A quest for authenticity in American soccer
A new book on the Seattle Sounders carries a message for fans across the nation.
A quest for authenticity in American soccer
An excerpt of this article is published in Issue Four of Howler Magazine. You can order a copy online, or you can go to Media FC to buy one in person. Thanks to the magazine's staff, especially editor George Quraishi, for the opportunity to run the entire piece here. It's very long, but I hope you'll take the time to read the whole thing. I think it tells an important story.
This week, the American soccer community gathers for its signature winter event. The National Soccer Coaches Association of America Convention brings together thousands of people from across the country for a week of seminars, networking and lots of other events.
For the first time since 2010, the convention is taking place in Philadelphia. This will be my sixth convention, and my fifth straight. I genuinely mean it when I say that it's a great to have so many thinkers and doers in American soccer right here among us. Add in the fact that it's a World Cup year, and the spotlight becomes even brighter.
Most of the discourse that will take place inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center will focus on the field of play: tactics, development strategies, and so forth. But part of the week will also be about what happens outside the lines, in the American soccer culture we're all helping to build.
Although I have no ties to the Sons of Ben, you all know how much respect I have for the organization. So I'm excited that one of the group's stalwarts, Kelly Christine Delaney, has put together a Supporters' Summit in association with the NSCAA and the Independent Supporters Council. You can find out more information here.
The Sons of Ben represent one of the great success stories in the creation of a true American soccer culture. Another can be at the opposite end of the country, out in Seattle. I know that's not news to many of you. Indeed, the scale of the Sounders' fan base at times is renowned for generating as much resentment as success.
But for lots of people in America, the spectacle at CenturyLink Field remains an astonishing sight. And the tale of how that spectacle came to exist is a story worth telling.
A few months ago, veteran Seattle radio host Mike Gastineau published a book which tells that story. It's titled "Sounders FC: Authentic Masterpiece / The Inside Story Of The Best Franchise Launch In American Sports History."
It's very well-written, and I'd recommend that you read it.
Some of you might raise an eyebrow at the title. Some of you might have no interest in the Sounders. And some of you might be, as I said above, among the many people on this side of the country who are sick of hearing about how great Sounders fans are - especially when they say so themselves.
You should read the book anyway. Here's why.
First of all, the title is pretty close to accurate. There have not been many more successful launches of sports franchises in this country's history. The Sounders rank high on a list that includes the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers, Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies and the NFL’s re-born Cleveland Browns.
Second, and most importantly, the book isn't really about the Sounders. It's about something that is woven through the growth of soccer across America, especially over the last 20 years or so.
Take away the names and the places from Gastineau's writing, and what you really get is this: an examination of American soccer's quest for authenticity. I spoke with Gastineau recently about the book and the nature of Seattle's soccer culture, and you can read the transcript below.
In the course of our conversation, I thought about that quest and how I've experienced it. I've been fortunate to travel to many cities in MLS, including Seattle multiple times. It's a fantastic city for soccer and a fantastic city in general. But every time I go out there, I get caught up in an argument that ties directly into Gastineau's book.
We all know how much progress the sport has made on the field. But when we're not watching games, we spend a lot of time trying to prove that soccer in America is authentic. We're constantly told to measure ourselves against England or Mexico or Italy, or so many other countries where soccer has been played for over a century.
Implicit in those shouting matches in bars and on Twitter is this conclusion: American soccer isn't authentic because it isn't English enough or Mexican enough or Italian enough. And because the game hasn't been part of our country's popular culture for 150 years, American soccer can never actually be authentic.
The argument is false, of course. Go up to the Lighthouse Boys Club in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood to find just one of many examples of the sport's deep roots in this country.
But more importantly, the argument is useless. Or at least it should be.
Why do we constantly try to convince people that soccer in America is as authentic as it is elsewhere? Because that sense of validation makes us feel good about ourselves, especially when we puncture holes in the egos of people who enjoy presenting themselves as culturally superior. And heaven knows that people within the American soccer community do it to each other as much as they have it done to them by outsiders.
As I read Gastineau's book, I considered the people who helped set the stage for the Sounders' extraordinary growth in Major League Soccer.
