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How Sounders Spent Their Winter Vacation

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In 1980 the Sounders brought indoor soccer to Seattle as a winter pastime. In the end, it proved the final lifeline.

It was not as if Seattleites needed another option on their sporting menu.

Already the calendar was crammed full, year-round with Seahawks, Mariners, Sonics, Sounders, minor league hockey and all things-Huskies. Four different sports were being played in that concrete edifice on King Street known as the Kingdome. And now they would squeezing in a fifth.

Speed soccer was its name-at least locally-and back in the day when the NASL sat quiet for nearly seven months, it was a welcome winter respite, for player and fan alike.

While indoor, 6-a-side soccer has since become a staple with regard to participants, in the winter of 1980-81 it was a novelty, an oddity, where Seattle was concerned.

It played to mixed reviews in its debut. The Sounders hosted Portland and San Jose in a three-way preseason jamboree, attracting more than 12,000 curiosity seekers.

Purists predictably termed it an abomination. Stodgy sports columnists judged it a gimmick. Still, for those who took the game and themselves a little less seriously, indoor soccer proved to be a guilty pleasure or sorts.

When searching for a means to market this soccer/hockey hybrid, Sounders GM Jack Daley was in a bind. Unlike the rest of the NASL, he couldn't call it indoor; Seattle already played its summer season under the Dome. His ad agency settled on ‘speed.'

Speed Sells

"'Speed' helped us sell the product," say Daley. "It's fast-paced, up and down. That's the attraction of the indoor game. It's so fast, so quick, and you're right near the action."

The Sounders essentially used the Sonics seating configuration in the Kingdome's south end (think the attacking third of the CLink's Brougham End). The custom-constructed ($200,000) rink ran east-west, bleachers enclosing the north side.

It was intimate, all right. So much so that an errant shot scattered popcorn in all directions when the ball hit a concessions booth. Much like hockey, the rowdiest of fans took to banging on the plexiglass when players, and particularly unpopular opponents, came near.

At times, however, it became a bit too intimate. Like on a blustery Tuesday night versus Tulsa, when less than 4,000 showed. All told, in two seasons only a pair of regular season games pulled five figures (the preseason crowd had been boosted by some 7,000 radio promotion comps), averaging 6,603.

"It wasn't anywhere near the success of the outdoor game, where we were packing the place," says Daley. In 1980, the Sounders were coming off a season in which they won a record 25 games, scoring a record 72 goals and averaging a record 24,247 fans.

Although he was not an active proponent of indoor/speed soccer, it was Daley's contention that it might flourish in a market absent the NBA, NHL or both. During that era, the Sonics were breaking league attendance standards, averaging nearly 22,000 in '79-80. The hockey team drew small crowds to the Mercer Arena.

Meet the Competition

If the box office response was a bit tepid, it was no less so than the club. The driving force for the NASL requiring its teams to play winters was not to satiate fans but to stymie their rival.

The Major Indoor Soccer League had opened shop back east in 1978, and a growing number of NASL players were joining for those teams in the offseason. In '79-80, no fewer than nine Sounders spent their winter earning extra coin in MISL.

"The players getting lured by MISL were getting good sums to play indoor, almost as much as us," Daley shares. "We're doing all the recruiting and bringing these guys over (from Europe), and they're cherry-picking our rosters, and they're not paying us anything for them."

Daley contends that if the MISL had paid loan fees, it would've controlled indoor (rather than competing against NASL, at least for talent, for several seasons) and the NASL would've been content to specialize in 11v11. Instead, "(MISL) continued poaching players; it was a circus league."

MISL was not a FIFA-affiliated league. Yet affiliated or not, their money was good. Even some of the biggest stars were not so proud as to stay home. Sounders stars Alan Hudson and Mike England chose Cleveland, where Huddy took a significant pay cut to reunite with his old Chelsea mate, Eddie McCreadie. Stevie Buttle and Micky Cave headed for Pittsburgh while Mike Ivanow and Frank Barton opted for Wichita.

It made for a much more experienced indoor team in 1980 than Seattle had fielded five years earlier, when indoor was just getting started.

"Huddy knew all about it and he gave some advice," remembers Alan Hinton, the Sounders coach those two seasons. "But really it was a glorified 5-a-side game that we played forever in practice."

