During training last night, Seattle Sounders GM and part owner Adrian Hanauer held a bit of an impromptu press-conference. Questions focused mostly on Saturday's Cascadia Cup match with the Portland Timbers, and specifically the current and future states of away-support ticket allocation. Admittedly, I got there a bit late, but the ever-on-top-of-it Joshua Mayers of the Seattle Times provided a transcript of the interview. Among the more notable lines, and the one that will probably end up proving the most controversial was this:
"We wanted to be cognizant of the traveling supporters and certainly increase the number, but we also wanted to walk before we run. So we all agreed that 500 is a good number to open up for the traveling supporters. Part of that is that we each want these games to be home games. We don't want a bunch of traveling supporters. As soon as we open up the whole building, it's a free for all. ... We want home games. We want our fans. We want our energy. We want to get our three points at home. So a big piece of it came to early planning and an agreement between the three clubs, and then part of it is just the competitive nature of things.
Obviously, the emphasis is mine, but I wanted to make sure to run more of the context of that quote and not just the line by itself. Like I said, I wasn't actually there when he said this, but from past conversations and from the context of this one, I think I know what he means.
First off, I don't think he means that the teams literally do not want traveling supporters in their stadiums. Nothing he has said previously, nor the actions of this year that saw away-support allocation boosted from 150 to 500, indicate that these teams are literally trying to keep traveling support out of the stadium.
What I do think he means is that all three teams are very wary of allowing these games to be turned into neutral-stadium affairs with thousands of away supporters having the potential to create an almost home-away-from-home atmosphere. I know there are a lot of us that would probably find this to be a welcoming thing, but I honestly doubt that's the feeling among the average fan. Considering most of our experiences with away support have to do with Yankees and Red Sox fans flooding our baseball stadiums, I don't blame anyone for being reluctant to invite a similar atmosphere to Qwest.
Around here we are well aware of the atmospheres at derby matches in other parts of the world. In some cases, the stadium is almost split down the middle with fans from both sides. There's an undeniable electricity. Tensions are high. The stakes seem very real. If you are reading this site, there's a pretty good chance you would do just about anything to be involved in something like that, especially if your team was on the pitch. I would love to be involved in something like that.
I don't need to be convinced that expanding the away-supporter ticket allocation would be smart. I know that determined fans will find a way into the stadium one way or another and that those fans pose more of a danger than those in the supporters section. I'm sure, on some level, the front offices realize that too. Unfortunately, there's simply no practical way to stop them, no matter how many tickets you give to visiting supporters.
And yet, I'm also not naive enough to think that other Sounders fans think the same way. They see a big block of tickets being sold to the visitors and see more of them being encouraged to "invade their stadium." I've heard from plenty of fans who would just as well see a handful of Timbers fans sprinkled throughout the stadium than allow them to be massed in one significant block. I think, given the choice of perfect options, many would like to see the Sounders play in Portland. I think most of them realize that in order for that to happen, they need to be willing to put up with a certain amount of Timbers fans coming to Seattle. But I also think they'd like to see how this all plays out before jumping in with both feet.
Let's assume that everything goes well this year with 500 tickets being distributed to away supporters. Let's assume that people see the potential in how much better -- and, equally important, non-threatening -- it could be if that number grew. It's not hard to see the three front offices coming together and agreeing to substantially increase that number next year. Assuming it all continues to go well, there's no reason we couldn't see that magical 5 percent threshold crossed at some point in the relatively near future.
I realize this rivalry is a lot older than MLS. I'm very well aware that there are templates from around the world that could have been followed. I suppose we could have looked at the way some of the biggest college football rivalries handle this. That said, this will almost certainly be the biggest soccer match between Portland and Seattle (best information I could find said the current record is 34,012 in 1979) and it's no wonder that there are a lot of people that want to see how the first few go before a massive expansion.
If we are at the same point, despite good behavior, in a couple of years, I'll be among those leading the call for reform. I know there's some reluctance to this "walk before you run" approach, especially among (big S)upporters, but I'm having a hard time faulting prudence in this case.
I have every expectation that this will soon be known as THE American soccer rivalry, if it already isn't. I know the supporters groups are ready now, or at least have every reason to think they are, but I'm willing to give the front offices a little time before they allow its full potential to be unleashed.