General manager Adrian Hanauer wanted to stay true to the sport as he built a big-time soccer experience in Seattle. So did fellow founders Joe Roth, Paul Allen and Gary Wright. But the team's brass did what they did because they loved the sport - indeed, Wright was a hater-turned-fan - and wanted to give people a way to celebrate it.
Seattle's passion for soccer has become renowned worldwide, but not because it's trying to prove something to people. The city and its fans earned their acclaim.
I talked recently with Gastineau about his book and how it came together. We spent a long time talking about all of the things I've mentioned above, and a few more things besides.
I think we both concluded the same thing in the end. It doesn't really matter whether soccer in Seattle - or Portland, Philadelphia or anywhere else in MLS - is authentic in the way you want it to be. The Sounders' growth has proven that soccer in this country can stand on its own without anyone having to validate how we experience it.
Here's the transcript of our conversation.
For those who don't know, talk about your background and how the book came together. Why did you decide to write it, and why now?
I worked in sports talk radio up here here for 22 years, from 1991 until last December. I was the afternoon drive-time host at KJR-AM from 1993 on, so for almost all of the time.
In about October of 2012, a little over a year ago, I just kind of got the desire to leave. Radio has changed so much, and I felt like I wanted to try something else. I have always written. I had co-authored a book with Art Thiel and Steve Rudman a couple of years ago, a Seattle sports lists book that was fun, and I wanted to try something on my own.
So I'm leaving radio, and at about that same time - I had been a Sounders season ticket-holder, and while I didn't love soccer, unlike a lot of mainstream media I didn't run from it either. I liked it. I found a lot about it quirky and interesting, and I wanted to learn more about it. So I was a season ticket-holder from day one when the Sounders went to MLS. I liked the sport and the [NBA's] Sonics were leaving, so I thought I'd follow this. It would be fun.
I followed the story and watched it grow. I was sitting at the Portland match that October [which drew 66,452 people to CenturyLink Field], and I'm just looking around, and I had gotten to know some of the supporters, and I knew all of the people in the Sounders' front office. I knew Sigi [Schmid, the Sounders] manager] a little bit. I thought, "This is just a hell of a story, and nobody has told it yet. Nobody has really gone into how this has happened."
I knew some of the details. I didn't know everything, but I knew enough to know that this wasn't just by accident. It didn't just happen. That was kind of the impetus for it. I talked to Adrian, and Adrian was one of the first people I had told that I was leaving radio. I asked him, "Would you be up this, and for helping me with access?" I didn't want anything more than the ability to tell the story. He said he thought it would be good.
So that's how it got started. I knew it was a good story and I thought I was in a good position to tell it. I had known Adrian - I forget when I met him, but he reached out to me shortly after he bought the USL [lower-division] Sounders team back in 2002. We got along. I went to college at Indiana, so I knew a little bit about the sport and had always liked it.
When he reached out to me, my philosophy was always that I was doing 20 hours of sports talk a week, so I've got five minutes that I can give to anything. I always enjoyed that in the show, that kind of dancing around and doing different sports. So we'd have Adrian on, we'd have Brian Schmetzer [the Sounders' head coach at the time, now an assistant to Sigi Schmid] on, we'd have a player on from the USL days.
But I wasn't covering it with the same intensity that I did when it got to MLS. At that point, two things had happened. One was that they were now in the biggest league in America, and two was that the Sonics had left. So there was a little bit of a void. We were looking for ways to fill those 20 hours in a week, and this was it. We had dabbled in it for years, but I really stepped it up when they got to MLS.
You were writing this book for a while and I'm sure and everything was going along fine, but all of a sudden this past August the Sounders signed Clint Dempsey. I happened to be in Seattle on vacation when the rumors started flying, and I had been planning to head down to Portland for a Timbers-Whitecaps game on the day that he was to be introduced at CenturyLink Field.
I was sitting in Ivar's, the famed seafood restaurant next to the ferry docks downtown, and it popped up on my phone that Dempsey was flying to Seattle, and nobody knew why. It soon got out that Dempsey to be unveiled as the Sounders' newest signing the next night.
