) but weren’t in position for the top tier until years later.
The team was an instant hit, averaging 30,897 in the inaugural 2009 season. Seating capacity was downsized at the giant NFL venue, but as demand grew, the Sounders opened additional sections.
Last year, they averaged more than 44,000, double the MLS average and 28th highest in a soccer world with thousands of pro teams. For select matches, Seattle opens the entire stadium and draws 60,000-plus.
The Sounders have more than 35,000 season ticket holders; several MLS teams have fewer than 10,000.
The team benefits from two key factors: a downtown stadium (MLS teams in urban settings have done better than those in suburban environs) and less sports competition than other large cities (no NBA or NHL teams).
Co-owner Adrian Hanauer grew up watching the NASL’s Sounders and has been involved with the current organization since 2001.
“When we had the minor league team, if I saw someone with Sounders gear, I would go talk to every single one of them,” he said. “Now, I can’t drive without seeing Sounders gear. My instinct is still to pull over and talk to people. I’ve stopped at bus stops and shouted, ‘Hey, you are wearing Sounders gear, you need a ride?’ ”
Beyond ticket sales, the soccer culture has taken hold. The Sounders’ March to the Match features hundreds of scarf-raising, flag-waving fans who gather at Occidental Park for a noisy, five-block procession to the stadium an hour before kickoff.
Locals and visitors alike will do the same ahead of the U.S. match.
“The environment,” U.S. and Sounders forward Clint Dempsey said, “makes it special to play here.”
United States vs. Ecuador
What: Copa America Centenario quarterfinal.
Where: CenturyLink Field in Seattle.
When: 9:30 p.m. EST Thursday.
TV: FS1, UniMas.
At stake: Semifinal against Argentina or Venezuela on Tuesday in Houston.