SEATTLE — Clint Dempsey was strolling downtown to find dinner Saturday night and noticed through the windows of crowded bars that TVs were set to the Seattle Sounders match.
“I felt like I was in another country,” said Dempsey, a U.S. national team attacker from east Texas who lives most of the year in soccer-obsessed London playing for Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur.
Seattle is known for coffee and music, waterways and natural beauty. It is also fast becoming known as America’s soccer city.
And for the first time since the Sounders joined MLS in 2009 and began obliterating the league’s attendance records, the Emerald City will host a World Cup qualifier at CenturyLink Field. On Tuesday night, with at least 37,000 in attendance, the United States (2-1-1) will hit the midway point of the final round by hosting Panama (1-0-3).
Seattle has been waiting a long time for this. Despite being an obvious choice to host U.S. matches, the city was passed over year after year because CenturyLink’s surface is artificial turf.
FIFA, the sport’s world governing body, does not prohibit games from being played on such fields. Even with advances in replicating natural grass the past decade, however, coaches and players still do not like it. Until Seattle switched to a natural field — something the stadium’s other tenants, the NFL’s Seahawks, were against — the U.S. Soccer Federation would look elsewhere to stage games.
But then this year, eager to capitalize on Seattle’s soccer rage, the USSF decided to install natural grass over the turf in order to play an important match here. At a cost of more than $100,000, the new surface was laid out last week and received its first test Saturday night when the Sounders defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps, 3-2.
In recent years, temporary grass was installed for soccer at Gillette Stadium near Boston, the Meadowlands in New Jersey and Ford Field in Detroit. Aside from aesthetic imperfections, players raised concern about seams between segments of grass.
Vancouver players offered mixed reviews Saturday, but Dempsey and Coach Juergen Klinsmann did not have any major complaints after the team’s first workout Sunday. Other U.S. players, though, weren’t thrilled about the field.
Seattle fans will aim to replicate the home-field advantage afforded the Sounders. After six regular season matches at home this year, the club is averaging 41,502 — almost 21 / 2 times the league mark. Montreal, Los Angeles and Portland are the only others in the 19-team league drawing more than 20,000.
Through their first three seasons, the Sounders averaged 37,254, easily outpacing the Mariners baseball team, which plays next door at Safeco Field.
“Laying grass over turf is never the ideal situation. I can understand that,” Sounders Coach Sigi Schmid said. “But it’s great they’ve come to the Northwest. It’s something our fans up here in this part of the country deserve.”
Seattle, however, did not respond with the vigor it does to see the Sounders. As of Monday, many tickets remained available. Some fans complained about the prices — the cheapest is $50 (behind the goal), and most sideline spots are $85 to $110. The Sounders charge between $29 and $60 for league games.
The USSF countered that the price to see an international match should be more expensive than an MLS game. The cost of installing grass and renting an NFL-size stadium also impacted the pricing decisions.
Capacity was kept to 42,000 for the 67,000-seat venue because the Mariners are playing the Houston Astros at the same time, creating traffic, parking and logistical issues on a weeknight. Initially, local fans complained about the downsized figure, predicting demand would outsize supply. They were wrong.
Nonetheless, the turnout will be one of the largest ever for a U.S. home qualifier.
“From Day One, it’s been a special place,” said U.S. defender-midfielder Brad Evans, a Sounder since their inaugural season four years ago. “It’s one of the few places I still get chills.”
U.S. notes: Midfielder Jermaine Jones (head injury) will sit out for precautionary reasons but “definitely be back” for next Tuesday’s qualifier against Honduras in Utah, Klinsmann said. . . .
U.S. forward Herculez Gomez (sore knee) and midfielder Danny Williams (fitness issues) are no longer with the squad. Klinsmann has not ruled out midfielder Brek Shea joining the group ahead of the Honduras game after undergoing weeks of treatment for a calf injury. . . . The Panamanian federation said star forward Blas Perez (gastroenteritis) will not play.