I almost canceled all of my plans to go to Portland right there on the spot, because I thought maybe I should stay in Seattle for Dempsey's unveiling. I would think that your book was almost done at that point, so what was it like to have Dempsey arrive right then?
You know, I thought it was done, and I thought I had what was a very good ending. It was weird - everybody with the Sounders was very cooperative for a long time, and I was able to get phone calls and e-mails returned pretty quickly. It was never a problem. All of a sudden, in late July, everybody kind of went dark. And I was like, "What the hell? How come you aren't returning my call? How come I can't get an e-mail back or an appointment with you?" I started to get frustrated.
Then it became clear to me what was going on. Suddenly, talking to me about a book on the history of the team wasn't as important as getting this deal done.
It was gigantic. I was in the last month before the deadline. I knew instantly that I had to get this into the book, and I had to figure out how. I was interviewing [Sounders majority owner] Joe Roth, and he talked about how he thought Clint Dempsey was the point in time where everybody would say, "Okay, there's everything that happened before Clint Dempsey, and now everything that happens after." They were thrilled to get the deal done.
I know there's some league money involved, but there's also some Joe Roth money and some Adrian Hanauer money and some Sounders money.
I really admired Joe for doing it. Look, he's doing it because he wants his team to be better, but he's also doing it because he said, "Look at our TV ratings. Look around the league. We need to do something to be constantly moving this thing forward. We need to be moving the rock up the hill, or as a league we're not going to get strong enough to be able to survive."
I don't want to paint him as this benevolent guy who went out and did this on behalf of all of the fans in MLS, but to a certain extent, he understands star power better than anybody in the league, given what he does for a living [as a Hollywood movie producer]. And he knew, "Hey, let's go get this guy."
Hopefully other owners will see that and go get other guys. It's not always going to be that easy, but trying to muscle up the talent that you're able to acquire in this league, while understanding that there's still going to be a bit of a disparity between this league and leagues in Europe.
The Sounders had a fair amount of recognition in the Seattle market before they moved up to MLS. Not to the degree that they do now, of course, but they certainly had a fan base. It's not like they were some unknown thing.
No, not at all. They actually did a deal pretty early on [in 2003] with the Seahawks to play most of their games at CenturyLink. And they were drawing 3,000 to 4,000. It wasn't a great atmosphere, but they envisioned what they wanted it to become and they thought that would help.
[The Sounders played at CenturyLink Field, originally known as Qwest Field, from 2003 to 2007. They also played some games in 2005 and 2006, as well as the entire 2008 season, at the smaller Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila, Wash. The Sounders returned to the Seahawks' home in 2009, and have remained there ever since.]
Then sometimes Adrian on his own, and sometimes Adrian in partnership with the Seahawks, kept putting these big events on: Manchester United came in and played Celtic [in 2003], D.C. United played Real Madrid [in 2006]. They were big international matches once a year, and those were drawing huge crowds.
So there was definitely a feeling that there was something going on here with soccer. And since Seattle is a major-league town, you've got to have the major league of it. People liked the USL Sounders, but there wasn't going to be that depth of passion to support them.
You mentioned the Sonics leaving at around the same time. A lot of people know that the timing was coincidental, but as you said, the Sounders arrived at a point when there was a big hole to fill on Seattle's sports landscape. In truth, though, it wasn't just the Sonics' departure - or the popularity of soccer in general - that helped the Sounders take off.
The Mariners dominated the Seattle sports scene in the late 1990s and early 2000s, especially during the summer. But they weren't very good when MLS arrived in Seattle, and they still aren't. They haven't made the playoffs since 2001, and have lost 90 or more games in four of the last six seasons.
Of course I'm an outsider, but I wonder if the Mariners' struggles also helped the Sounders grow in popularity, since they were winning from the start. And if the Mariners had been good, or at least competitive, would the Sounders have grown the way they did?
That's a huge point. I think the Mariners point of the equation is not discussed enough up here. It's easy to say, "Oh, well, the Sonics left and everybody became a Sounders fan." That's not true, that's over-simplifying it. Certainly, there was a void there in terms of media coverage, and for some fans in terms of what they would do with their discretionary sports income.
