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Sounders first indoor venture: 'We were clueless'

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When the original NASL ventured indoors 40 years ago, it was all-new to the Sounders. For their opposition, not so much.

Quite frankly, they were unaware of what awaited them.

When delivered to San Francisco's Cow Palace in the late winter of 1975, none of the Seattle Sounders seemed to know what they'd signed-up for.

"We were just a bunch of guys getting together and taking a trip down to California for a couple games," recalls Ballan Campeau.

"We thought it was a preseason fitness thing," David Gillett remembers. "We were clueless."

So began Seattle's first foray into the soccer/hockey hybrid now known as indoor or arena soccer, a game first concocted in Chicago during the Fifties. A generation later, during a pair of exhibitions at Philadelphia's Spectrum featuring Moscow's Red Army club, eyes were opened to commercial opportunities.

Jack Daley was the Sounders general manager for the first eight seasons. He later was GM when the San Diego Sockers became an indoor juggernaut. Daley says it was that game featuring the Communist Party-controlled club that capitalists saw light. "A bunch of arena operators felt they needed more dates," says Daley, "so they came up with this indoor soccer business."

Nearly 12,000 fans watched and became crazed for the game, won by the Red Army, 9-3 over the defending NASL champion Philadelphia Atoms. It was high-scoring and spectators were perched right on top of the action. It was hockey, only you could see the puck.

A year later, in February 1975, the NASL conducted four regional tournaments, the winners of which would meet for the league title. It was the West regional where Campeau, Gillett and the rest of the Sounders found themselves unwitting participants.

Campeau was a West Seattle native who had served as backup goalkeeper to Barry Watling during the team's inaugural season. Watling and several Sounders starters who had been on loan during the summer, were back home in Britain, playing for their clubs. This would be Campeau's chance to shine.

The Edinburgh-born Gillett had returned early to Seattle. "The club I was with was (crap), and John (Best, Sounders coach) wanted to get some players over for promotions and school assemblies," says Gillett. A dominant centerback, Gillett excelled in marking big strikers and commanding the airspace around the goal.

For the most part, Sounders players had been working out on their own or in small groups in the five months since the past outdoor season ended. Then, a week or so before the trip to the Bay Area, Best brought together the squad.

"As I recall, we had a couple nights where we went up on Queen Anne Hill to a grade school gym," Campeau says. "I had borrowed some football hip pads, and we were just playing on the wood floor."

Having played for Santa Clara as a collegian, Campeau knew many of the host San Jose Earthquakes players, and he knew both they and the L.A. Aztecs had been in training and playing indoor for much of the winter.

"They had worked in preparation and taken it seriously," he says. "We were in a grade school gym, using a couple cones or warm-up jackets as goals, and guys were just blasting balls from really close range. Those training sessions were not much fun." The shooting gallery aspect of those practices, however, proved ominous.

Seattle players got their first glimpse of a proper playing field upon arrival at the Cow Palace, an aging arena south of the city and named for its use by livestock shows and rodeos. Essentially, it was a hockey rink with Astroturf, rather than ice, laid over concrete. Enclosed by dasher boards and Plexiglass, the players and balls would be captives for much of the match.

On the night before the first game, players and staff ventured to Fisherman's Wharf and Ghirardelli Square. It was most enjoyable, looking across the water to Alcatraz Island.

San Jose was a natural choice to host. Thanks in part to their winning ways (nipping Seattle for the final 1974 playoff spot) and the promotional antics of GM Dick Berg, the Earthquakes had led the NASL in attendance. For the first day's doubleheader, the crowd would be 9,223. They intended to put on a show as well.

Most of the San Jose regulars lived in the area during the offseason. Their key players, like forward Paul Child, were quite quick. Besides training regularly indoors, they had played several exhibition games. Facing an ill-prepared Seattle was the perfect storm.

Campeau took his place in goal. Gillett, Jimmy Gabriel, Hank Liotart, Davey Butler and Tjeert Van't Land were in front of him. Shortly after the start, Gabriel set-up Liotart for the game's first goal. Still, Gillett didn't have a good feeling.

"It was completely new to me," he says. "We didn't know the rules. Could the ball hit the boards or did it have to stay inside the markings? In England we had something like Brazil's salon football, where you didn't have walls."

San Jose answered, again and again, scoring five goals in succession. The Earthquakes clearly knew not only the rules but were light years ahead of Seattle in terms of knowing the nuances, such as playing passes off the boards and substituting on the fly.

"Indoor is pretty demanding, and we were not particularly fit," Gillett remembers. "There was a lot of tactics to it, but positional play as relating to the game on a larger field, it didn't come into it much."

The depth of understanding was such that Gillett recollects teammate Roy Sinclair, next to him on the bench, leaping to his feet in celebration when a goal was scored. A San Jose goal, that is.

"John Best gave him a look that would absolutely kill," he says. "I told Roy he better sit down and shut up or he'd get in more trouble. It was confusing, the game, but Roy was more easily confused."

"I don't' remember the rules, but I know I got penalized for kicking the ball over the boards," Campeau says. "It looked intentional so somebody had to go off to the sin bin (penalty box), but I just shanked it."

Van't Land, the big, fast Dutchman, tallied twice for the Sounders, but the onslaught continued.

Among Campeau's acquaintances on the Quakes were the Demling brothers, Mark and Buzz. "I remember Mark scoring and smiling," says Campeau.

San Jose went out 14-4 winners, Child scoring four of the goals. The Earthquakes proceeded to beat Vancouver, 7-3, and in March they hosted and won the NASL championship with victories over Dallas and Tampa Bay.

In their second outing, two days later, Seattle was pitted against L.A., 15-4 losers to the Whitecaps.

Once more, the Sounders started fast, then faltered. Van't Land scored back-to-back for a 3-1 lead. Jerry Kazarian scored the next three times as the Aztecs reeled off six straight to win going away, 9-4.

"We got our heads handed to us," Campeau says.

Gillett formed a formidable central defense with Mike England a few months later, and he would garner all-league consideration. Neither he nor the Sounders would try the indoor game again for five years.

"It seemed like a nutty kind of game. It was so human pinballish," he says. "It didn't suit my game either. There was nothing in the air.

"I like to think I'm a bit of a purist," he adds. "To me it was like a knockoff of the real game; a poor imitation."

For Campeau, an amateur with aspirations of making the 1976 Olympic team, this would be his time in the limelight. His likeness was included in a Sports Illustrated feature on the tournament the following week and Best would commend his brave play in the papers.

Soon after Campeau would decide on attending grad school. His days as a Sounder would be done. His next interaction would come during the 2014 anniversary festivities. He now coaches with Bainbridge Island FC.

Now looking 40 years back in his rearview mirror, Campeau remembers that tournament just as much for the shellacking as the postgame gatherings with teammates and college friends.

"It was fun," he says. "I was shell-shocked. But really it was a hoot."