Clearly the NASL possessed the premier players in America. The MISL was largely focused on attracting Americans, who worked for less and wanted the opportunity to prove themselves.

By specializing in the indoor product and playing about twice as many games, MISL was far more advanced in both strategy on the field and in the marketplace. While its teams were cranking the music volume and spraying lasers throughout arenas, the NASL presentation was stripped down. No music to mention, and certainly no light shows.

The Upside of Indoor

With practice space at a premium, the Sounders trained under a bubble off Bellevue's 148thNortheast. Hinton recalls spending hours on teaching subtle yut essential techniques to younger pros such as Jeff Stock, Mark Peterson and Brian Schmetzer, who was an 18-year-old rookie that first indoor campaign.

"It was a positive experience for me because it afforded me an opportunity to play a bunch of games during the offseason," Schmetzer offers. "Otherwise in the winter months, we'd have to keep fit and then start up again (in February). Any chance to play was a good one as a young player."

For the veteran players and coaches, indoor was nowhere near as intense as the full-field game.

"Crazy things happen in indoor soccer, like a shot hitting the board, rebounding off the goalie's head and landing in the net," Hinton says. "A coach can get fired over something like that. So there's a lot of stuff out of your control, like the bounce of the ball, compared to the real game, 11v11."

"I loved indoor," says Hudson. "It reminded me of those great (small-sided) tournaments in London with Chelsea, West Ham, QPR, Spurs, Millwall and Charlton having their best players on show."

"We had skillful players," remarks Hinton. "Huddy and little Buttle were brilliant. Huddy could score when he wanted to, but he didn't always want to. He preferred setting-up people."

Seattle went 9-9 each season, qualifying for the playoffs in 1982. Led by Jeff Bourne and Mark Peterson, they averaged nearly six goals per game. Strangely, some of the teams that struggled outdoors, flourished indoors.

"We wanted to win," Hinton says. "But Edmonton and San Diego, they were the big boys."

He admits he would've rather concentrated on preparing for the coming outdoor season (and he did miss occasional games while scouting and signing players overseas), but Hinton and his assistant, Bobby Howe, were constantly absorbing knowledge.

In one instance, a fan approached Hinton at training. "He gave me a basketball play to use on a free kick at the top of the D," he says. "I used it and it worked; we scored. I've always been that way. If someone has a suggestion that makes sense, I'll use it.

"I've always lived by the adage that tactics don't cost you the game. Tactics can be important, but it's all about the players playing in the right positions and wanting to play for you."

Roger Davies, the reigning NASL MVP outdoors, found that his size (6-foot-2) was less of an advantage indoors. Says Hinton: "He was a big guy and a bit clumsy. He did a lot of great things but also terrible things in terms of penalties."

"He was always in trouble, tripping someone up, always getting two minutes (in the penalty box," remembers Hinton, who once sent Davies home midway through a road trip for his constant fouling.

Early on, Hinton learned that often it's the team that doesn't shoot straight which scores more goals. "I told our players that because the goal is really covered, let's shoot to miss and attack the far post for the tap-in, which happened a lot."

Once a Distraction, then a Lifeline

The NASL, staggered by huge financial losses, suspended indoor play in 1982-83. It gave it one last try the following season.

By then, the Sounders had closed their doors, with the rest of the league to follow shortly thereafter.

It's ironic that indoor soccer (dubbed "winter soccer" by the Sounders in '81-82), at first a distraction, was considered a lifeline as outdoor support declined throughout the league.

In that final summer, the Sounders and prospective owners of the Tacoma Stars locked in a battle for use of the newly completed Tacoma Dome. NASL president Howard Samuels told the Dome's governing committee that denying the Sounders the lease would doom the 10-year franchise.

"Indoor soccer doesn't work by itself and outdoor soccer doesn't work by itself," said Samuels. "It's a combination that's essential to the sport."

Of course in the end Tacoma's locally-based ownership group won out, and the Sounders would meet their demise less than 60 days later, installing the Stars as the region's flagship soccer franchise for the next 10 years.

During the Sounders' liquidation of assets, the indoor rink was sold. The buyer? The Tacoma Soccer Center, one of the new indoor soccer facilities sprouting throughout the nation as America's appetite for the game was changing. And who would be training regularly on that old Sounders set-up? None other than the Tacoma Stars.