But it wasn't just that. In 2008, the Mariners became the first team to spend $100 million on salary and lose 100 games. The Sonics left town. The Seahawks had parted ways with Mike Holmgren in kind of a sloppy way that didn't go well at the end. And the University of Washington's football team had gone 0-12. So the market up here was horrible.
I think that based on what we've seen, there was a soccer fan base that needed to be fulfilled and needed to be fulfilled at the highest level. So there was going to be success no matter what. But I think all of those other things played into it, and I think the fact that the Mariners had played six pretty forgettable seasons in a row as of 2009, that definitely played into it too. It had to - the Mariners were drawing 3.5 million people in the early part of the decade.
For people outside of Seattle who might read your book, you could argue that it's not really just about the Sounders. Underneath the storyline and those facts that are particular to Seattle, if you take out all of the names and places, your book is about attempting to create authenticity in American soccer.
There is a group of people who hold America's soccer culture up to England's in particular and conclude that the culture can never truly be authentic because it's not 150 years old, and it's not English, and therefore it's incapable of of being so. Because it will never be those two things, either English or of the same age as soccer in England.
I make no secret of disliking that mentality. But I've done a lot of studying and writing over the years about what creates authenticity in popular culture as a whole, not just within soccer. So I'd ask you this: At a fundamental level, how does one create authenticity?
I think in their case, they had one built-in advantage. They had a gentleman named Gary Wright, who for 30 years had been doing media relations for the Seattle Seahawks. For the first two-thirds of his life, he hated soccer. It wasn't enough to just not like it. He wanted to put it down. He used to mock people who watched it. He had no interest in it.
He had a turnaround when he was in Spain on vacation in 1998, and his wife got sick one night. He was watching the World Cup on television. And for whatever reason, he got hooked. Even within the Seahawks organization, they didn't know how into soccer Gary was. He went to Europe every year after 1998 and studied soccer, learned about it and the culture.
As the Seahawks were starting to get involved, they had a temptation to put a NFL-style spin on this. They wanted to put a NFL-style game presentation on it, with NFL-style marketing. At every step on the way, they had Gary saying, "Hey, that won't work with soccer. Soccer fans are different."
Gary is an astute judge of that. Having Gary was gigantic for their ability to listen to and respect what soccer fans wanted.
The other thing they did - partially because of Gary, partially because they were smart - they listened to their own fans. The Sounders did have a fan base up here, and the management listened to them early on. They empowered the fans with Drew Carey's ideas of democracy in sports, allowing them to vote out the GM and meeting with them four times a year.
They really had such an open mind to listen to the fans, and the fans in Seattle had a real grasp of what European and South American soccer would feel like. That's what they wanted to create, and there was an authenticity from the start.
At the same time, a couple of hours down the highway from Seattle is Portland, a city that also has a lot of soccer history going back to the 1970s and before then. They like to make a claim of authenticity too, and indeed I've heard them say many times, "We're more authentic than Seattle." Is that fair? It's a loaded question for somebody like you, I realize, but I can't help asking it.
I guess it's fair. And I understand. I think the comparison has to be made like this. Part of the reason why they were getting 10,000 fans in Portland when Seattle was getting 3,000 is that there wasn't anything else to do in Portland. There isn't Major League Baseball, there isn't the National Football League. They don't have major college football right there in the market. That's part of it.
It's a fun argument, and it helps fuel the rivalry and all that. Who knows - there probably isn't a correct answer. But I think when they say, "We out-drew you as a minor league team," that might be answerable by saying, "That's because you're a minor league town." Seattle is a major league town, and you had to have the absolute top level of the sport here to get people's attention.
You mentioned Gary Wright's influence in how the Sounders are marketed, and the balance between the authentic soccer presentation and the Seahawks' interest in a NFL-style presentation. Even though there was some pushback from Wright and the fans against the bells and whistles, the games are still in a NFL stadium with fire shooting out of the goal posts when the team takes the field. It all feels like a "big deal" kind of event.
How important is the connection to the Seahawks in building that experience? Because there are clearly benefits to it.
