Commentary: Farewell, Steve Kelley — the Seattle soccer community will miss you

Jane Gershovich/JaneGPhotography.com

With Seattle Times sports columnist Steve Kelley retiring, we lose a great advocate for the game and a man not afraid to hold Sounders brass accountable for everything they do — or don’t do.

If you haven't heard already, Seattle Times sports columnist Steve Kelley retired after 30 years on the job.

Times sports editor Don Shelton wrote a blog post that nicely sums up Kelley's time at the paper. In particular, one paragraph illuminates what an integral part of the Seattle sports conversation we lose with his retirement:

Think about all the things that happened in Steve's career. His columns included the death and rebirth of the Sounders, the death and rebirth of Seattle University as an NCAA Division I athletic program and the exit and possible return of the Sonics. It's really a remarkable legacy.

For what we do at Sounder at Heart, the first part of that statement carries the most meaning. It's through that selective lens that I look at Kelley's departure, partly because I didn't grow up in Seattle and never followed the other teams here as closely as the natives.

But Steve has always been a great advocate for our game here.

That's true, even though it may not always be obvious. Unlike a lot of fan bloggers and even reputable reporters who at times fawn over a club with the largest fan base in the country, Kelley has never been afraid to have the unpopular opinion among journalists.

Last season, he wrote about why Fredy Montero should get the axe — which he eventually did, although not yet permanently — pinpointing Montero's troubles eloquently:

For four years we've seen flashes of Fredy — moments of undisputed brilliance, goals so artistic and creative they felt like the harbingers of greatness.

So many times Montero has teased his team into thinking he has arrived, only to lapse into another Saharan dry spell.

Kelley was also the only high-profile writer willing to call out the club for its attitude problem in 2012:

Coach Sigi Schmid's rant last month, saying he believed U.S. Soccer wanted a team other than the Sounders to win the Open Cup, was really bad form and reflected the team's misplaced sense of entitlement.

This is the most talented team in the Sounders' four-year MLS history, but it's the least likable.

Finally, he implored Sounders FC to "spend more" to reward its fans, who "should demand more from the front office" after another early exit in last season's playoffs.

I've been lucky enough to get to know Steve a little bit from our conversations in the press box. I was also fortunate to sit next to him at Starfire in July and watch the 4-1 Open Cup romp over Chivas USA.

What I found is one of the most fair-minded people I have met in sports. Sure, he has high standards and is never afraid of expressing them, but that makes Kelley even more praiseworthy.

Rare is a man who can write so many potentially negative stories about a club and still be recognized so warmly by its senior vice president and head coach in front of their players when he retires.

With him gone, we can only hope that somebody in the mainstream sector of Seattle media takes up his cause. No columnist in the area shows an interest in soccer like he has, let alone holds the club to the high standard that fans should expect from a team in this market.

But as Times editor Shelton pointed out in his post, the columns that have stuck with me beyond even those that were controversial — and often correct, and always 100 percent fair — are his stories about people.

In journalism school, professors tell us over and over again that we are in this business to write about people. That's what readers want: to read about themselves, to see themselves in the stories that we write.

Kelley's work in that area is nothing short of world class. When Roger Levesque retired, Kelley captured the moment perfectly, pointing out that "Roger Levesque exemplifies everything that is good about sports."

When Marcus Hahnemann came back to finish his career in Seattle, Kelley was there to show us how important the moment was to the big goalkeeper, who could script his own ending to his career.

A little closer to home for me, I was proud to be a source for Kelley's column on Edmonds Community College head coach Brandon Mitalas, an ex-Marine who now coaches for his alma mater. It was a surreal moment, standing on the field in Lynnwood with both of them.

It is not often my soccer and journalism careers intersect so closely (I am the goalkeeper coach at Edmonds), and that memory is something I will cherish forever.

And all the stories mentioned here are just from the last calendar year. If we were to go even farther back, I would have enough material to write a book, not just one piece. Unfortunately, to read what Kelley wrote about the original Sounders in the 1970s and '80s, you have to pay.

So tomorrow, when his final column is published, I will read it vigorously and devour every word. Rare is a man who can write so many potentially negative stories about a club and still be recognized so warmly by its senior vice president and head coach in front of their players when he retires.

It's only fitting that this is the way he will be remembered. Steve Kelley is the embodiment of journalistic excellence and fairness, and the Seattle soccer scene will never be the same without him.

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