It's huge, starting with the downtown stadium model and all the bars and restaurants around it. You turn the game into an event. People come early and stay late, as opposed to the suburban stadium model that is brutally tough on fans. There's nothing to do around those stadiums, and you want to go have a beer before or after the match.
In addition, the marketing muscle - the fact that basically, the day they did this deal, Paul Allen [the Seahawks' owner and co-founder of Microsoft] proposed that he would get 25 percent of this team without giving up a nickel. I asked Joe and Adrian if they wondered about giving away a quarter of their asset for nothing. They were both sharp enough to say that they thought about it for a minute, but they saw what they were getting: an instant office, an instant affiliation, going to the Seahawks' coaches and marketing people for advice.
I think a big key to it was how the Seahawks did not over-play their hand. They wanted to be involved, but they also wanted to listen to the soccer side of the equation and make sure they did things to help keep the experience authentic and not turn it into the NFL.
I don't know much about the New England organization with the Patriots and Revolution, but the belief from people I've talked to is that they are partners basically in name only. There's just not a true working relationship. Again, I'm not close to it but that's what I was told for the book.
One thing they did with the Seahawks right away was changing everybody's business cards and e-mail addresses, and telling everybody who answered the phones to say "Thank you for calling the Seattle Seahawks and Sounders."
Right away, they put the Sounders on the same level as the Seahawks within the organization, and that allowed people within the organization to instantly take pride in what they were doing for the Sounders. Because most of them got their workload almost doubled without a corresponding bump in pay, and they had to sell them that. They basically sold it off pride and helping their bottom line and business contacts eventually. That was something that [former Seahawks CEO] Tod Leiweke and Wright truly wanted.
I get in arguments whenever I go to Seattle with people who look at other teams in Major League Soccer and wonder why they can't draw 40,000 fans per game too. And I come back by saying, "You try doing it Philadelphia or New York or Chicago or Denver."
Not only are those cities "major league," but there are many other teams - over a dozen in Philadelphia's case - competing for fans' attention and money. And if you live in Westchester County, N.Y., you're not going to go down to Red Bull Arena, whereas fans will go to Sounders games from Bellingham, Wash., every week even though it's farther away.
And maybe that's the other side of the argument I've been making. Maybe there's such a thing as being too much of a major league town. I do think there's also something to the idea of Seattle being on the leading edge of things. Some of these markets are going to grow because of what they see in Seattle. There's a natural feeling of, "Hey, that looks like a really fun thing, and I'm going to check it out."
Seattle, for whatever reason, has always had this ability to be on the leading edge of cultural changes and phenomena. We gave you $4 coffee and pumpkin beer. You're welcome. But you know what I mean. I've been here since 1991 - I'm from Indianapolis originally. Since I've been here, Seattle has had this ability to jump in front of stuff, and I think that's maybe part of stuff.
Now, as you indicated, it's not as easy as saying, "Well, how come you don't get 40,000" in Philadelphia? There's more to it than that. But I do think that having a franchise like this that's able to put in 40,000 a night and rise up to 67,000 on some nights, I think eventually that becomes something that other cities try to mimic.
The whole thing is backwards in a way. If you look at baseball, you look at the Yankees and their payroll and their success, and the crowds they draw - especially when they're winning. And you go, "Well how come they can't do that in Seattle or Kansas City?" It's a lot more difficult than just having a team and selling some tickets.
Here's another question about the soccer fan culture in Seattle, and the Pacific Northwest generally, that gets me in arguments with fans out there all the time. I think that at times people in Cascadia take the strength of the soccer culture for granted. And you can imagine why people in Seattle especially hate it when I say that, but I wonder what you think of it.
Yeah. It's interesting. Maybe the telling of this story will help kind of ground people again. This didn't happen by accident. There were a lot of smart people and smart decisions. They made the right call most of the time, and when they didn't, they corrected course quickly. To have such great success was no accident. So maybe, ultimately, they do take it a little bit for granted.
I think any fan base, when they have nothing but success, they start to forget that there are tough times too. And the Sounders are going through that a little bit right now, with how they finished the year and the playoffs.
I think it's probably a fair question. We still haven't seen what's going to happen if they roll out a clunker of a season, if it's a real disaster of a season and they are out of it by late May. How will the fan base react? I think they'll be pretty sticky, I really do, but we don't know that for sure.
Averaging 40,000 fans a game is not necessarily easy to keep up.
Exactly. In a crowd of 40,000, just by the nature of sports, there are a lot of casual fans.
My next question comes from something that a lot of people were talking about during the Sounders' playoff series against the Portland Timbers. Because of scheduling conflicts with the Sounders, Seahawks, MLS and its television partners, the Sounders had to play their home leg against the Timbers with gridiron markings painted on CenturyLink Field's artificial surface.
I've been to CenturyLink multiple times, as well as Husky Stadium and Memorial Stadium - the Sounders' old home in the NASL era. And every time I go to any of those places, I can't help wondering what it would be like if the Sounders had their own stadium.
I was thinking about that again as I watched the playoff game, knowing how big a stage it was for both teams and MLS as a whole. But I also know that the Sounders' popularity might actually be keeping from getting their own stadium, because the fan base is so big that it needs a venue of CenturyLink Field's scale.
Do you think the Sounders could get their own venue some day, and what size would it have to be?
I would doubt it seriously. Adrian says in the book that if somebody gave them a 25,000-seat stadium right now, he wouldn't take it. They love the downtown model. About once a year, maybe, you'll get this perfect storm.
Part of their agreement with the Seahawks and the stadium has the costs distributed based on the schedule and timing and the size of the event. But there is a cost to the idea that they will make sure that the soccer lines are down and the football lines are gone, and vice versa. This was one where you're playing a Saturday night match and then the Seahawks kicked off at 1:00 p.m. Sunday. They just did not have the time to do that. I think it's the second or third time has happened.
Fans are tolerant of it - it's not perfect, but it's better than the alternative, which is building a stadium 20 miles out in the suburbs that nobody wants to go to. It's well worth that inconvenience. I think that if they always had to play on football lines from August 1 on, it would be a much bigger discussion. But they don't. They've got a terrific working relationship, and there's a real belief within the Seahawks organization that they buy into the authenticity argument too. You've got to have it looking right.
There was a discussion right up until midnight about the final vote on how they were going to do this field and who would be responsible for what, and how they'd do it so it would look like genuine soccer. Once in a while this happens, and I think it's easy to overlook given the positives that come from the other direction.
The relationship with the Seahawks works well on the whole, I can see. But the artificial turf is an issue for a lot of people, both in and out of the Seattle market. You mentioned the grass vs. turf debate a moment ago, and you wrote about it at length in your book. Do you ever see the surface changing? Everybody can talk about it as much as they want, but you really broke down the details of why the decision was made to go artificial.
I don't know - maybe it's because I never played soccer, but I'm fine with it. My understanding is that FIFA has said that the type of turf they use in Seattle and other places is okay for any match other than a World Cup final. And if that's true, then yeah, it would be better if it was natural grass. It would be better for everybody.
But I just think that the climate up here would make it a difficult thing. Some people laugh about it, but I remember the Seahawks playing against the Redskins in the NFL playoffs [in 2012] on that horrible [grass] field. And you don't want that.
[That playoff game was at FedEx Field, and the surface was in terrible shape. There were patches of mud and clumps of grass all over the place. Star Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III blew out his knee during the game in part because of that. The injury cost Griffin's team a victory and nearly ended his career.]
Let's say you're on natural grass and all of a sudden the Sounders bounce back and host MLS Cup one year, and it's played on a field that's all chewed up and destroyed. What's better, that or having to deal with it being on turf? Let's at least go play the match on a surface that is playing fair to everyone, even if it's not as perfect as some people would claim grass is.
There's a funny story that didn't make the book that I'll tell you. Kasey Keller, who I admire quite a bit, used to argue all the time that we've got to get a grass field. Tod Leiweke told him once that if they get a grass field here, only one team's going to be using it, and it's not the Sounders.
So it's a fun debate, but I think most fans are reasonable with it being part of the price you've got to pay to make this thing work.